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From placenta to play centre

Sports betting and children

This is not something I like to talk about much, but I was in fact a child star.

Well, by ‘child star’ I mean that I appeared on TV when I was 10-years-old for exactly 4 minutes and 31 seconds. Oh, and it only aired in Western Australia…and at 6:30am on a Saturday morning.

The occasion was The Junior Eagles Show. I was on the brink of my 10th birthday, and my family’s beloved West Coast Eagles had been the dominant team all football season. Perth was gripped with the giddy excitement at the possibility that this may be the year that we beat the Vics at their own game.

The Junior Eagles Show was a programme for child fans of the football club, who wanted to show off their wares by participating in a quiz about all things Eagles. In a fit of excitement, mum had volunteered my brother and I for the quiz show when she realised just how creepy the level of our knowledge of the Eagles had become.

‘Who’s that player, boys?’ Mum and Dad may enquire. ‘That’s Scott Watters’, we would race to answer. 'He’s played 46 games, was drafted from South Fremantle, and his nickname is Smurf.’

You could almost hear our parents’ eyeballs clanging to the sides of their sockets as they looked at each other with more than a tinge of concern. My brother and I would spend hours kicking the footy and testing each other on the ins and outs of various players. I sometimes think just how different my life trajectory may have been had a good chunk of my brain space not been clogged up with the playing numbers of the 1991 Eagles list.

My brother ended up winning the quiz – a victory that he has not forgotten 22 years later – and we both got to shake the hands of our heroes, Guy McKenna (number 17, nickname Bluey, played 267 games) and Chris Mainwaring (number 3, nickname Mainey, played 201 games). It was a day of high excitement for a pair of 10-year old twins…and their 40 year old mother.

The reason I bring this up is because of something I overheard the other day. I was going for my usual run around the local school oval (though ‘a run’ is perhaps too vigorous a term for this activity – let’s go with ‘a struggle’). I had got to the footy goals, where there were two young boys, who were no more than 12 years old, having shots on goals.

As I continued my struggle passed the boys, I heard one of them say to the other something to the effect of: “Did you hear that the Eagles are now under $7 for the premiership?”

They were, of course, referring to betting odds. A week after that evening, I now sit and think of how their youthful excitement for football juxtaposes with my own childhood experiences. I was absorbed by the players’ statistics, they are riveted by betting odds. These boys are no doubt every bit as fanatical about sport as I remember being. But the influences on children’s fanaticism have changed markedly.

Betting and sport have been bedfellows since time immemorial. But what has changed – at least in Australia - is just how in-your-face it has become. Gambling is now an inescapable part of the sporting spectacle. Particularly conspicuous are betting promotions during live TV coverage of the games, where an attractive and bubbly 20-something will appear and tell you exactly how your favourite pastime can be made just that bit more exciting by having a punt.

My unease is not to do with exposing adults to intensified sports-betting campaigns; that’s a debate for those who know more than me about problem gambling.

My anxiety is to do with those boys kicking around the footy in the park. To many youngsters, sport isn’t just a pastime - it is their life; an obsession that they eat, sleep and breathe. Exposing young minds to sports betting – minds that are desperate to absorb every bit of information about the games they love - not only normalises gambling, but increases the chances of problem behaviour.

We’ve seen it with alcohol and tobacco, and these data indicate that we’ll see it with gambling too.

I’m no prude: every year I lose my $20 on the Melbourne Cup like everyone else. Nor am I naïve: I know these sponsorship dollars help the sustainability of these great sports.

But I do have concerns for youngsters who, like me before them, soak up and accept what they see in sport without the level of questioning it deserves.

Sports-betting is an emotive issue, with billions of dollars and arguments of over-regulation at stake. But from where I sit, the only harm that can be done at this stage is by not discussing how this transformation in sport may impact on children’s development. So, let’s discuss it.

(For the record, the Eagles didn’t end up winning the 1991 Grand-Final. But, all those who watched, will remember that final game of the season for the half-time entertainment starring a truly unforgettable Angry Anderson and the Batmobile. Definitely a must see).

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These views are the opinion of Andrew Whitehouse, and do not necessarily reflect those of his employer.

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