Is problem gambling among its players ruining Aussie rules?
David Schwarz’s phone will start to light up at the back end of next month. He’s expecting it because it’s a pattern that’s for years now rung true. Because it’s the end of another brutal and protracted AFL season, signaling the start of spring racing as it gallops towards another Melbourne Cup. His phone will chirp with numbers mostly unfamiliar. On the other end – men. Men who know the shake that follows the roar of 90,000 calls of ‘BALL’ at the MCG on a fresh July afternoon. Men, young men at that, who’ve only just come to feel the blistering pace and the piercing pain of a full preseason training schedule. Desperation strains their voices and threads their stories. It’s despair that’s led them here – to this point, to call a man they refer to as The Ox. It’s a moniker that highlights the size of the champion number 5 for the Melbourne Football Club – a 6’3” 100kg bullock who split packs and never shirked; a forward whose surprising agility also saw him regularly dance around opposition backmen en route to goal. “They’re pretty desperate and they’re lost, that’s where they’re at,” Schwarz offers of those who call. “They’ve hit a wall, they’ve finally worked out that they’re pretty stuffed and they’re desperate enough to reach out.” They seek out Schwarz because he’s someone who knows their stories. Because it’s also been his story – the tale of how crippling gambling addiction saw one of the sport’s all-time greats walk away in 2002 penniless and shadowed by a seven–figure debt. It is the story of a man who estimates to have lost more than $5m over the course of his 12-year career. “I know what it’s like to have no money, to be desperate… I know what it’s like to feel that anguish. It’s probably the worst feeling in the world.” Schwarz admits that when his phone rings he can no longer offer the same level of support he once did, a time when he’d drop what he was doing and hop on flights all over the country to sit and speak and personally console a player. All at his own cost. It came to a head a couple of years back – it was all too consuming. Today, he still listens before steering players to those he knows can help. “I was getting five players or managers a month ringing me directly to say, ‘ I’m stuffed, I can’t get out, I need help’. It got to a point where I just couldn’t do it anymore, you know. I was doing it before and in between and after everything else I had going on and it was just getting to me… Now I say it’s not that I can’t help, but here’s someone I know who you can trust and who you’re better off seeing right now.” Speak to Schwarz and you hear a man who genuinely wishes he could do more – a desire to aid anyone battling the same demons he hasn’t allowed get the better of him since 2005. As he sees it, more should be done. More needs to be done. As Schwarz sees it, the AFL has a major gambling problem. “Are more players in serious trouble through gambling than drugs and alcohol? Yep, I’d say there are three or four times more problem-gamblers than those with issues with the other two. And I’d say that of the 800 or whatever players you’ve got in the AFL, 20 to 30 per cent have a gambling problem. This is a fucking big issue.”
Jan Beames has sport in her blood. Her uncle was the flamboyant and legendary Australian all-rounder Keith Miller. Her father-in-law, Percy Beames, was also a known Demons charge who went on to become The Age’s chief football and cricket journalist. She was recommended to us for this story by several working in and around the AFL, including one player-manager who simply labeled her “the best in the business”. As a professional counselor of 30 years’ experience, Beames has worked across a wealth of issues with innumerable sports people – from Olympic swimmers, to runners, rowers and rugby union players. Her office has also seen a revolving door of AFL players – all directed by word of mouth or the gentle push of another who knows of her work. Schwarz credits his recovery to Beames – and it is known that she also helped drag former Hawthorn premiership player Brent Guerra out of the pit of a gambling addiction that saw him lose his way and an estimated $400,000 in just four years. An addiction to gambling, Beames offers, involves reaching a point where placing a bet and walking away is no longer possible. “It’s when they’re completely consumed, when they can’t stop thinking about it and they go to increasing lengths to do it. And once they start, they really cannot stop.” She speaks of players who’ve openly bet up to an hour before running out on the field. She speaks of players not sleeping entire weekends due to a habit. Of those who’ve lost homes and families to what is a wretched addiction.
