Stephenson may have been few or none of these things, but in the fantasy that the AFL has created around gambling, who can tell fact from fiction? For some time now, fantasy has been an official betting option, a growth industry within a growth industry, ever multiplying multis.
Stephenson, as a footballer, should have known the difference, did know the difference, felt guilty, confessed, and is now paying a massive price. You can’t help but feel for him.
But one unintended consequence of the gravity of his suspension is that it has turned the spotlight 180 degrees back onto the AFL and its problematic gambling nexus.
With one hand, they slap down Stephenson for his $36 betting spree. With the other, they take an estimated $10million from online bookmaker Beteasy. At $36, it is recklessness. At $10million, it is good business.
With one hand, they preach moderation in gambling. With the other, they wave through a gambling advertising blitz on TV, radio, in print media, online, all over the AFL’s own website and at the grounds, unrelenting and inescapable, until your head spins like poker machine wheels. Gamble responsibly? How about advertise responsibly?
With one hand, the AFL forbid footballers to bet. With the other, they strew temptations to bet in front of young men, traditionally society’s highest risk-takers and the incidence is proportionately higher among footballers, who have time and cash to spare and whose whole existence is a continuous exercise in backing themselves. Does anyone really believe that Stephenson is the only footballer to have a wager this year?
The AFL, indeed all major Australian sporting bodies, have explanations for this Janus complex, mostly disingenuous.
Gambling is legal, and in moderation harmless, and is vital to the funding of sport? The same was said of smoking, long since divorced from sport without bankrupting it. The same is said now of pokies, now disappearing.
Gambling companies work with the AFL to police footballers and so safeguard the game from corruption? Firstly, that co-operation, if so noble, should not be contingent on money changing hands. Secondly, how well is it going? Stephenson self-reported transactions that all agree would otherwise have been untraceable.
Collingwood CEO Mark Anderson was asked about Stephenson’s infractions in the light of the AFL’s dependence on gambling and said they were two different matters. But he also said: “The game must protect itself from the threat of gambling.” The threat of gambling, note. It can’t have been a slip of the tongue, because it was in the club’s release.
The threat is not gambling per se, but its inherent risks: corruption on one hand, social dysfunction on the other. But when the messages from the game’s ruling body are so mixed, when indulgence and prohibition go hand-in-hand, when the AFL so plainly is seen to be having a bet each way, it any wonder that contemplations begin to run across each other and the waters are so muddy?
You start to wonder whether the clown on the couch who can’t take his mind off the next multi and the riches it is sure to bring is an imaginary dupe, a real footballer or the AFL itself.
Here’s a real-life announcement. “It was agreed that we would end all sponsorships with betting companies starting from the end of this season,” it reads. “The decision was made following a three-month review of our approach to it as a governing body taking betting sponsorship, whilst being responsible for the regulation of sports betting with the sport’s rules.”
Sadly, that is not the AFL, or any Australian sports body, but the English Football Association in 2017, severing a deal worth millions of pounds to them.
Expect the AFL’s end of season study tour to be to Las Vegas again.
Greg Baum is chief sports columnist and associate editor with The Age.