The Perils of Over-Criminalizing Sports Corruption

Although the fight against corruption has traditionally focused on corruption in government, the anticorruption community has started to pay more attention to corruption in other spheres. One particularly prominent concern is corruption in sports (see herehere, and here). The topic of sports-related corruption includes not only corruption in the major sports associations (think FIFA and the International Olympic Committee), but also the corrupt manipulation of individual sporting events in order to win bets (whether legal or illegal). Such corrupt manipulation includes match-fixing (where corrupt actors fraudulently influence the outcome of a game); spot-fixing (where wrongdoers seek to influence events within the game that do not necessarily have a significant effect on the final outcome, such as the number of minutes an athlete plays or timing the first throw-in or corner in a soccer game); and point-shaving (where perpetrators seek to hold down the margin of victory in order to avoid covering a published point spread).

Different jurisdictions approach this sort of sports corruption differently. Many countries in Europe have enacted blanket laws criminalizing match-fixing in order to uphold the integrity of sports. The United States, by contrast, takes a narrower approach: The relevant criminal laws targeting sports corruption in the U.S.—both the Federal Sports Bribery Act (the “Act”) and comparable laws at the state level—focus solely on bribery. Furthermore, the Act has historically been used to prosecute individuals involved in paying bribes or inducing others to collect bribes, but not the people (usually athletes, coaches, or officials) who receive the bribes. Although a great deal of corruption in sports involves the payment of bribes, and would therefore be covered by these laws, some types of sports corruption are unilateral: An athlete or sports official may place bets on sporting events and subsequently undertake behavior to win those bets. For this reason, some scholars have argued that the U.S. should close this loophole by criminalizing such unilateral conduct as well.

I disagree. To be sure, unilateral sports corruption is unethical, and criminalizing it would help to prevent athletes, referees, and coaches from engaging in corrupt acts that jeopardize the integrity of sports. But the benefits of criminalizing this form of misconduct are minimal and are greatly outweighed by the corresponding costs.

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Corruption in Tennis, Part 2: Independent Review Panel’s Recommendations Are a Step in the Right Direction, But Prioritization Is Essential

As I explained in my last post, the game of tennis—because of its one-on-one format and unusual scoring system—is especially vulnerable to match fixing. This risk has become ever more significant with the explosion in the global sports betting market, particularly online betting. Professional tennis’s Governing Bodies (which include the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP), Women’s Tennis Association (WTA), the Grand Slam Board, and the International Tennis Federation (ITF)), have demonstrated their concern about this sort of corruption for over a decade, publishing reviews on integrity in tennis in 2005 and 2008, establishing the Tennis Integrity Unit (TIU) to govern anticorruption matters in 2009, and adopting a mandatory anticorruption educational program for players and officials (the Tennis Integrity Protection Programme (TIPP)) in 2011. Yet, despite these efforts, match fixing and spot fixing continue to be a major problem. In January 2016, Buzzfeed and BBC published a bombshell report alleging not only that match fixing in tennis was pervasive, but also that the TIU and the Governing Bodies had suppressed evidence on the extent of the problem. The Governing Bodies quickly released a statement “absolutely reject[ing]” the suggestion that they had suppressed evidence of match-fixing, but they nonetheless immediately commissioned an Independent Review Panel to evaluate integrity in tennis.

Almost three years later, in December 2018, the Panel published its conclusions and recommendations in a 113-page Report, which the Governing Bodies endorsed. While the Panel found no evidence suggesting that the TIU or the Governing Bodies had covered up any wrongdoing, the Panel did conclude that the sport’s current anticorruption efforts are “inadequate to deal with the nature and extent of the problem,” and recommended changes to the sport’s governance policies and institutions.

The Report’s greatest strength—its no-stone-unturned thoroughness—is also its greatest flaw: More academic than pragmatic, the Report neither prioritizes its proposals nor sufficiently considers their financial feasibility. Given that the Panel attributes economic challenges—such as the under-compensation of lower-ranked players and the lack of resources allocated toward the TIU—as major reasons for widespread corruption in tennis, it seems unrealistic to think that the Governing Bodies could afford an across-the-board implementation of the Panel’s proposals. Thus, the Governing Bodies’ implementation plan should prioritize the Panel’s various recommendations, with an eye toward financial feasibility. Specifically, the Governing Bodies should: Continue reading

Corruption in Tennis, Part 1: Why the Sport Is Especially Vulnerable to Corruption

Although wagers on tennis make up only a relatively small fraction of the global sports gambling market (estimated at around 12% of that market in 2015, compared to 65% for soccer), tennis seems to account for a disproportionate share of gambling-related match fixing and other forms of corruption. For example, ESSA (a non-profit dedicated to integrity in sports betting) reported that of the 496 cases of “suspicious betting” that it flagged across all sports in 2015, 2016, and 2017, 336 (68%) stemmed from bets on tennis matches. Of course, a suspicious betting alert does not necessarily indicate that match fixing or other corrupt activity actually occurred (see, for example, here and here), but still, that a sport comprising just 12% of the global sports betting market could generate over two-thirds of suspicious sports betting activity is striking, and consistent with expert assessments on the prevalence of corruption in tennis. Indeed, in 2005, Richard Ings, then the Executive Vice President for Rules and Competition for the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP), wrote that “if a sport could have been invented with the possibility of corruption in mind, that sport would be tennis.”

