Merson speaks about gambling addiction in a new film on BBC One
|Watch ‘Paul Merson: Football, Gambling and Me’ on BBC One and BBC iPlayer on Monday October 11th at 9:00 p.m. BST|
Paul Merson won two championship titles with Arsenal, the FA Cup, the League Cup and the European Cup Winners’ Cup. He played for England at the World and European Championships.
He has also lost more than £ 7 million to gambling in an addictive life.
In a new movie Paul Merson: Soccer, Gambling & Me On BBC One on Monday October 11th (9:00 p.m. BST), the 53-year-old is embarking on a journey to understand where his compulsion comes from, why footballers may be more risk-prone than others, and what companies may need and the government.
Before its release, BBC Sport had an open discussion with Merson about the film and the issues raised.
“I was addicted to alcohol and cocaine, but the most destructive and only thing I still struggle with is gambling”
During his 21-year career in professional football, Merson moved for transfer fees in excess of £ 12 million. When he played for Middlesbrough in the late 1990s, he was making about £ 20,000 a week.
Today he lives in a rented apartment with his third wife, Kate, and their three young children. Merson explains in the film that he has given Kate control of his finances.
He spoke to us about his regrets.
“Looking back, you don’t regret the money you’ve lost,” he says. “I was a millionaire and wanted to kill myself.
“It’s the time you’ve lost. I have eight children who I love very much.”
Merson explains in the film how he is still in the grip of addiction.
“I was addicted to alcohol and cocaine, but the most destructive and only thing I still struggle with today is gambling,” he says.
“If I want to get drunk or high, I have to stick something up my nose or in the water. Gambling is inside you, just keep waiting to talk to you.”
Merson relapsed during the lockdown and lost bail on a house he and Kate were planning to move into with their three children.
“I would sit on the sofa and look over at the kids,” he says. “The hatred I felt for myself as I thought about how I was going to let her down.
“The scary thing is that you know there is only one outcome, but you can’t stop.”
Merson spent 12 years with his first club, Arsenal, but also played for Middlesbrough, Aston Villa, Portsmouth and Walsall
“I’ve never had this switch before”
During the film, Merson meets his friend Wes Reid, who played by his side in his early days at Arsenal.
Reid shows him pictures from club dwellings of the young men playing cards and recalls that once Merson started betting, he couldn’t stop.
In tears, Merson realizes how long he has been stuck in the addiction.
“I’ve never had this switch in my entire life,” he says.
“There is no greater excitement in the whole world than scoring a goal. But when I got off the pitch, the difference between me and other people was that I needed that excitement to keep going.”
Are footballers more at risk?
WARNING: Contains some offensive language: Keith Gillespie, John Hartson and Scott Davies discuss their struggle with gambling
A to learn conducted for the Professional Players’ Federation in 2014 found that 6.1% of athletes are classified as problem players, compared to 1.9% in the total young male population.
The film explores why footballers may be more at risk than other parts of society.
Merson believes that a footballer’s lifestyle makes them more prone to gambling problems.
“I think you have bundles of money and bundles of time,” he says.
In captivating scenes, Merson plays golf with three other former soccer players recovering from gambling addiction – Keith Gillespie (Newcastle and Northern Ireland), John Hartson (Arsenal and Wales) and Scott Davies (Reading).
Together, the men have lost more than £ 15 million to gambling.
Gillespie says: “In my first six months in Newcastle, I lived alone when I was 19.
“You finish training every day at 12 noon. The rest of the players have families to go home to. I just went back to a hotel room. For me it was just the bookmakers every day.”
Merson says he feared evening games because he knew he would play in his hotel room all day.
“I was half asleep by the kick-off at 7.45,” he says.
“Gambling literally rewired my brain”
Merson says he struggled to find pleasure in other things
During the film, Merson visits different doctors to find out why his brain works this way.
Dr. David Erritzoe, consulting psychiatrist at Imperial College London, is working with a research team to map the brain and determine the neurobiological basis of gambling addiction.
They run an experiment that shows evidence that Merson’s brain is much more active in responding to images of gambling than it does to images of things like nature, food, and family.
Merson told us that he found the results “frightening”.
In the film, he says, “This disease literally rewired my brain.”
“Betting companies hunt the sick”
Merson told us that the experiment with Dr. Erritzoe got him to think about how his brain reacts to gambling advertisements.
“I think the ads are triggers,” he says. “Now that I know more about how it can affect me, I’ll turn off the ads when they come up.”
The government is currently reviewing the 2005 Gambling Act, which has eased the regulation of gambling advertising.
In response to the film, the Betting and Gaming Council (BGC) said, “Since it was established less than two years ago as a standards body representing the regulated industry, the BGC has put in place a number of measures to promote safer gaming.
“These include reducing the number of VIP programs by 70%, banning the whistle of TV betting during live sports, while our members now ensure that at least 20% of their TV and radio advertisements are safer gambling messages.”
William Hill also replied, saying, “We take the safety of our customers very seriously and all of our ads contain messages and instructions for safe gambling. We have also used over 20% of our television and radio advertising to promote major safer gambling initiatives support financially.” like deposit limits and timeouts. “
However, Merson says that safe gambling messages don’t always work and it should be a responsibility of companies to set boundaries.
As part of its response, the BGC said, “The government says the problem gambling rate is 0.5%, while recent polls by the Gambling Commission suggest that the problem gambling rate is falling”.
Research suggests that the small number of problem gamblers may be at increased risk. Last year the The House of Lords found that 60% of gambling companies’ profits came from the 5% of their users who are already problem gamblers or are in danger of becoming one.
During the film, Merson meets Matt Zarb-cousin, a recovered gambling addict who founded Clean Up Gambling, an organization campaigning for gambling law reform.
He shows Merson evidence of how a gambling company collects data once users log in.
Merson believes that gambling companies have the tools to identify problem gamblers and that they should use them responsibly.
“The companies know who the problem gamblers are,” he says. “That’s what bugs me the most. I can give you accounts where I’ve made 90 bets a day. Please don’t tell me that isn’t a trigger.”
Merson says in the film that he does not advocate a ban on gambling because “there are people who can bet normally”, but he believes that “betting companies exploit the sick”.
The Gambling Commission said, “All gambling products must be marketed in a socially responsible manner and free bets should not be given to anyone who shows signs of harm.
“Failure to market gambling responsibly can lead to tough action on our part.”
“One person could watch this movie and then live a much better life”
The making process of the film was helpful to Merson, he says.
“It was important for me to see myself as a sick person trying to get well, not a terrible person trying to get well,” he says.
But he doesn’t expect general sympathy.
“Of course, some people will watch the show and think, ‘Forget him, he lost £ 7m, good job.’
“If a person looks at this and says, ‘I need help’, it would be a great success story for me. I wouldn’t wish that on anyone.”
- More information and advice on gambling can be found on these BBC help pages here and Here.