By Sean Ingle
New research suggests that by their very nature, sportsmen are more susceptible to the lure of fixing sporting events
When it comes to match-fixing we are no longer unbruised innocents. We know it exists. We have a hazy sense of the whys and hows, and the grim percolation of its poison. Only the boundless verve of the fix staggers us now. As well as the sheer weight of numbers.
Look at the ledger of recent miscreants. Stephen Lee, the Billy Bunter of the baize, used to deliberate over long pots and plants the way he might over grub and tuck; now he faces a lifetime ban for multiple cases of match-fixing in what authorities described as the “worst case of snooker corruption we’ve ever seen”. Shantha Sreesanth, the Indian pace bowler with a punkish you-looking-at-me? attitude, was banned for life for spot-fixing in the Indian Premier League – the same punishment 14 El Salvadorian footballers received for match-fixing.
Meanwhile last week the coach and several players of the Australian football team Southern Stars were arrested for allegedly fixing five games, and in Singapore police arrested 14 people accused of being involved in a global match-fixing network, including Dan Tan Seet Eng, the gang’s Keyser Söze.
All this in under a fortnight. And remember, these are only the incidents we are aware of: Sportradar, which monitors betting markets for Uefa among others, fears that 10 football games a week in Europe are tainted.
We know that match-fixing, sport’s great super bug, thrives in certain environments; such as when athletes’ wages are measly or unpaid and regulation and societal norms are weak.
The lower echelons of Australian football, for instance, proved an open goal for fixers because the standard is low – along with players’ wages – and yet it attracts extraordinary interest from China, where gambling is illegal and betting patterns can’t be tracked.
“Australia is very appealing to the Asian market because of the timing of the matches,” explains David Forrest, an economist at the University of Salford. “Friday night is a big gambling night in China. And when is the next football? The noon kick-offs in Australia.”
But it is also perhaps worth investigating whether genetics – nature as well as nurture – might occasionally play a part too.
The starting point for this tentative theory is that academics have shown that successful athletes are risk-lovers, a trait largely beneficial on the field of play. One major study by Frank Sulloway and Richard Zweigenhaft in 2010 analysed the performance of 700 brothers who played major league baseball. It found younger siblings were far more likely to take risks and be successful at stealing bases than their older ones, and – crucially – they were also “significantly superior in overall batting success”.
But while risk-love is often good for an athlete on the pitch, it can be harmful off it. Unfortunately, there are no figures for the percentage of British athletes addicted to gambling (0.7% of the UK population is, according to the Gambling Commission ), but the Sporting Chance clinic confirms that cases of players with serious gambling addictions are “far more prevalent” than a decade ago and account for a higher percentage than any other vice.
That comes as little surprise. Professional sport is no longer a boozy oasis where the night-before bender and half-time snifter is indulged. Players exist in a bubble, they have piles of free time and cash, and gambling doesn’t affect their physical abilities.
But perhaps it also goes a little deeper than that. The British researcher John Coates has linked riskiness in part to high and fluctuating testosterone. As David Epstein, the author of The Sports Gene, points out: “Events on the field cause testosterone fluctuations, so you might expect athletes to be like day traders who, when they win at things, become increasingly less risk-averse.”
Epstein also points out that some research shows high rates of Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder among athletes – and ADHD is associated with impulsivity, as is gambling. Some people steer easily towards addiction, too. The Sporting Chance clinic treats many players “who crave a similar adrenaline buzz to matches and so gamble large sums of money”.
Does this mean that many athletes will tread the darkening path from gambling to match-fixing? Of course not. But we should be aware that they might be susceptible, and educate them of the dangers. Certainly Forrest believes there is a link. “Gambling addiction makes players vulnerable,” he says. “Gangs are always looking for people who might take the money. And if someone gets into financial trouble because they are gambling they are ripe for the plucking.”
The case of Tim Donaghy, the NBA referee who accrued huge gambling debts and paid them off by playing points spreads on games he officiated, is an extreme example of what can happen. Lee, too, faced county court judgments for unpaid bills despite earning £200,000 in 2011-12.
No wonder Forrest suspects that last week’s arrests in Singapore are unlikely to change much. “Football – like other sports – won’t be safe for long,” Forrest says. “Just as it is with drugs, if you knock out a gang another one will fill the vacuum because there is considerable money to be made easily in fixing sport.”
And some athletes, for a great variety of reasons, will always be susceptible.