Player punishments mask our rotten relationship with gambling gods

Newcastle United officials were quick to declare their dismay after star signing Sandro Tonali was handed a 10-month ban from competitive football last month for breaching Italian betting regulations. “It was a massive shock, a massive surprise,” Magpies sporting director Dan Ashworth told the BBC. “Dealing with it was new to all of us. It came from nowhere.”

Tonali’s ban relates to infractions committed during his time playing in Italy; it’s not yet clear whether he had also begun betting on games in England after making his high-profile summer move to the Premier League. But to claim that any of this “came from nowhere” is surely a reach. Soccer across Europe is saturated with gambling now – and increasingly it’s the norm in US sports too, as more states move to legalize a practice that was until fairly recently prohibited.

A few weeks before the news of Tonali’s suspension broke, Newcastle announced a club partnership with BetMGM, a new UK betting subsidiary of Las Vegas-based hospitality and gaming company MGM Resorts International; BetMGM’s brand is now plastered across St James’s Park, visible to global audiences, and Chris Rock leads the platform’s national ad campaign, featuring a $19.1m jackpot. Three of the club’s main sponsorship deals are now with gambling companies; Newcastle have also inked agreements with and FUN88. These agreements did not, of course, lead Tonali to breach the Italian Football Federation’s betting regulations. But they’re indicative of the sport’s general direction of travel.

Both Tonali and Ivan Toney, who was banned from football for eight months earlier this year after admitting to 232 breaches of the Football Association’s rules on betting, described their gambling as the result of addiction. A psychiatric expert told the regulatory commission the FA convened to hear Toney’s case that the Brentford striker suffers from an “impulsive/compulsive disorder” and needs professional help to deal with his addiction; the commission accepted this finding. As gambling ads and betting platforms proliferate, and the slicing of individual matches into bettable segments grows ever finer, it seems inevitable that more players will succumb to the lures that snared Tonali and Toney. To feign surprise at the presence of wagering athletes amid a sporting culture built on gambling seems every bit as disingenuous as the police captain in Casablanca claiming to be “shocked, shocked” at the bets being placed in Rick’s Café Américain while quietly pocketing his winnings from the croupier. A rotten culture breeds rotten habits. But it’s the clubs and officials who’ve delivered soccer to the gambling gods, not the handful of players unable to resist the incentives dangled before them daily. If accountability for money’s corruption of the sport lies anywhere, it lies with those at the top.

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Football executives across Europe have now created an impossible task for themselves: “protecting” players from the very impulses they’re unleashing among fans. (And what are players if not the most successful fans of all, fans who’ve turned their passion for the sport into a career?) This has become a major quandary not only in soccer but in many other sports as well. Since the US supreme court struck down the federal law banning state-authorized sports gambling in 2018, pro leagues across America have been scrambling to figure out how to regulate betting by their contracted athletes. Wagering on sport is now legal in more then 30 US states. Many of the major professional teams have sportsbooks in or near their stadiums, and for many fans – whether watching live or at home – it’s become a regular part of the gameday experience to place prop bets on games via mobile apps while the action is unfolding. Given that federal legislation until recently prohibited the practice in the US, there’s no great history of gambling among American pro athletes. But that’s beginning to shift.

In April the NFL suspended three players, including Washington Commanders defensive end Shaka Toney (no relation to Ivan), for the whole of the 2023 season after they were found to have placed bets on league games last year. Four players for the Detroit Lions missed the start of the 2023 season for violating the league’s gambling policy. A rule change was introduced in September to increase suspensions for players who bet on games in the NFL itself.

Four members of the Detroit Lions, including receiver Jameson Williams, were suspended by the NFL for violating the league’s gambling policy.
Four members of the Detroit Lions, including receiver Jameson Williams, were suspended by the NFL for violating the league’s gambling policy. Photograph: Paul Sancya/AP