Beames also doesn’t shy away from presenting problem-gambling as a major issue for the AFL – one on an ascendant arc. “I’m seeing more with gambling problems today than I have before, yes. And most of those players have lost six figures.” She’s seeing a few at the moment. From those who’ve only just slipped on an AFL guernsey to those already well known to the public. She’s hesitant to say too much and that’s understandable. “There’s one guy and he’s a star. He’s played every game this season. And he’s smart too – he didn’t study at school and he got amazing grades. He’s one of those freaks. And I kept thinking about why he was here, you know, because I see so many players and I was just interested in why is this guy was here, because he really is such a thinker. He’s smart.” His response was simple. “‘Well Jan, I get 25 grand in my bank every month, I’ve got a lot of time on my hands and I get bored.’ And then he said that at the club everyone’s always on their phones and they’re always talking about bets and tips and races and it’s just all the time, that’s what he said, ‘It’s all the time’.” Like the others Beames sees, he began to lose more than he was making. He was chasing wins trying to cover growing debts. Never chase debt. That’s the slope. That’s when it hits. That’s when a player lands in the hole. Guerra’s story is one that highlights how quickly recreational gambling can come to own a player. How control morphs into searing loss. How a betting culture can act as a dangerous leader. Guerra, now on the coaching staff at Fremantle FC, didn’t return a request to be interviewed for this article. We were told he’s said his piece – and he has. “Early on in my AFL career I’d go to the pub on the weekend with my mates for a couple of beers and we’d all put $20 or $50 in for a few bets together. It was a good way to catch up, and my betting was under control,” Guerra detailed in a 2015 article about his addiction. “When I started playing for Hawthorn, there were guys who owned horses and guys who liked to bet, and I got sucked into that culture. I went to the races a lot after the footy season finished and started to bet more frequently.” Things changed in 2011. “In a single moment it really got a hold. I put a bet on and ended up winning $30,000. At the time I thought it was the greatest thing, but in the long run it ended up being the worst thing that has ever happened to me.” Punting on the horses, the dogs, the trots – Guerra quickly went on to lose. His daily habit would eat his monthly salary and he was borrowing against his home loan to chase another win. At the time of going to print on this story, former AFL player turned media personality Ryan Fitzgerald opened up about his issues with gambling – which stemmed from his time at the Sydney Swans. “Those four years that I had in the AFL, I punted a lot of my money up the wall,” Fitzgerald said in July. “It was the environment. Back in those days, there was a lot of down time between training sessions and in the Swans, (the) majority of blokes would go down the pub and just have a punt… For me, it was you get to hang out with some of these senior blokes going, ‘This is amazing’.” Fitzgerald detailed how gambling left him with debts that meant he could no longer afford his mortgage. It’s a story all too familiar to Beames. “I’ve had some young players drafted away from home when they’re very young and dealing with loneliness, missing home, not feeling like they belong so they start betting to become part of the team – there’s often a sense of peer pressure to gamble because it’s part of a team culture” she says. “Some of the young players, when they join these clubs, they see players on their phones all the time, watching races and talking about punting all the time. And so these younger guys get involved, that’s how it starts, but then they can’t stop.” GQ approached 16 current players for this story. Six across four clubs agreed to speak – though all requested anonymity, not wanting to be known to betray team ranks.
“I KNOW WHAT IT’S LIKE TO HAVE NO MONEY, TO BE DESPERATE... TO FEEL THAT ANGUISH.”
Of the six, all admitted to regularly gambling each week, two of them daily. Four said they knew of players in the league who’d lost six-figure sums and each believed they knew at least one current player with a gambling problem. American sports are favoured via online betting agencies accessed from smartphones. It’s accessible – and easy. It kills the time between training sessions and other footballrelated commitments. “Yeah that’s what it’s about mostly, NFL and NBA and that,” offered one player. “And horses and too, though mainly it’s the American sports because you can get some good multis and that’s what the guys are into.” Four of the players we spoke to agreed their club had an entrenched betting culture. “It’s what the chat’s about when we’re not training,” said one. Beames – set to publish a new book, Breaking the Gambling Addiction – says