Money and the punt: How the AFL Players Association educates players about problem gambling

It's no secret that cashed-up young AFL footballers don't mind a punt - after all, combining disposable income with wide-ranging access to betting applications and sporting events on which to bet is a perfect storm for players to get an easy thrill.

But the allure of quick and easy cash can easily turn into the slippery slope of losing money - something which, in the moment, might not seem like an issue for the young and wealthy, but can have devastating effects down the track.

You only have to watch any football-related television show or radio segment to understand how invasive and, these days, normal it is for betting to be integrated into the psyche of just about every footy fan, whether they're legally allowed to bet or not.

So it's no surprise players, too, aren't immune from the pitfalls involved with gambling; recent high-profile cases involving AFL players include Brendan Fevola's well-documented struggles with addiction. David Schwarz has been upfront about how gambling has affected his life, and more recently, North Melbourne's Jaidyn Stephenson admitted to betting on AFL matches he was playing in while at Collingwood.

But it's not overly widespread. So how do AFL players, whose jobs are constantly associated with betting and gambling -- for better or worse -- avoid the traps of the industry themselves.

Ben Smith, General Manager of Player Development at the AFL Players Association (AFLPA), has told ESPN the AFLPA works closely with new draftees to ensure they're aware firstly of the rules about betting on AFL, and then the risks associated with gambling more broadly.

"We basically have a comprehensive program in place for players when they start their career, and this is shared across the AFL, the AFLPA and the clubs themselves," Smith explained.

"The PA works with clubs to deliver a six module program for players when they start their careers. And that deals with areas that we've identified that are really important for them as they start their journey.

"That program within it has a module about gambling specifically. There are two levels to it, there's obviously the gambling compliance education, where they need to be fully aware of their professional obligations as a player in terms of being aware that they can't bet on football, but also around behavioural education.

"We work with the Victorian Responsible Gambling Foundation (VRGF) to deliver a program to players as they commence their journey about the pitfalls of gambling. Obviously it's not illegal, but it's important they're aware of how ambling industries operate and where they're at risk or vulnerable."

And players are aware of what is and isn't legal. Writing for ESPN earlier this month, Western Bulldogs midfielder Josh Dunkley said the education surrounding betting was clear-cut and thorough.

"Each year, the AFL ensures we complete a gambling and sporting integrity questionnaire, and in order to pass, every question must be answered correctly. No exceptions," Dunkley wrote.

"One of these questions might be something along the lines of, can you ask a friend to place a bet on your behalf? Obviously that's a no. Another could be, can I take part in a footy tipping competition that has no financial prize. Now that one would be fine."

Smith said given some of the high salaries young men and women can find themselves with so early in their working life, it was important to not only drill down onto issues like problem gambling, illicit substances or alcohol, but the root of them, too, being money.

"We're aware that young men and women, with potentially a high income, we need to constantly innovate the education and awareness of the support and risks they're exposed to as well," he said.

"One of the modules is specifically around their finances. We use that to educate them around the [money] game, how their pay cycles work, and also to take them through more tactile things like managing their money from a budgetary perspective.

"Then there are sequential modules available if they're interested, and they include looking at things like growing their money, investments, property and other opportunities which exist.

"But we certainly spend a lot of time with the young guys making sure we have a sense of their capability and financial acumen, and that we provide them with education specifically about how to manage money - things like retirement and superannuation."

The onus isn't just on the AFLPA however. Clubs, too, are "an important part" of the process, with Smith saying that the "environment" may also have an impact on moulding gambling habits.

"Environments vary too, from club to club. Doesn't mean you can't punt, but things like syndications can lead to other things," Smith told ESPN.

"We then also work with the VRGF to work with the clubs about the environment they set. It's one thing to educate, but you need the environment to be aware of how they deal with gambling sponsors and also the culture within the club. Having an action plan in place is a key and we help run that as well."

Dunkley said while he enjoys an occasional punt on the races with mates, it can be a "very dangerous path" if players aren't careful.

"I truly believe most players would gamble reasonably often and can control themselves, but obviously it does become a problem for others. I've heard heartbreaking stories of players losing everything -- from their homes to families -- and having to basically start over," he wrote for ESPN.

Smith said the AFLPA keeps a close eye on gambling trends within the league, and annually review the education programs to see how they can be improved and tweaked to suit player habits.

"We measure the players every year around their gambling behaviours - we don't publish those results, but we do that from a perspective of understanding," he explained.

"It's somewhat a requirement of players to be honest and open in relation to how they answer that, but the fact it's done independently of the clubs helps. We're part of the community and we've got challenges no doubt around specifically gambling behaviour, but also alcohol and illicit substances as well."

So has the AFLPA noticed a rise in problem gambling to coincide with the noticeable uptick in gambling advertisements and sponsorships?

"We haven't seen a substantial growth in the behaviour, but it can vary [from club to club]," Smith said.

And that's something which is no mean feat given the pay packets of some of the league's bright young stars.