The Guardian recently reported on the bizarre scenario of football club owners in the UK being allowed to place bets on football matches… while their employees are banned from doing likewise. This raises a ton of questions, writes Jon Bruford. Like how? Why? And who knew?

The story, which emerged in late September, has seen the governing body (the Football Association, or FA) accused of double standards after hanging Brentford player and diagnosed gambling addict, Ivan Toney, out to dry. This followed breaches of the player code of conduct.

Ironically, Matthew Benham, owner of Brentford FC, was named as one of the gamblers. The story states: “Benham is one of a select few multimillionaire club owners who enjoy an opaque arrangement with the FA that allows them to be involved in betting. The Guardian has seen evidence that appears to show that Benham has made money from bets on football placed in his own name, via a UK-based gambling syndicate called MSPP Admin. Benham said he abides by all FA betting rules.”

The problem here is surely that an individual who can influence team selection – and potentially the players – is making bets. Shouldn’t that be severely restricted? Surely we are not so naive as to believe that only players can influence a game?

If I asked you to name some dodgy football club owners, it would take you perhaps three minutes to come up with a list. If you stopped to make a cup of tea before answering, that is. Make no bones about it, this is all on the FA. If I were Ivan Toney, I would be furious right now.

Not so clear-cut rules

And predictably, the FA has not been forthcoming with the terms of the deal for these owners. Yes, the gambling industry is involved with football ownership; why on earth would that mean special dispensation for betting, though?

There is a clear rule, as outlined in the Guardian’s follow-up: “The FA introduced strict new rules on betting before the 2014-15 season. On the face of it, the rules are simple. To paraphrase: anyone involved in the game must not bet on any football match, anywhere in the world.”

Why does there need to be a special dispensation? Why not just not bet on the game?

There’s a story behind the story, though, I think: why are so many sports governing bodies handling gambling so incredibly badly? Not just in the UK either. Mind you, at least in the United States they have a good excuse, as sports betting is relatively new. In the UK, we have absolutely no excuse; we’ve been doing this for decades and yet we still can’t get things right.

Sporting bodies need to have these rules in hand before they come in to play. In the US, sports betting didn’t exactly jump out and say “boo” – it was on the horizon for months, if not years in many cases. Thankfully the National Football League (NFL) has moved relatively quickly after a raft of player issues this year.

How much responsibility falls on the industry?

But do we really have to give athletes the opportunity to harm their careers and lives, when they should have had the tools to navigate this handed to them months or even years before?

If the governing body gets it right, it places all emphasis on the player to behave responsibly. They’ve had the education, the club has supported this, everyone is on board from top to bottom. If the body gets it wrong, their punishment is hollow and they should look in the mirror long before punishing the player.

As Steve Ruddock clarified in his excellent Straight to the Point newsletter, the NFL has changed its rules around gambling for players this year. The punishment for betting on non-NFL games has been reduced from six games to two for a first offence, while the penalty for betting on NFL games has increased. Players betting on the NFL face a minimum one-year suspension, while those whose betting involves their own team will receive a minimum two-year suspension.

The new rules also cover third-party proxy betting, and they have clearly had at least some thought put into them.

The NFL have recognised that their own game’s integrity, particularly in a world where sports betting can mean increased revenues, is everything. Even politicians have become involved, with Nevada congresswoman Dina Titus responding to the changes: “I’m glad that the NFL created a distinction between behaviour that threatens the integrity of the game and legal wagering on other sports.

“Penalties for game fixing and betting on one’s own league should be more serious than betting on other sports. Every sports league should remain focused on protecting the product on the field. Leagues should periodically review their policies, in consultation with players, to ensure that rules are understood and updated when necessary.”

Knowing what it’s worth

She’s absolutely nailed it there. These are rules – not laws – applying to contracted individuals and they can be relatively easily maintained. There just has to be a will to do it and the intelligence to do it well.

The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) is also weighing in on the subject, with a slightly different angle: protecting young athletes from harm and coercion.

It’s fair to say the NCAA didn’t foresee the fall of PASPA, and they have been anything but organised in the time since it was overturned. Once again, I think it’s not unreasonable to point to the body’s disorganisation – they should have been at the table from the beginning, not calling for inclusion now.

So why are we talking about this? Because one of the things the industry can do is to take away the ammunition of criticism. These bodies have been floundering – they’re not the first and won’t be the last. The speed of growth has often surprised such groups and perhaps this is where we can help.

We can get them prepared, we can explain what works in other countries; after all, international operators do know these rules. We can assist sport governing bodies in maintaining the product’s integrity while keeping players and young athletes safe at the same time. Let’s get our expertise out there, share knowledge and use it for good. Everybody wins.

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