Taking the tainted money

By Steve Deane

Experts suggest sports bodies' dependence on the proceeds of gambling risks undermining their valuable roles as social contributors.

Photo / Christine Cornege
Photo / Christine Cornege

Peter Adams has dedicated a good chunk of his life to studying the impact of using gambling proceeds to fund community projects. A former chairman of the Problem Gambling Foundation and a professor at Auckland University's school of population health, he's literally written the book on the subject.

For Professor Adams, the issue is clear-cut: a funding model that relies on people losing money gambling, which taxes the poor through the concentration of gambling opportunities in their communities, and which lays waste to lives with the addictions it helps create, is no kind of model at all. Not for a moral society.

It's a view that isn't always popular. Professor Adams has served on community boards that have sought to access gaming revenue for worthy projects. When he's raised the issue of the harm associated with the money's collection, and questioned whether it was morally correct to accept it, it hasn't gone well.

"It's really like you've farted really badly in the room," Professor Adams says.

"It's like, don't go there. It creates too much angst."

That it does.

"Frankly, if you are going to write a balanced piece you might need to start asking some balanced questions," says an increasingly exasperated NZRU chief Steve Tew. The response comes during a long discussion about the NZRU's submission on the Gambling Harm Reduction Bill.

"All we were pointing out was what would happen if the revenue generated by gaming was lost," Mr Tew says. "There was nothing in our submission that supports problem gambling or argues against trying to deal with issues that are generated by society that at the extreme end are not good for people."

Fine. So has the union ever submitted in favour of measures that would reduce the level of gambling money available to rugby, the Herald asks.

"No, because we are not a moral watchdog. We didn't make submissions on the gay marriage bill either. We don't take a view on religion or abortion. That's not our job. Our job is to inspire and unify New Zealanders by promoting the game rugby from the community level up to All Blacks.

"Frankly ..."

He might not like the line of questioning but, in fairness to Mr Tew, he's at least prepared to acknowledge there is an issue worthy of discussion.

Softball New Zealand interim chief executive Fay Freeman flatly refuses to accept there is any link between harmful gambling and the amount of funding available to sports organisations.

"There is no evidence that I know of and absolutely no correlation between sports receiving money from gambling and the number of problem gamblers," Mrs Freeman says. "Lots of people gamble - buy a lottery ticket, bet on horses, or go to a casino for recreation. There is a healthy reliance on this source of funds that benefits sport in many ways."

That sport has benefited from the billion dollars the gaming industry has pumped into the sector over the last seven years is beyond question. Whether that situation is in fact healthy, isn't.

"Are these guys serious that the only way they can fund rugby union or any other sporting code is by ripping off people in serious financial difficulty?" asks Dr Charles Livingstone, a senior lecturer at the school of public health and preventive medicine at Monash University in Melbourne.

"Is that really what they are suggesting?" More or less, yes.

"It's incredible self-serving nonsense if you ask me," says Dr Livingstone, who is regarded as Australasia's foremost expert on the impact of the gaming industry.

"I assume rugby union didn't exist in New Zealand before the pokie machine industry was established? This is just nonsense, and is exactly the same argument we heard from people in sporting organisations that had become dependent on tobacco money. When it was proposed that we should implement a ban on that advertising the forecast was that sport as we know it would cease to exist. That actually didn't happen."

Exactly how much gambling revenue is tainted by the harm it causes problem gamblers isn't clear. While the number of problem gamblers is likely around 1 to 3 per cent of all gamblers, their regular, large losses mean they contribute a much larger percentage of the total spend. Dr Livingstone and Professor Adams quote Australian and Canadian studies that put the figure at 30 to 50 per cent. Gambling industry figures and sports administrators argue those numbers are hugely inflated.

Whatever the figure, no one disputes that at least some of the money comes from gambling addicts.

"You've got two sets of money you are accepting," says Professor Adams. "One is from people having fun and one is from people in misery. You can't differentiate it, you have to accept both."

The other key aspect of the morality debate comes down to geography. Pokie machines are overwhelmingly concentrated in poor areas, meaning those who can least afford it pay the most to fund the nation's sporting activities.

"If the All Blacks are standing up there saying 'NZ rugby will collapse unless poor people keep giving us money', well that's great," says Dr Livingstone. "But they probably should be saying that a little more clearly than they are.

"If sports want to be taken seriously as being social contributors then I think they need to take a long, hard look at where they are getting their money from. If they want to impoverish a community by imposing more and more dependence on gambling as the only way they can be funded, well fine, but we need to have an open debate about it."

In Australia that debate has already begun, with many sporting organisations distancing themselves from the gambling industry.

This year the NRL walked away from a lucrative deal with bookmaker Tom Waterhouse after an uproar over the spruiking of odds before and during television coverage of matches, while many AFL clubs have significantly cut their reliance on gaming revenue.

Those that continue to suckle at the gambling teet risk being viewed as "cynical, hard-hearted, grasping bastards", says Dr Livingstone. "Sooner or later they are going to have to confront the reality that it is undermining their supporter base. People don't like it."

In New Zealand the predominant view among sports organisations is that the money raised by gambling must be spent on something, so why not a sports sector that does a lot of a good for society?

"There is no doubt that for some people [gambling] is devastating," says New Zealand Rugby League chief executive Phil Holden - whose previous job was running the Lion Foundation gaming trust.

"But the reality is by law that money is available for use by the community. I personally don't have a moral issue with that. In rugby league we are delivering those initiatives back into the community. You can actually point to it."

As a former chief executive of the Health Sponsorship Council, Basketball New Zealand boss Iain Potter is no stranger to the debate around gambling revenue. He isn't overly comfortable with the gambling funding model, but he has no choice but to play the hand he has been dealt.

"It does pose a moral question," admits Mr Potter. "There are probably two or three ways of looking at it. One is that the money is collected whether basketball receives any or not. We are not promoting pokie machines simply by receiving money. There is a theoretical circuit breaker between collection of the funds and distribution of the funds.

"Another argument is that those funds are used to make opportunities available to people who wouldn't be able to afford it otherwise, so there is an element of payback. But I do accept that the payback is not directly attached to the giver."

Focusing solely on the morality of sport accepting gambling money isn't fair, says Mr Tew.

"If we attack the morality of sport being funded by gaming then we need to start thinking about all charity and community activity that is currently in that pot. I don't know why sport gets an unfair treatment.

"Would it be ideal if sport didn't need to take money out of those poorer communities? Yes. But so would it be for all the other agencies that depend on it. We just come back to how you replace that money without losing all the good that is being done.

"Gambling in our society is a legal activity considered by most people to be fun. Yes we have a problem with a small percentage of gamblers spending money they shouldn't spend, but we have exactly the same problem with people who eat the wrong food in excess, who drink in excess, with tobacco and god knows what other social ills.

"If we took this argument to its ridiculous end point we wouldn't be sponsored by Coca-Cola because people drink too much soft drink ... At some point in time you have to be realistic here.

"Unless we can find some way as a country to replace a significant amount of money, and then find some way of not restricting people's rights to have a pleasurable gamble from time to time, then I just wonder where the debate goes to, quite frankly. You just waste a lot of breath on it.

"There is no point in biting things off that we can't chew."

The series

Monday: Hooked on the money - sport's dependence on
gambling cash.

Yesterday: Broken lives and rebuilt fields. A pokie dollar makes
its way from Mangere East to Remuera.

Today: Moral jeopardy. The troubled ethics of doing good things
with bad money.

Thursday: It wasn't always like this. Life before gambling
revenue.

Friday: Where do we go from here? Can we break the cycle?

- NZ Herald

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