Two factors in particular make tennis particularly susceptible to gambling-related corruption: Continue reading

Many U.S. States Are About To Legalize Sports Betting. How Can They Do So in a Way that Minimizes Risks of Sports Corruption?

Last May, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act (PASPA), finding the federal prohibition on sports betting unconstitutional. Accordingly, all states (not just Nevada) may now legalize sports betting. Excited about the potential revenue bump, a few states, including New Jersey and Delaware, have already passed legislation to open their doors to sports betting. Other states including Pennsylvania, New York, Mississippi, and West Virginia have sports betting bills pending in their legislature, and at least fifteen other states have introduced bills in some form. Unlike PASPA, a federal statute that provided a uniform application for nearly all states across the country, each state’s gambling laws will be unique to their state. And those lawmakers who are considering enacting gambling legislation are also trying to determine how to best regulate the industry—a complicated issue that requires balancing a number of difficult considerations, including: how the state should tax sports betting; whether the state should allow for in person bets only or also online betting; whether the state should permit access to bets with a higher risk of corruption, such as one-off prop bets; and whether the state should the state provide fees to leagues to assist them in corruption prevention. (See here for a discussion of these issues in New York).

While there is a debate in the anticorruption community about whether legalization of sports betting is good or bad for corruption, for those states that do decide to legalize betting, it’s important to do it in such a way that the black market for sports betting shrinks. States considering legalization must ensure that legal betting is a sufficiently attractive option as compared to sports betting in the black market. Otherwise, sports bettors will remain in the black market, which not only would pose numerous challenges for regulating corruption but also would lead to low revenues for states. Thus, at least for those states that choose to legalize sports betting in some form, the twin objectives of maximizing state tax revenue and preventing corruption (especially match fixing and spot fixing), often thought to be in tension with one another, are both advanced by maximizing the market share for legalized betting in their state, as opposed to limiting opportunities for betting.

To maximize market share and decrease corruption risk, states should include the following provisions in sports gambling legislation:

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Legalized Sports Betting in the United States: Analyzing the Impact of Legalization on Corruption Risk

The rise of corruption in sport has captured the attention of many anticorruption groups, including Transparency International and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. Sports corruption takes many forms, but one of the most prevalent is match fixing, which occurs when players or officials alter the outcome of a sporting event in a way that benefits those who bet money on those “fixed” games.

In the United States, concerns about match fixing, among other things, led Congress to enact the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act (PASPA) in 1992. The Act prohibits most states from legalizing sports gambling, with only Nevada allowed to offer betting on single games. Yet PASPA failed to curb gambling on sports, mainly because bettors turned to the black market; each year, Americans gamble an estimated $150 billion-$400 billion in illegal sports betting.

PASPA appears to be in legal jeopardy: Last December, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the case of Christie v. National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), and while a decision in the case is not expected until later this year, legal experts believe that the Supreme Court will invalidate PASPA. This would provide all 50 states with the opportunity to legalize and regulate sports betting in their state. With that in mind, it is important to consider the effects that legalized sports gambling may have on bribery in professional sports.

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How to Combat Match Fixing, the International Corruption Problem in Sports

The recent rise and prevalence of corruption in sport has drawn the attention of the international community. As Transparency International highlights in their 2016 report, professional sports not only engage billions of people worldwide, but also involve significant amounts of money. Such corruption thus creates tremendous societal and economic burdens. Match fixing is one form of corruption that has impacted a wide range of sports, including tennis, cricket, soccer, boxing, basketball, and baseball all within the last year. This problem not only permeates low-level games, but also impacts high-profile events such as World Cup qualifiers, European Championship qualifiers, and even Champions League Games.

On the surface, it may seem as though match fixing is a victimless crime, or at least one that’s not sufficiently serious to attract the attention of anticorruption advocates. Yet because match fixing scandals have implications that stretch far beyond the playing field, the anticorruption community should care about this problem for at least two reasons. First, as previously discussed on this blog, corruption scandals in sports are highly visible, and corruption in sports can attract public attention in ways that other corrupt activities cannot. Second, match fixing facilitates organized crime and other corrupt activities. Organized criminals engage in match fixing because it is a low-risk enterprise with the potential for large rewards from unregulated betting markets.

A recent report by the United Nation Office on Drugs and Crime investigated match fixing and tried to understand some of its underlying causes. The report cites a number of factors that have allowed this threat to grow, including “personal greed, weak governance structures of sport as a sector, easily accessible global betting markets that are open to exploitation, low prioritization of match fixing as a threat by law enforcement agencies and the use of sport by organized criminals to advance their own interests.” In attempting to address these causes, 28 countries have proposed, adopted, or enacted specific legislation criminalizing match fixing. Yet even in those jurisdictions where such sanctions exist, regulations have been ineffective. Unfortunately, the complicated transnational nature of sports betting makes it difficult for regulations to prevent match fixing in an effective way. Proving that match fixing occurred requires collection and analysis of a substantial amount of betting evidence, which is particularly difficult to obtain in unregulated betting markets. Furthermore, despite the presence of regulations, significant financial incentives continue to pressure athletes to participate in match fixing.

Therefore, given the inherent difficulties with controlling such behavior, there are two things that can be done to more effectively deter match fixing.

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