The rot is now spreading beyond professional ranks to amateurs as well: in July NCAA president Charlie Baker disclosed that his organization, college sports’ largest governing body, has uncovered 175 infractions of its betting rules since 2018, the year of the landmark supreme court ruling, and is pursuing 17 active investigations. After a 2021 rule change, college athletes – previously held to a strict code of amateurship and prevented from earning money – are now permitted to profit from their personal brand. But sports gambling remains a powerful temptation, and the NCAA recently revised its betting regulations to counter the rising threat. Reinstatement policies for college athletes who breach gambling regulations have been made more lenient to take account of “mitigating factors” for “young people who have made mistakes,” according to a member of the NCAA’s legislative committee – a necessary adjustment in a society where sports betting is now “easily accessible nationwide with online platforms.” The NCAA, in calling for sympathy in the treatment of offenders, has recognized the difficulty of insulating players from the casino culture that surrounds them. But this has not stopped colleges and the NCAA from embracing the gaming companies’ millions: $16bn was reportedly wagered on March Madness this year, and according to a recent New York Times investigation, several colleges have now signed deals to bring betting to campus.

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Across the leagues, continents, and levels of competition, the basic paradox is the same: authorities are empowered to regulate and control a problem – the rise of gambling among athletes – they are doing everything on the commercial side of their sports to entrench and institutionalize. Rarely does anyone with decision-making power in this world stop to consider the hypocrisy of their own position. This hypocrisy is especially glaring in the case of English and European football, which has none of the structural egalitarianism (drafts, salary caps, strong player unions, and a tradition of central wage bargaining) that ensures a fairly even level of competition across American pro sports. According to the commission that ruled on Ivan Toney’s case, the prohibition on sports betting in English soccer “is necessary to protect the integrity of the game and to maintain public confidence in football.” You hear this phrase a lot whenever the issue of match-fixing and player gambling comes up: the integrity of the sport. It is as vacuous as it sounds important.

Where, exactly, is the “integrity” in a sport whose biggest clubs wanted until recently to create a Super League for themselves? What was the precise quantity of integrity that went into the decision to approve the Saudi Public Investment Fund as a fit and proper owner of Newcastle United, or to gift Saudi Arabia the 2034 World Cup? What kind of integrity can the Premier League seriously claim to have when the champions of England and Europe are under investigation for 115 financial breaches, and that investigation, announced amid much fanfare earlier this year, has in recent months gone eerily quiet? In the year of our lord 2023, when the billions of the Abu Dhabi United Group have turned the Premier League into a procession, each weekend brings a fresh managerial aneurysm, referees go easy on their own mates, and VAR remains a comic masterpiece of “well done boys, good process” proportions, it seems laughable to think that “public confidence in football” is a concept that remains intact, much less one that can be held together by the FA coming down like a ten-ton truck on Toney for lumping on himself to score against Burnley away. Yet here we are.

Recent reforms to the Premier League’s match-day rules represent a timid step in the right direction: from 2026, front-of-shirt sponsorship deals with gambling companies will be banned. But advertising for gambling companies will still be allowed on pitchside hoardings and players’ shirt sleeves, a compromise that the leader of anti-gambling movement The Big Step has correctly described as “totally incoherent.” Thirty four clubs have signed on to The Big Step, which is campaigning to end all gambling advertising and sponsorship in English football, though most are lower-league or non-league. The only Premier League side to have endorsed the initiative is Luton Town, which is not surprising when you consider the strength of the stake supporters have in that club’s identity and management; the other 19 clubs in the top flight have remained breezily indifferent. Hopes that The Regulator – a mythic figure of theoretically unimpeachable moral fiber much longed for among British football fans and apparently now finally on the brink of materializing – may be able to straighten out the many inconsistencies of English soccer’s approach to gambling seem forlorn at best. Regulatory tweaks won’t abolish the profit motive, and it’s the lust for profit amid a global competition for viewers that will keep English clubs, like the Premier League itself, in thrall to gaming interests. The deals are simply too good to say no to. The rizz is too strong.

The singling out of individual player-gamblers for punishment, while justified, is really about keeping our eyes off the bigger fix. Suspensions help nurture the fiction that football is a state of law, a realm of values and equal treatment, rather than what it’s become: a clearing house for the traffic of money and influence. Toney and Tonali are the scapegoats of a broken system. The whole spectacle of player punishment in soccer today has become a way to enforce a form of selective justice that distracts from other, more consequential infractions that go unpunished, the very unevenness of the sport’s playing field. It substitutes thin proceduralism for a deeper fairness. The big perps run free, while the little guys get benched.