Getting the fix out of sports

Sports in India, Europe, and the US all suffer from match-fixing. The corrupting influence is sports betting, a vice that shouldn't be further encouraged.

Amit Dave/Reuters/File
Demonstrators shout slogans as they hold a placard and posters of former India cricket player Shanthakumaran Sreesanth during a protest in Ahmedabad, India, May 16. Sreesanth and two other players were arrested by Delhi police on suspicion of match fixing in the Indian Premier League, sports officials say.

The nearly religious fervor that cricket in India produces among its fans puts to shame America’s fascination with football or baseball. So a developing major scandal there that involves the fixing of matches is serious business – so serious that one retired cricket official has called for all the top professional matches held in 2013 thus far to be reviewed for tampering.

Europe is suffering its own problems with match-fixing. Last month EU Athletes, a federation of professional player associations representing 25,000 athlete members, held a seminar for professional athletes in 10 different sports, including soccer, rugby, basketball, and handball. It urged athletes to stay clear of match-fixing and warned of penalties if they don’t.

The temptation to intentionally underperform in order to swing the outcome of a match seems to be universal and perpetual.

A number of Chicago White Sox, who so infamously cheated to lose the 1919 World Series on purpose, is hardly the last group of American athletes to break the rules. Just a few years ago a National Basketball Association referee was accused of tilting his calls to manipulate the scores of games in order to profit from betting on them. He eventually served time in federal prison.

And just last week a former Auburn University basketball player was arraigned in federal court charged with trying to fix the outcome of a game against a certain betting point spread (sometimes called “point shaving”) in a game against the University of Arkansas in January 2012. Prosecutors claim he also attempted to recruit other Auburn players and offered to pay them to help him.

Much has been said and written about “cheating to win,” especially the use of performance-enhancing drugs in an effort to gain an unfair advantage. Now “cheating to lose” has come back into the spotlight. And the driving force is a familiar one: gambling.

Whether in India, Europe, or the United States pressure from gambling interests corrupts players or officials into cheating. In doing so it destroys the most fundamental aspect of any athletic event: the assumption that it is a fair competition that will be won by the best player or team that day.

Further legalization of gambling is being suggested as a solution in India and elsewhere, with the idea of somehow gaining more control over corruption by getting government involved in either running or regulating gambling operations. But the Hindu Center for Politics and Public Policy has looked at the issue more broadly, calling for a deep study of the moral aspects of gambling, including its impact on society.

Other Indians have urged stricter regulation of cricket’s governing board. Some have even tied a reputation for cheating in cricket to the possibility of besmirching India’s reputation for honesty when its government sets out to negotiate with other countries on issues like trade, energy, or climate change.

In Europe, EU Athletes has given players six principles of conduct. It urges them never to bet on games in their own sport. It also says clearly that game-fixing of any kind is never OK, and asks them to report if they are approached to fix a game – and to remember that “fixers will be caught.”

In Australia, government officials are considering a new system that would use computers to analyze sports betting trends on cricket, Australian football, soccer, rugby, and other sports, in order to spot possible match-fixing.

In the United States, the National Football League, the National Collegiate Athletic Association, and other sports leagues are opposing the state of New Jersey’s attempt to legalize sports betting, which could open the way for other states to do the same. “For decades, sports organizations have sought to thwart the negative effects of sports betting on their games and how those games are perceived by their fans,” the leagues argue.

That stance shows that sports leagues understand what is at stake – the very integrity of the sport. Sporting events need to be influenced less by gambling, not inundated with new forms of it.

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