Shouting the odds
There is nothing more irritating in a debate than when a particular point is constantly made on the basis that, to its users, it is so self-evident that no further discussion is required.
A current example is the issue of sports betting, where the perceived clincher in many letters and comments is a reference to children talking about odds. As one worried writer to the Age concluded her letter, 'When ten-year-olds are talking about football games in terms of belting odds, the AFL should acknowledge that there is a deeper problem.'
And the problem is?
It does not appear that the ten-year-old in question is sneaking off to place an actual bet. All the kid is doing is what anybody talking about which team will win a forthcoming game is doing, in the same way kids and adults alike have done since Tom Wills played in Yarra Park. 'Who do you think will win?' 'I disagree.' All the use of odds does is to quantify the probability, in a way not dissimilar to aggregating the predictions of newspaper tipsters.
Besides, I can top the concerned ten-year-old's parent, as I have a seven-year-old, who similarly discusses the odds. He loves using the published odds as a guide as to which team is likely to win and even explains when he thinks the odds are wrong. As yet, he does not associate it directly with 'putting money' on it, but even when he does, I fail to see how this is some terrible modern evil.
I remember, when I was 10, I lost a five cent wager when Hawthorn lost to Richmond. And five cents meant something in 1973! In fact, all through my schooldays, kids bet on the outcome of football matches. Being unsophisticated souls, most of this was done on a straight basis, which meant that those following weaker teams were being dudded by taking even money when they should have had odds against or 'goals in'.
I was introduced to the notion of 'goals in' by my Year 8 teacher, who not only insisted that he and I have a bet on the outcome of the following weekend's game between our respective teams, but also demanded a couple of 'goals in' to take account of the fact that his team was lower on the ladder. I assume, in these less tolerant times, he would face serious disciplinary action for corrupting the students in his charge.
Certainly, today's teachers seem much more alert to the potential evils of gambling. A teacher recently approached some friends of mine about a most concerning discovery she had made about their young son. She had found a form-guide in his bag. I gather she was even more shocked to discover that this activity actually had parental approval.
After all, discussing odds with your child seems a worthwhile learning activity. Just as kids in the southern states of Australia have traditionally been particularly good at their six times table, now their numerical ability is being enhanced by constantly playing around with the numbers in the odds. Kids who know how odds work must have a head start when mathematics classes turn to the topic of probability. And odds demonstrate how maths has an important application to something that is interesting and fun.
Gambling's supposed effect on children has always featured heavily in all the rhetoric of Australia's highest-profile anti-gambling crusader, Senator Nick Xenophon. Earlier this year, when opposing the idea of a casino's name appearing on an NRL team's guernsey, he claimed it 'normalises gambling behaviour for young kids'.
This may come as a shock to the Senator, but gambling is already normal. Dozens of totalitarian regimes have tried to ban it, and dozens of democratic ones have imposedonerous regulation on it, but people like to gamble and to discuss the odds of whether one outcome, or another, will occur. Personally, I'm more worried about footballers normalising tattoos; but unlike Senator Xenophon, I don't want to ban everything in society which offends my sensibilities.
Given its very normality, children should be exposed to gambling as they are growing up. In recent decades, parents have been bombarded with the notion from experts that the earlier children are given sex education, the better the world will be. I am inclined to agree, but am thus somewhat bemused to find that many of the same people who want kids to know about sex at an early age object to them knowing about betting.
Sports betting may not always have been legal in Australia, but it has always been part of our culture. Fifty years ago, the Sporting Globe published weekly odds on various aspects of football, and the earlier history of both football and cricket in Australia contains numerous examples of betting. Coinciding with the legalisation of sports betting has been the huge decline in the presence of horse racing in the mainstream media, outside carnival time. A generation ago, the majority of the sports report on the ABC TV news on a Saturday was replays of the closing stages of all races except those where 'vision has been withheld by the stewards', complete with lots of talk of betting prices. Perhaps the increased visibility of sports betting has helped fill the void created by the downgrading of the races and trots. Whether Manikato was 6/4 or Collingwood is $2.50, the principle is the same.
And speaking of Collingwood, the recent transgressions of Collingwood players Heath Shaw and ick Maxwell demonstrate that sporting authorities need to keep educating players on why participants cannot bet. The fact that the players and their families were so blasè in their non-comprehension of this fact beggars belief. Now, one can debate the specifics about whether the AFL handed out the appropriate penalties, but clearly it is an issue that all sporting bodies know they have to address.
There are clear problems if administrators fail to properly regulate gambling on their sport. However, whether it is betting on cricket or the impact of drugs on the credibility of cycling, the sports themselves will be the big losers if the public feel that outcomes are being manipulated. The fact that the AFL pursued such small losing bets shows that they are being vigilant.
Of course, there will always be problems and controversies in the future, but these hardly seem to outweigh the enormous interest and enjoyment that the application of odds to sport can provide. I look forward to sharing that enjoyment with my son as he grows up and just hope Senator Xenophon, and others of his ilk, do not deny us that pleasure.