'Our 17-year-old son paid with his life' gambling industry's influence on football under scrutiny 


The gambling narrative is so often focused on the amounts of money lost, when it is the grip of the addiction, and the accompanying sense of helplessness, which is the terrifying part.

‘It wasn’t about money,’ says Liz Ritchie of her son Jack, over a Zoom call from the family home in Sheffield. ‘He did not lose that much money. He was free of gambling for long periods of time. He was absolutely saveable.’

She and her husband Charles are describing in brave and unsparing detail how their son — a gregarious, confident, life-affirming 17-year-old student — was drawn into gambling by the slot machines in a bookmakers so close to his school that the sixth formers would spend their dinner money there.

Liz and Charles Ritchie have spoken out against betting companies after the death of their son

Liz and Charles Ritchie have spoken out against betting companies after the death of their son

He lost his initial winnings, a £5,000 inheritance from his grandmother and student loan money, though there were long periods when he seemed to be free of it all. And then there would be another of the emails that gambling firms never tired of sending him. Or perhaps the subliminal messaging which were always part and parcel of his favourite pastimes, including football. He liked to watch Sheffield United.

Jack had not gambled for three months before leaving the UK for work as an English language teacher in Hanoi, Vietnam, though it was while there, one Sunday in November 2017, that he Skyped his parents and told them he was feeling down because he had gambled again, on British websites.

They bought blocking software for his computer and they thought he had installed it during the call. It was at lunchtime three days later, that the couple opened an email with his suicide note attached. He was 24.

Their description of how they tried to him help says so much most about how benignly the industry which bankrolls football is viewed.

Jack Ritchie tragically took his life at age of 24 after developing a crippling gambling addiction

Jack Ritchie tragically took his life at age of 24 after developing a crippling gambling addiction

After the bookmakers’ incident, the Ritchies took Jack into school, where his headteacher saw it ‘more a disciplinary issue that his sixth formers were doing this in their dinner hour,’ says Mrs Ritchie. ‘If you’d said to him, ‘You’ve a group of sixth formers who are shooting up heroin in their dinner hour’, he would have treated it very differently. It was a heroin level of addiction but that’s not how it was viewed. None of us knew.’

They sought medical help for Jack. He was diagnosed and treated for anxiety and depression, though gambling was never identified as the core of the problem. Since his death, two NHS clinics — one in Leeds, another in London — have been opened to treat those with gambling disorder. Yet a mere two per cent of those living with this illness get any kind of treatment, compared with 20 per cent for drugs and alcohol. Through their charity Gambling with Lives, the Ritchies have sought to highlight the link between gambling and severe mental illness.

They are bemused by the EFL’s recent suggestion that their clubs cannot afford the loss of money that eradicating gambling firms would bring. The EFL’s view certainly seems to change with the wind. In 2010, they claimed when announcing Npower’s sponsorship that they had rejected a more lucrative deal with a gambling firm because it did not believe it was ‘a suitable association.’ SkyBet are now emblazoned across the EFL.

‘With no crowds now, if you go to West Ham, not only do you have every shirt and hoarding with Betway on but they have the name now covering where the crowds were,’ says Mr Ritchie. ‘It’s a 90 per cent advertisement for gambling.’

Clubs such as West Ham and Fulham have betting companies emblazoned on their shirts

Clubs such as West Ham and Fulham have betting companies emblazoned on their shirts 

The sophisticated 32Red deal which has brought Wayne Rooney to Derby typifies the firms’ relentless drive to reel in punters. ‘You just think, they don’t know the harm they’re engaging in,’ says Mr Ritchie’ 

Some clubs do see the harm. Forest Green Rovers this week undertook to carry Gambling with Lives hoardings around their New Lawn ground for the rest of the season, at no cost. Non-league Headingley FC, who lost a young player to gambling, Lewes FC, Billericay, Tranmere Rovers and Swansea City have also provided free profile. They see the need.

The couple’s mission to see gambling viewed precisely as tobacco, drugs and alcohol are — a risk to life — has already seen them win a legal battle to for an ‘Article 2′ inquest into his death, which will take place next year. This means it will examine whether the state failed to protect Jack from risk and preserve his right to life. The Ritchies’ hope is that the inquest will identify gambling and its causes in its conclusions. The issues will be submitted to a more unsparing public examination than ever before.

‘It was the effect of gambling on Jack’s mental health that caused his death,’ says his mother. ‘He thought he was free of it but it kept coming back. You never think you will be free.’

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