that her ‘thinker’ recently claimed that 65 per cent of the players at his club, a top Melbourne club, are daily gamblers. “He said there’s only 35 per cent who don’t.” Talk to any gambler and they’ll tell you of their wins. The searing pain of loss is rarely discussed. If ever. And besides, gambling is legal. And in this country it informs our dusty, knockabout image – of the battler done good. “We’re just having some fun,” said one of the players we spoke to. “It’s just something we do to chill… I don’t personally see the problem if we’re not in any trouble with it.” He failed to describe what ‘trouble’ would look like. In the course of researching this story, we came to hear the names of several AFL players – those whom both fans and the league refer to as ‘stars’ – alleged to be battling severe gambling addition. Some have sought help. Some have relapsed after counseling. One, we were told, chased and secured an interstate transfer in the hope of outrunning heavyset Melbourne debt collectors. Another’s wife, it was alleged, learnt of her partner’s addiction paying for the family’s weekly shopping – forced to leave the supermarket with only her children after three separate credit cards turned out to be overdrawn. Schwarz speaks of another forced to move interstate – this time to outrun his former club’s gambling culture. “He was trying to get better, he had an addiction, and he kept saying to the club that he couldn’t get better when the whole club’s gambling their ears off. I mean he’d go to his ‘workplace’ and every player there is betting beyond their means and he actually went to the footy manager three times to be told they don’t have an issue – so he had to leave because the addiction he had was so bad and yet he went to work everyday and it was thrown in his face.” Phil Davis is a player who, like Schwarz in his day, is known for an unwavering attack on the footy field. As the Giants’ co-captain he wears proudly the orange and grey. He also sits on the board of the AFL Players Association (PA) under Geelong champion Patrick Dangerfield – who didn’t answer submitted questions for this article. Davis doesn’t gamble. And he’s quick to state that the Giants have stood firm against a gambling culture pervading the club. It’s something they must continue to work on, he admits, given he also understands how gambling can easily take hold. “When you’re in a footy club of 42 blokes everyone is always looking for a connection, for a way to bond with each other,” Davis says. “And mutual interests are the best way to do that and unfortunately if it is gambling, that can become toxic. “We have eradicated talk about gambling around the club and we don’t have a punter’s club – we’ve never had a punter’s club. You know, there are some social benefits to some controlled social gambling, but it can turn ugly very quickly. It’s not that we don’t want our guys to have a good time, but it can be a fine line when someone gets a hit and then bang, they’re suddenly in a lot of trouble. And I get it – I am competitive, I hate to lose, and all players share that same psyche and then to go into a space where the odds are stacked against you, where you’re fighting to win and find your way out… But with gambling you can’t.” Peer pressure. Culture. Money. Boredom. Adrenaline. “Footballers, unfortunately, hit every key demographic,” says Schwarz, who today works for Macquarie Sports Radio. “They’re young and are high-income earners, they’re risk takers and adrenaline junkies and often single, hanging out with affluent people and in a mob environment. I mean if you had all your boxes lined up of what a problem-gambler looks like, then sports people tick all of them” Beames agrees – furthering Davis’ link between the emotions attached to gambling as well as competing at the top tier. “There’s a very similar adrenaline rush with playing and gambling,” she says. “And so sometimes if they’ve lost [a game] they’re trying to counteract the emotional letdown, the disappointment of the loss by the adrenaline rush of a gambling win. “There’s two types of gamblers, to put it simply. The ones that use gambling as an anaesthetic to present emotions or emotions they can’t deal with. And then there’s other players who are risk takers and who love the adrenaline and are just always chasing that – by playing or gambling. For them, it’s no different to having a hit.”
The return email from leading AFL player agent Robbie D’orazio was striking in its honesty. ‘A massive space and one that I deal with on a daily basis!’ his reply to being asked to discuss alleged problem-gambling amongst the AFL playing group. D’orazio is a partner at leading Melbourne firm Connor Sports Management. The outfit looks after “about 100” AFL players across the country. “This is definitely the biggest issue for us in the game,” he says, speaking on the phone a few days later. In discussing
“IT AFFECTS THE PLAYER BUT IT ALSO ENDS UP AFFECTING ALL THOSE AROUND HIM TOO.”
