The Australian sports gambling obsession has grown out of control

Dunkley: Fans often provoke AFL players on nights out (2:52)

Western Bulldogs star Josh Dunkley says players need to be able to enjoy a night out without being harassed, revealing some of the treatment he's witnessed. (2:52)

I STILL remember when I first discovered gambling. I was 14 and had just watched Dunaden narrowly edge out Red Cadeaux to win the 2011 Melbourne Cup. But instead of focusing on the race, I remember my eyes being drawn to the odds and prices of each horse. What exactly did it all mean? It wasn't long before I was asking questions and finding out.

I'll be honest; I gamble from time to time. If I'm at the races, I don't mind having a flutter. If I'm hanging out with a group of mates, I could definitely get involved in a group bet for a bit of fun. But every time I do, I hear my dad, Andrew, in my ear joking that I've got a problem. He knows I don't, but it just makes me stop for a second and think about what exactly I'm doing.

Unsurprisingly, as a player, you cannot gamble on anything to do with the AFL and its associated leagues. You're also forbidden to share any information which may influence gambling decisions, such as which player might be starting at full forward or any unannounced selection news. This is drilled into you from Under 18s all the way through to the AFL.

Players are constantly educated on what is and is not acceptable in regards to gambling. At the Bulldogs, we're fortunate to have Victorian Responsible Gambling Foundation as a club partner to help keep us informed.

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.

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.

So with that said, when it came out in 2019 that Jaidyn Stephenson had gambled on a Collingwood game, it was a real shock. That's all any of us at the club could talk about for weeks. I felt sorry for Jaidyn, as I'm sure it was a genuine mistake and obviously it hasn't happened again since, but when it comes to gambling on the AFL, every player should know it's completely off the table.

Outside of footy, we're free to gamble on whatever we want. The horse races, other sports and even the casino is free game. Given that sports gambling is mainly targeted at males aged 18-30, with an interest in sport and a healthy disposable income, it's fair to say footy players fit the bill pretty well.

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. If you're not careful, it can be a very dangerous path.

I'M CONVINCED that last year's Victorian lockdown sparked a state-wide rise in sports gambling. With everyone trapped at home, unable to do the things they would normally do, thousands of new betting accounts must have been created.

Take myself, for example. As mentioned, I rarely gamble, but when footy was shut down last year and we couldn't leave home, I found myself trying to stave off boredom by watching the races and having a few bets.

So with everyone seemingly gambling far more than usual, let's just say there was a lot more interest in each player's disposal and goal tally once the season resumed. Every now and then someone will reach out to you on social media when their multi goes awry, but last year it was on steroids. After literally every game, you'd have at least one message from a disgruntled fan who believed you cost them a financial windfall.

I'll never forget jumping back onto the team bus after our Round 13 win over Melbourne. The boys were really upbeat and we were having a chat about a few of the key moments in the game. After a while I grabbed my phone, opened Instagram, and lo and behold someone had sent me a picture of their losing multi bet, which would have paid out around AU$2,500 had I finished the game with 20+ disposals. Unfortunately for him, I had 19.

Along with the screenshot was a message that read: "this is what you cost me tonight. That's bulls---. You need to transfer the money to me right now." He even sent me his bank details! I honestly find it quite amazing what people say and what they think they're entitled to.

I told a few of the guys on the bus and quickly discovered I wasn't the only one receiving these types of messages. Half the team confirmed they too had copped similar sprays from punters. We ended up spending the entire bus ride back to the hotel discussing just how much of an issue it had become.

For what it's worth, it's not always negative. I've actually had a couple of people reach out and thank me for winning them money. I remember my 50th game against Richmond, where I played predominantly in the midfield and finished with 35 disposals. The next day, someone messaged me with a screenshot of their winning bet and a note that said: "thank you, you're a superstar!"

Sure, something like that makes you feel alright, because you're helping that person out without even knowing it. But is it fair that we're made to feel guilty and responsible when it doesn't work out? Absolutely not. At the end of the day, us players don't care about your multis, so don't blame us when they don't land.

SINCE INJURING my shoulder in Round 6 against the Giants, I've sat out the past couple of matches and have spent a lot more time watching games on television. Because I had just had surgery and was in some serious pain, I watched our Round 7 game against the Tigers from my couch. Honestly, I was left staggered by the sheer volume of gambling advertisements both in the buildup and during the game.

Every ad break had at least one gambling spot. Sometimes two. It's a constant flow of odds, prices, best bets and tips, and it's basically gotten to the point where the odds seem to be almost as important to the viewer as which teams are actually playing.

It's funny, because when you're playing, you really don't have time to notice any of it. For starters, we have limited access to our phones on game day. We also learn early on in our careers to tune out all of the external noise, gambling and odds included. We're obviously not watching on television, either, so we really aren't seeing what everyone else does.

So as I was sitting there and listening to ex-player Nathan Brown provide me with the latest prices for what felt like the third time in the night, it got me thinking, do we really want young kids, who are watching their idols play, being exposed this much to sports gambling from such a young age?

We don't play R-rated films in the middle of the day, or have cigarette advertising on our screens, as they're not suitable for those under the age of 18, so should there be some balance when it comes to gambling?

It really is a tricky one because betting agencies play a significant role in modern day sport, and it's no exception in the AFL. It's these agencies which contribute to broadcast deals, help pay player salaries and keep the league growing. To say cut sports gambling altogether would be a naïve take, but perhaps more legislation needs to be introduced around how and when these agencies are allowed to advertise.

IT'S NO secret that Australians love to gamble, and will do so on just about anything. As a nation, we gamble more than anyone else. Fact! It's become part of everyday life for a lot of people and that's fine, so long as it doesn't become an addiction or problem.

When it comes to the AFL, or most other sports for that matter, nowadays people aren't necessarily looking for a great contest, but rather making sure their multi gets up so they can have a financial win.

So on one hand, the rise of sports gambling means more people now have a reason to watch the game, but are they watching for the right reasons?

I guess the main point to takeaway here is that sports gambling helps the league function as we know and love, but perhaps more needs to be done to protect the younger generation from over-exposure to it.