Major League Soccer: A Prime Target for Organized Crime Groups?

Sports corruption, though not a new problem, has been an ever-increasing source of concern and attention in both the sporting world and the anticorruption community. In the United States, much of the attention regarding this issue has focused on corruption scandals in the most popular U.S. sports, such as college footballcollege basketball, and professional basketball. But other less high-profile sports may be even more at risk of corruption. Indeed, in surveying the landscape of sports in America, the league that stands out as very high-risk for corruption is Major League Soccer (MLS).

This may seem surprising. Although soccer is considered to be the most corrupt sport in the world, there have not, to my knowledge, been any reports of significant corruption in MLS to date. Indeed, back in 2015 MLS commissioner Don Garber declared that MLS is “one hundred thousand percent” clean. But just because corruption hasn’t (yet) been uncovered doesn’t mean it isn’t there, or that it won’t arise in the future. My concerns for corruption in the MLS arises from my observation that MLS has several of the risk factors that investigations of sports corruption in other contexts have identified. Three such risk factors in particular stand out:

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eSports: A Playground for Corruption?

Video game tournaments—sometimes referred to as “eSports”—are relatively new but increasingly popular. In these tournaments, players compete for cash prizes. In certain U.S. states it is now legal to place bets on eSports tournaments, though in other states such betting is prohibited. The growing popularity of eSports and the rise of eSports betting unfortunately gives rise to the risks of the same sorts of corruption that we have seen in traditional sports, such as gamblers (including organized criminal betting syndicates) bribing players to fix matches. And this is not purely hypothetical: Recently the FBI obtained evidence that criminal betting syndicates were bribing a group of players to throw matches in certain eSports competitions.

Responding effectively to bribery-related corruption in eSports is complicated by the fact that, unlike traditional sporting leagues, eSports do not have a central governing body. Rather, each game publisher controls its own tournaments, and many tournament operators have not taken the steps necessary to implement effective mechanisms for identifying betting-related match-fixing activities and levying punishment on bad actors. In 2016, a group of eSports stakeholders tried to address this issue by establishing a nonprofit association called the Esports Integrity Commission (ESIC), which is tasked with investigating and disciplining individuals involved in corrupt eSports activities. But ESIC only has authority over competitions organized by its members, and players sanctioned for match-fixing activities within an ESIC member tournament can still compete in non-ESIC member competitions.

More effective measures are therefore needed to prevent the spread of corruption in eSports. In particular, those states that permit betting on eSports tournaments should require, as a condition for betting on such matches to be lawful, that the tournament and betting operators join an authorized eSports governing board equivalent to the ESIC. Authorized governing boards should have the following responsibilities and obligations:

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Time to Investigate Nike’s ‘Commitment Bonus’ to Kenya’s Track and Field Authority

Since last November Kenya has been rife with claims (here and here for press reports) that American shoemaker Nike bribed the nation’s track and field authority to ensure the country’s runners compete wearing Nike shoes.  While Nike denies wrongdoing, the March 6 issue of the New York Times provides details which suggest the allegations are true.  Yet despite the mounting evidence that an American company is at the center of a high profile corruption case in Kenya, the Times reports the U.S. has not opened an investigation.  Its failure to do so, in the face of President Obama’s stern lecture about corruption to the Kenyan elite during his July 2015 visit to the country and the agreement reached during his visit pledging the U.S. to help Kenya fight corruption, has left Kenyans frustrated and angry at America.  It is “hypocritical,” famed Kenyan corruption fighter John Githongo told the Times, for the American government to “bang on” about Kenya without investigating allegations against the iconic American company.

According to the Times, American officials believe the U.S. is powerless to investigate because, even if Nike did indeed pay a bribe, it was to employees of a private entity, and private sector bribery is not covered by the anti-bribery provisions of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.  But while private sector bribery itself is not an FCPA offense, this does not mean Nike is off the hook.  If an American company bribes an employee of a private entity, as it is alleged Nike has, it runs afoul of numerous state and federal statutes, anyone of which could provide the basis for launching an investigation.  Four that come to mind immediately are:   Continue reading