the issue, the amount of free time players have, the ease of gambling online and increasing player salaries are all explored. “There are guys who don’t punt at all, but then there are those who really get into and go too hard.” D’orazio cites former players such as Brendan Fevola, Daryn Cresswell, Simon Goodwin and Daniel Ward, among others. Like Schwarz and Guerra – each was a standout of the game and each came to scrape rock bottom as a result of gambling addiction. Fevola declined to participate in this article though he has previously recalled how, at the height of his gambling, he lost more than $360,000 in a single weekend on Hong Kong horse races he “knew nothing about”. “It’s an addictive thing, it’s a really bad addiction to have and it obviously cripples a lot of people’s lives,” Fevola said. The former Carlton full-forward declared bankruptcy in 2013. “It gets pretty sad,” says D’orazio. “I mean it affects the player and there are some horror stories out there, but it also ends up affecting all those around him too.” Asked directly how many of his 100 had a problem with gambling, D’orazio claimed 20. “As I said, I deal with it on a daily basis.” One respected Melbourne premiership coach uses a well-worn descriptor about the issues he believes all AFL players will at some stage face. He calls it, rather unpoetically, the ‘Four Ps’ – pussy, powder, piss, punting. D’orazio maintains the latter to be the most harmful and prevalent. “Drugs and drinking aren’t really options as they want to look after themselves and be proud of their performance. It’s gambling, that’s the one and it’s why we’ve started to manage a lot of their money so we know what they’re doing. So we’re onto it – but it’s not going away.” It’s also not being spoken about – not openly, anyway. Where the AFL can be applauded in regards to their work on tackling racism and female inclusivity, it’s keeping schtum about what is widely considered to be the biggest issue amongst its own playing group. At the time of print, AFL conversation was centered on congestion in the game, enforced ruck nominations and pending rule changes to be enacted in time for the 2019 season. The AFL failed to move on numerous requests to interview CEO Gillon Mclachlan or any of the code’s executives for this article. “I don’t think they have ever taken this seriously,” states Schwarz. “This is a serious issue and they’ve only got a fucking Band-aid over it. If that.” Former Victorian premier and Hawthorn President Jeff Kennett agrees. “Your first responsibility in terms of governance in running a club or a code or a commercial operation is good governance and the welfare of your employees,” he says. “And the clubs and the AFL should really be more concerned and more interested in educating players about the pitfalls of gambling. Because there is no doubt that there are more people gambling within the playing groups.” Kennett believes the AFL should be shining the spotlight on its own ranks instead of its current crusade to move more clubs away from a reliance on poker-machine revenues. For Hawthorne the 2016/17 season brought in $23.29m from their club machines. “The AFL, having taken on a social conscience on all matters, articulates a position on gaming machines and worries about those in the community who unfortunately gamble beyond their means,” says Kennett. “But they are not nearly as proactive in worrying about gambling within the ranks of those they give the opportunity to play the game.” Last year, Samantha Thomas, an associate professor of public health at Deakin University and who was employed by the AFLPA to run a pilot education program on problem gambling within clubs, publicly criticised the AFL for its ongoing financial entanglement with sports betting agencies. In 2016 the AFL signed a lucrative five-year deal with Crownbet for $50m. Many see this as a crux when it comes to the AFL being more vocal in publicly addressing the issue of gambling addiction and being more proactive in the prevention of its alleged march across the playing group. “Yeah, this is the disease no one wants to talk about,” says Mark Robinson, The Herald Sun’s chief football writer. “And it’s interesting isn’t it that the AFL players have gambling addictions and the AFL then throws up nine games on TV every weekend with gambling ads everywhere.” Robsinson labels such advertising brainwashing. “It’s propaganda that’s its OK to bet. And if the government or the AFL had any balls they’d stop that, but the money is too great to give up. You know, the entire world we live in is corrupt in some way, the entire world is hypocritical in some way. Though, the AFL accepting gambling revenue is probably no different to the media accepting gambling sponsorship. “The whole world has been touched by gambling and it is a revenue source for so many.”
