Sports Anticorruption Initiatives: Hail Mary or a Home Run?

Corruption in sports—whether it be match-fixing, the systematic use of performance enhancing drugs, or bribes paid to secure lucrative hosting duties—is by no means a new phenomenon. However, as Transparency International recently noted, this type of corruption has, since at least 2010, been gaining increasing prominence both among anticorruption advocates and the broader international community. Perhaps the most striking example of this trend is the considerable coverage that the various scandals emanating from FIFA’s selection of the World Cup’s host countries has engendered over the past few years (including Melanie’s posts on this blog here and here). Yet the issue is much broader. Last year, for example, a “landmark study” revealed that criminal gangs launder more than £80 billion in the UK from illegal sports betting, and commentators have decried the “dramatic growth in reports of corruption” in sport more broadly.

In response to these increasing concerns regarding corruption in sport, a number of different initiatives have sprung up: The International Olympic Committee has created a “hotline for whistleblowers to report match-fixing and other corruption,” China recently announced that it would be cracking down on the “sport for millionaires” – golf – as part of its broader anticorruption efforts, and last month Transparency International unveiled its Corruption in Sport Initiative, which is focused on “[k]eeping sports clean.”

While it is too early to evaluate the efficacy of some of these programs, it nonetheless may well be worth taking a step back to consider the broader question of whether or not corruption in sports should be a priority for the anticorruption community.

On the one hand, in addition to the intrinsic benefit to any attempt to combat corruption, there are many reasons why a focus on combating corruption in sports could be uniquely beneficial to the anticorruption community:

  • First, as Transparency International notes, sports represent an incredibly lucrative “global industry” with revenues larger than “the nominal GDP or more than two-thirds of the world’s countries.” Anticorruption efforts, if effective, could thus have a significant impact upon a sizable portion of the global economy.
  • Second, focusing on corruption in sports could raise awareness among segments of the population that might otherwise be uninterested in, or unaware of, the importance of anticorruption efforts. Billions of people across the globe follow sports (indeed, at least a billion people are believed to have seen at least some of the final match of the 2010 World Cup) and so sports can provide a unique platform for exposing others to new ideas or causes. This is hardly a novel idea—after all, there’s a reason why advertisers are willing to pay huge sums to ensure that their products are advertised during major sporting events. Focusing on corruption in this widely popular area can help not only to combat corruption in sports, but to raise the profile of anticorruption initiatives more generally.
  • Third, not only are sports a highly visible, immensely popular activity that could help to expose more people to anticorruption efforts, the phenomenon of corruption in sports provides a more dramatic illustration of the injustice of corruption than than do many of the more “conventional” forms of corruption. For example, while politics may be supposed to involve some dubious tradeoffs or backroom dealing – and the line between permissible practice and corruption may at times be difficult to discern – sports, with its emphasis on fair play, suffers from few if any of these “line-drawing” problems.

However, while there may well be a number of potential benefits to pursuing anticorruption sport initiatives, there are also reasons to worry that focusing on corruption in sports may prove to be ineffective:

  • First, the different types of corruption involved in athletic corruption (match fixing, the payment of bribes in order to secure lucrative hosting rights, etc.), and the broad array of organizations and sports that such initiatives would have to target, may make it difficult to address corruption in sports in any coherent or effective way. For example, the likely causes of the various types of corruption involved in sports corruption are quite disparate. While match fixing may be intended to promote an individual or team, bribes paid to secure lucrative hosting positions for international tournaments are often undertaken by state or government actors. Similarly, the organizations that anticorruption advocates will likely try to target to address these issues – various sporting associations such as FIFA, the International Olympic Committee, the International Cricket Council, etc. – are both numerous and relatively disconnected. Thus, while it may be simple to refer broadly to “corruption in sports,” in practice this is an amorphous concept that covers a diverse range of corrupt activities and a large set of organizations. Formulating a coherent, integrated strategy to address corruption in sports, therefore, may well prove to be a difficult if not impossible enterprise.
  • Second, in spite of the benefits discussed above, it’s not clear that the anticorruption community should expend its finite resources on combating corruption in sports rather than other, more pressing, types of corruption. While creating any hierarchy of the types of corruption that are most problematic is nearly impossible, it seems unlikely that corruption in sports would fall anywhere near the top of the list. Moreover, while other anticorruption campaigns (for example, attempts to curb officials’ willingness to take bribes) are likely to reinforce broader anticorruption efforts by putting pressure on state actors to address instances of corruption within their borders, many campaigns against corruption in sports will likely focus on international actors that are not otherwise important in the fight against corruption (such as FIFA or the IOC).

