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The Delirious Paradox of Fighting Corruption in Sport

Last week, the Sports Rights Owners Coalition—an umbrella organization for top-level institutions in several sports, including football—met with EU representatives in Brussels to discuss a report currently being prepared in the European Parliament on the explosion of online gambling. What was emphasized in the meeting is a matter of dispute: the sports organizations are saying one thing, and the gambling organizations are saying something else, and the conflict provides an insight into the bizarre conglomeration of interests that governs professional sport in the 21st century.

According to the sports organizations represented by the SROC (which includes both FIFA and UEFA), the meeting focused on protecting the integrity of competition against the impetus to corruption represented by online gambling, which provides both a powerful incentive for match-fixing and a jurisdiction-blurring virtuality that makes basic evidence-gathering, much less prosecution, enormously difficult in cases where corruption appears to have occurred.

In other words, the sports heads say, the increasingly vast sums of money controlled by internet bookmakers have created a correspondingly increasing danger that players, coaches, referees, or other football officials will agree to throw matches as a result of bribery or intimidation. At the same time, when the only evidence of a crooked match in East Anglia is a suspicious fluctuation on an Asia-based gambling website that serves clients throughout the world, the anonymity of the internet as well as the sheer multiplicity of legal frameworks makes it almost impossible to prove, trace, or punish the crime. This is exactly the problem encountered, for instance, by the FA in their probe into suspected match-fixing in the Norwich-Derby match last month, which they’ve recently called off as a result of the difficulty of procuring information from Asian bookmakers.

The sports organizations’ emphasis on the integrity of competition has led to many reports suggesting that the SROC (which, in addition to football, includes other sports ranging from snooker to horse-racing) is hostile to online gambling and seeking to restrain it. The Telegraph, for instance, ran a report today, sourced to an unnamed “adviser to the British National Governing Bodies of Sport,” asserting that the meeting in Brussels was the first step to creating a global anti-corruption agency “which will be able to use state powers of investigation, force strict licensing on bookmakers and, ultimately, have the power to exclude nations that did not comply from major tournaments such as the World Cup.”

The online gambling industry has a very different interpretation of the SROC’s interest in its business. According to the bookmakers, the heads of global sport are less interested in protecting the ideal of competition than they are in helping themselves to a share of the bookmakers’ profits. This is because, in addition to asking for help fighting the corruption of sports betting, the sports organizations are simultaneously demanding a “fair financial return” from it. In plain language, they want a share of the gambling proceeds in return for the fact that sports betting depends on their “products” for its existence. In rather less plain language, here’s what UEFA has to say:

[A]s sports competition organisers own the rights to their events, legislative initiatives should confirm that commercial exploitation through sports betting can only be undertaken with their consent and with a fair financial return to the sports movement for reinvestment in sports development initiatives. According to the solidarity principle between professional and amateur sport, the whole sports movement would benefit from this additional funding.

So the sports heads want a piece of the gambling money, but only so they can reinvest it in “sports development initiatives,” which, they twistily almost-say, could potentially include some sort of return for amateur athletics. Fine…but someone help me with the logic of this position. Because it looks to me like the SROC is saying:

(1) Limited access to gambling money at a low level makes sports corrupt.
(2) Therefore, we need much greater access to gambling money at a much higher level.

And I’m not sure I follow that. If preserving the integrity of competition is your primary goal, isn’t there as great a conflict of interest in sports organizations taking a legitimate share of gambling profits as there is in players potentially take an illegitimate share of gambling profits? Obviously the Premier League wouldn’t have the same motivation to fix matches as a goalkeeper in the Championship. But wouldn’t they have a motivation to fix their league to benefit the online gambling industry? I don’t want to spell out a lot of concrete disaster scenarios, but do we really want what’s good for online bookmakers to be what’s good for the organizations that regulate professional sports? Isn’t there a basic contradiction in the sports heads’ implying that they want to rein in online gambling and profit from its expansion at the same time?

In any case, the SROC is asking that a new set of gambling regulations currently being devised in France reflect their ideas and be taken as a best-practices model for other countries. We’ll see whether that happens and what the EU report finally recommends. In the meantime, it’s a telling state of affairs for contemporary sport that its governing bodies are treating corruption-fighting as a revenue stream, that the media is passing along their claims at face value, and that the only people calling them on it are the agents of corruption themselves.

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The Delirious Paradox of Fighting Corruption in Sport

by Brian Phillips · December 7, 2008

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