He recalls his seventh-grade teacher Mr Inge, who turned him on to poetry: “It wasn’t a traditional English class,” he says. “It was more of an artistic exercise. He told us to ‘write something only you can understand, then pass it on to the next person.’” He tells me about the visit with his parents to the White House (“Obama reached out”). “My mother wore a black-and-brown dress; she made sure to wear her best.” And, he tells me, “It [took me back] to talking to my grandma, when she was alive, and I was always thinking what it would be like if we had a black president. She had some hope…” And even though Kendrick has had political songs, such as ‘XXX’ and ‘Alright’ – which became an anthem for Black Lives Matter marches – he says he doesn’t talk much about politics because “I just get too frustrated”. I ask him how he feels about Kanye West’s statements about Trump and about slavery and, after a long pause, he says, “He has his own perspective, and he’s on this whole agree to disagree thing, and I would have this conversation with him personally if I want to.” I ask about his song ‘Love’ on DAMN, and he says, “That’s one of my first real personal love songs; it’s personal for me, but it’s a universal feeling when people listen to it.” But as for his own personal love relationship with Alford, he doesn’t talk about it, he says, because “I want something that’s just for me”. Since he says he was confident as a kid, and he’s confident now, why were there all those selfdoubts he’s written about that came in between? “I never thought about it like that,” he says. “That’s a question I’m going to ask myself tonight. Maybe it’s that fear... a lot of artists have a fear of success, they can’t handle it; some people need drugs to escape. For me, I need the microphone – that’s how I release it. And just figuring out a new life. Maybe thinking that I’m doing something wrong, or that I’m a little bit different or gifted. It’s the same thing as not wanting to accept compliments. Just wanting to work harder.” As for what’s next: “I don’t know,” he says. “And that’s the most fun part, the most beautiful part.” I ask him if, as he sings in ‘Element,’ he would “die for this shit,” and he says, without a second’s hesitation, “I would”. Robinson also believes its hard for clubs and the AFL to do more given most players are extremely secretive about their gambling habits. “It’s secretive this stuff. And unless a player wants to talk about it, you know it’s an invasion of their privacy. If [the AFL] go and say, ‘You’ve got a problem’ then they’ll be like, ‘Who the fuck are you?’ They can’t do a lot until that player wants to talk about it.” GQ understands that current player education about problem-gambling, as delivered by the PA and AFL, involves various one-off discussions and seminars run at a club level and an annual survey at the start of a new year. “How many blokes do you reckon are answering that thing honestly – I’m not about to say I’ve got a problem with anything when I’m filling it out next to my teammate,” said one of the players we spoke to. Further, two said they would never tell the club of an issue for fear of looking weak among the playing group while also fearing such information being made pubic. “It’s happened before – a player’s gone and put his hand up and he’s been dropped for a game. There’s another guy who saw his name end up in the papers… Different clubs give different levels of care. Some, if you’re winning, couldn’t give a shit about what’s going on.” It’s a point furthered by Peter ‘Spida’ Everitt – a lithe and tattooed ruckman who played 291 games for St Kilda, Hawthorn and Sydney. “We’ve all seen it, play good footy and whatever problems that may be about – drugs or drinking or gambling – get swept under the table,” says Everitt. “There’s a massive role for clubs and the AFLPA around duty of care and player appreciation and development and every club is different. They have welfare officers and some clubs make sure everybody goes no matter what – but other clubs you wouldn’t speak to them in three years, so there are very different standards at different football clubs… And ask an ex-player how many times he’s been contacted by the AFL or been checked in on to see how he’s doing out of the game? I haven’t heard from one club or the AFL or the PA [Everitt retired in 2008]. So if a bloke comes out at age 24 and he’s bad into gambling, then who’s helping him?” Many point to the AFL’S need to accept the issue, increase transparency about it and bolster player education throughout the year. “I think that needs to happen, definitely,” says Tony Sheahan, an AFL journalist with SEN Radio in Melbourne. “But then do we need to also look at changing the structure of payments – it’s childlike, but do we need to look at that? Give them a lump sum at employment’s end when they retire? I don’t know. Though, I agree that at the moment it feels like everyone’s just paying lip service to this issue – do the clubs and the AFL really want to address this or accept there’s a problem? “There is no quick fix, obviously though it is not an issue the AFL has properly addressed. And I’m not saying it is entirely the AFL’S problem, they are the peak body and have to take it into consideration, but it is also a club issue as much as it is a player’s responsibility. But we must keep talking to the players, keep talking about the difficulties.” As for Schwarz – a man who’s lived this tale and made it to the other side – only wholesale leadership changes that shake the core of the culture of gambling within the code will change things for the better. “They do presentations at [junior] TAC cup level which is great, and the clubs do presentations each year,” he says. “But until the AFL and the clubs takes it from the top down, and have and enforce blanket policies about gambling then it’s never going to be fixed.”
THIS PAGE Former AFL star David Schwarz now helps players in their fight with problemgambling; playing for the Melbourne Demons; speaking to the Herald Sun in 2005.
THIS PAGE Brett Guerra celebrates Hawthorne’s title win in 2013; Giants co-captain Phil Davis has spoken of how the club has avoided a gambling culture.
FROM FAR LEFT Hawthorn president Jeff Kennett; Brendan Fevola and Peter Everitt during their playing days; Ryan Fitzgerald discussing his battle with gambling addiction at the SCG; AFL CEO Gillon Mclachlan.