Rugby league’s commitment to player welfare, tackling addiction and talking about mental health was the big attraction for Tony Adams when he agreed to take over as president of the sport’s governing body.
And as he prepares for the new role, Adams issued a warning that gambling has become the new “silent addiction” and has replaced alcohol as an “epidemic” in sport.
The former Arsenal and England captain, who now devotes himself to the Sporting Chance charity he established 19 years ago, will succeed Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham at the Rugby Football League’s annual meeting in Doncaster next Wednesday.
His appointment came as something of a surprise but the 52-year-old one-time alcoholic says it is the logical next step in his crusade to improve the mental well-being of athletes.
“We’re perfect bedfellows really, Sporting Chance and the RFL,” said Adams in an exclusive interview with PA.
“I was invited into Warrington Wolves in 2011 by (former coach) Tony Smith and I gave them a lifestyle seminar.
“They quite liked it and they totally came on board. They’re very active in the player welfare department.
“For a few of the guys, the wheels had really come off in rugby through different drugs of choice, a lot of Tramadol, a lot of painkillers, prescribed drugs, more than the football world were used to at that stage.
“We’ve helped near on 400 rugby league players since then. They have taken our education and our one-to-one therapy and they use our clinic and our helpline.
“It’s pretty fantastic. I’m very practically involved and very proud to be president of the RFL.”
England full-back Zak Hardaker can testify to Adams’ hands-on style after revealing he was moved by a personal account of the former Three Lions centre back’s troubled past during his stay at Sporting Chance’s residential clinic last autumn.
Although Adams says he will not be involved in the day-to-day running of rugby league, he intends to be visible, as he demonstrated by appearing on the pitch at Warrington’s Super League home game last Friday.
“I’m not going to run around the country and do one-on-one therapy,” he said.
“We’ve got over 200 psychotherapists across the country that the rugby league players can go to. I’m going to lead it and I’m going to be the face of it. I’m not going to get involved on the technical side, that’s one thing I’ve made absolutely clear.
“Maybe I’ll raise the profile and talk about my own personal story of addiction and my mental and emotional hang-ups down the years and the way that I’ve changed. I’m going to share my experiences.”
Adams says he has been to “several” rugby league matches and, after spending 22 years as a footballer, can relate to the problems he has witnessed in the 13-player rugby code.
“They happen to be different sports but there are loads and loads of similarities,” he added.
“I admire their athleticism,” he said. “They tell me – and I can see – the ball is in play more than any other sport. It’s a very high impact, aggressive, entertaining emotional kind of sport.
“I quite like that about it. I suppose in football in the Eighties we were a bit more physical, now football has turned into a very technical game.
“We’ve got common threads – the changing room and team environment, with 40,000 people cheering us – you don’t get that if you’re an accountant.
“But what you do have is 10 people on the side ready to take your place if you mess up so you’ve got that added stress.
“And more often than not, these are uneducated guys, emotionally and mentally, and they’ve been thrust into the football and rugby world and they haven’t got the tools to deal with that.”
Adams, who spent 57 days in prison in 1990 after being convicted of drink driving, says alcoholism is no longer the major scourge.
He said: “It’s now 70 per cent gambling. It’s a bit of an epidemic in football. We’ve swapped poisons, we call gambling the silent addiction.”
Rugby league, of course, has become closely aligned with betting companies, with Betfred sponsoring the domestic leagues and Coral backing the Challenge Cup, something Adams is clearly uncomfortable with.
“I’m a little bit wary about swapping my poison,” he said.
“It’s got to be a responsible industry and it will take time to maybe detach itself from sport. I’m not anti-betting, I just choose not to do it because I know the way that it affects me. I know we’re only talking 10 per cent of the population so 90 per cent can take it or leave it.
“My nan has a bet on the Grand National and loves it once a year but for the addict it’s dangerous.
“You’ve got to be careful you don’t normalise it for the addict.”
Adams set up Sporting Chance in 1990 with the proceeds from his autobiography ‘Addicted’ and says he may now take it to Australia, thanks to the RFL’s links with the NRL.
“I think I might try and grow it globally,” he said. “There’s a lot of cross-overs with rugby league in the NRL in Australia for instance.
“There’s a natural progression to go and help the guys down there.”