Thus, while focusing on corruption in sports has promise, there are potential problems with this strategy. Perhaps the simplest way to ameliorate these concerns would be for anticorruption advocates to do two things: (1) narrow their focus regarding the types of corruption in sports that should be targeted, and (2) trying more deliberately to tie these efforts to broader anticorruption initiatives, for example by placing greater emphasis on forms of sports corruption that are more closely tied to state actors.

5 thoughts on “Sports Anticorruption Initiatives: Hail Mary or a Home Run?

  1. Lauren,

    a most provocative piece, and timely as the interest in sport corruption grows. I have written recently on the moves toward criminalisation of sport-related corruption (http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.polsoc.2015.04.002) – a shift from purely private regulation by various sporting bodies to greater involvement by government agencies (not necessarily in the US – but in Australia and Italy).

    I agree with you it is a complicated area – with sport corruption taking many forms, often not involving agents one would think of ranging from the groundskeeper to leaders in organisations such as FIFA. A further complication is the bribery associated with major event hosting rights. This reverses the concept of private actors bribing public officials, with government officials paying representatives of what are private sporting organizations. Furthermore, the international environment in which these activities occur create significant jurisdictional ambiguities.

    As for the amorphous nature of corruption in sport, the definition I have developed is “the deviation from public expectations that sport will be played and administered in an honest manner.” Within this , playing sport refers to both athlete preparation and actual competition; ‘administered’ includes all levels of sports administration—individual athletes, teams, clubs, leagues, competitions, national associations, public officials and international organisations. Administration also includes the making and implementation of sport rules, by-laws and all levels of refereeing or adjudication associated with sport—on and off field refereeing, tribunals, panels, courts and the like. Honesty covers the discrete handling of information related to an athlete or team and not taking advantage of that knowledge (i.e. insider information for gambling). Lastly, ‘public’ includes fans and non-fans alike – including (and in many cases, especially) those engaged in legal and illegal gambling.

    Controlling corruption in sport will require cooperative efforts between public and private bodies. The definition above is designed to capture the broad nature of the concept. The next phase is to develop controls appropriate to the particular type of corruption in its own context. Again these will not be simple – the protracted negotiations between leagues and professional associations over drug testing illustrate this. However, complexity and difficulty should not be barriers to pushing this forward.

    In some cases, corruption control will be driven by market forces – baseball fans ceasing to attend in Taiwan following a corruption scandal is an example of this. In other cases, governments will get involved as sporting corruption is linked to organized crime (drugs and money laundering) – the joint press conference with the Australian Sports Doping Agency and Australian Crime Commission in 2013 publicized such linkages. Interestingly, two football codes in Australia were caught up in this investigation – one code accepted its involvement, took the punishment metered out by the league and moved on, the other has been subjected to a protracted investigation, continuing media speculation and the case has now been elevated to WADA for final adjudication on whether players were or were not involved in doping. Brand protection remains a complicating factor.

    The examples above could leave the impression corruption in sport is a first world problem, it is not. I would emphasize this is an international problem not limited to the rich, professional sports. Keeping this in mind, the push to control it should continue and Lauren’s contribution is a welcome reminder of this.

    Adam Masters
    Transnational Research Institute on Corruption
    The Australian National University

    • Thank you for this comment, Adam. I think you’re right that market forces may play a unique and important role in addressing corruption in sports in large part because diminishing revenues (if this phenomenon is clearly tied to a perception that a particular organization or sport has become ‘too corrupt’) can effectively put pressure upon multiple corrupt actors at once, thereby sidestepping some of the issues raised by the disaggregated nature of corruption in sports that you note. I wonder, however, how frequently we will see fans reach a tipping point akin to the example you provided of baseball fans in Taiwan, where distaste with corruption causes a noticeable decrease in sports teams’ revenues. Do you think that this reaction from fans is likely to become sufficiently widespread that market forces will play a significant role in combatting corruption in sports or is it more likely that it is a phenomenon that anticorruption advocates should take advantage of when available but should not generally count on when trying to address this problem?

  2. You may or may not find this piece interesting: http://ethics.harvard.edu/blog/economics-corruption-sports-special-case-doping
    (although we are concerned with doping in particular as a form of institutional corruption, rather than with corruption in sports in general).
    The paper’s direct link (there’s a newer but not yet published version of this paper, which is under review right now): http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2546029

    Eugen

    • Eugen, thank you very much for recommending this piece! It was a fascinating read and I particularly enjoyed the discussion of potential countermeasures to combat the prevalence of illegal doping in sports.

  3. I am glad someone is actually fighting against corruption be it in sports or politics. While corruption in sports is a concern in Spain, I think it is closely related to political corruption, lawyers corruption, etc. As in we will never get rid of corruption in football (for instance) if we do not take down the people that should watch for this but they’re also corrupt so they don’t want to see the evidence even if it is in front of their eyes.

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