We must cut sport’s drink links

It’s disappointing that the GAA has not taken a stand against alcohol sponsorship, says Colm O’Rourke

From the Sunday Independent

31 March 2013

The appearance of the Big Three – the IRFU, the FAI and the GAA – before an Oireachtas committee last week to argue against any ban on alcohol sponsorship of sporting events sends out a rather contradictory message to the public. These three sporting bodies are a very powerful lobby group in themselves but there is a perverse logic in arguing for the retention of alcohol sponsorship in a health-related activity while this addictive drug does so much damage in the wider society.

Of course the sports bodies say that this abuse is not their problem, and is one they actively work on, yet it is difficult to see how taking money from alcohol companies and then running drink awareness campaigns within their own organisations is anything but contradictory. Try telling the message of responsible drinking to doctors and nurses who have to clean up the mess at Accident and Emergency units at weekends and you might get a different answer.

A societal issue needs a multi-faceted approach and the present model we have in responding to a drink-related health crisis is not seen to be working. So all options must be explored. And one of them can hardly be to promote alcohol and sport together and then try to run campaigns to cope with the fallout.

Naturally, the drinks companies argue that there is no evidence associating alcohol sponsorship of sports events with abuse. They would say that, wouldn’t they? This was an argument that the sports bodies ran with last week at the Oireachtas committee hearing. This notion cannot really be disputed one way or the other; however it is only common sense that linking drink to sports events increases sales because it is just another form of advertising. If Heineken were not benefiting in their bottom line from sponsorship of the European Rugby Cup, then they would quickly drop it. It is a hard-nosed commercial decision.

In a way the debate about alcohol sponsorship of sport is a mirror image of what has been happening with tobacco sponsorship over the last 40 years. Nobody at this remove would tolerate sports sponsorship by tobacco companies. The link between drink and early death is perhaps not as close as with tobacco, but it is still there. In time people will see that associating drink and sport is similarly unacceptable.

You may feel that I am writing this from a Pioneer’s point of view. That is not the case. And being in the company of social drinkers can be a source of enlightened discussion and merriment. That is not the argument. Nor is it about how sports people in general have a very healthy attitude to drink. That is a given. Nor is it about how GAA clubs run their bars. They are in general models of good practice in things like ensuring that underage drinking does not take place. These are all red herrings which are thrown into the mix when any discussion on drink takes place.

What we have in this country is a serious issue with alcohol abuse. There is a youth binge-drinking culture driven often by low self-esteem, lack of sporting involvement and many more factors like family circumstances. In other words, quite a long way removed from sport of any type. In fact, the young people I know who abuse alcohol have, in general, very little interest in any sport or anything else for that matter. As an issue for society in general, then, it must be tackled from a number of angles together. One is education, the most important of all is access for underage drinkers but another angle has to break the link between any type of sporting success and alcohol. This is a long war but pandering to the very powerful drinks lobby is not a solution no matter how much they spend on responsible drinking campaigns.

At the bottom line in all of this is the fear in sporting circles of the money that could be lost if drinks companies are thrown overboard. Imagine, for example, Budweiser not being involved in almost all American sports. This is the short view and the price that must be paid for doing the right thing. When tobacco sponsorship was being lost similar arguments prevailed. Sports organisations all round the world thought the sky was going to fall in. It has hardly worked out like that and even if drinks companies took up at least some of that slack, it is now time to move on and find another revenue source.

Most campaigns which put the well-being of society over the individual can have a difficult start. The idea of having a smoking ban in the workplace was hardly greeted with universal acclaim but would anyone like to go back? Reducing the alcohol level for drink-driving has had many unwanted social consequences, particularly in rural areas, but the reduction in fatalities on roads means the arguments against the policy are immediately redundant. Eventually the same will happen with drinks companies sponsoring the most prestigious sports competitions and by promising more and more money they are trying very hard to keep the sports bodies on side in the face of arguments to ban their involvement.

To have gain there must be a bit of pain. Nobody is arguing that the link between sport and alcohol sponsorship should be broken tomorrow but there should be a timeline worked out where there is a final parting of the ways. It should be no more than a few years or until present contracts have run their course.

What we are relying on now is politicians having the strength of character to stand up to a very powerful lobby and do the right thing by society as a whole. This is not prohibition, but a small step by legislators to rebalance the universal good against self-interest. It won’t wipe out the scourge that abuse of alcohol is causing in many homes and while we have always had historical issues with drink it does not mean the future has to be the same.

For those reasons I was disappointed that the GAA did not plough a lone, and maybe a lonely, furrow by breaking ranks with the other sporting bodies last week and telling the Oireachtas committee that they were happy to see drinks sponsorship of sporting events banned. The fallout would have seen accusations of self-righteousness and opportunism but being in a minority of one is not always the worst position to be in, especially if it is the right thing to do, as opposed to the easy thing to do.