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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The U.S. Should Enact the Rodchenkov Anti-Doping Act

As I have previously discussed on this blog, corruption is sports is a serious and systemic issue. I recommended that the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) ban Russia from the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, and WADA did indeed decide to ban Russia from global sports for four years in the aftermath of Russia’s years-long state-sponsored doping program. The 2020 Olympics was postponed due to the coronavirus, and other major sports events will not be taking place for the foreseeable future, but once it is safe to hold these events again—indeed, before then—the work to combat corruption in sports must continue. Russia appealed WADA’s decision, and thus far the ban is the only consequence facing Russia and the state officials who engineered the doping program. It is unclear whether the ban will be enough for Russia to learn its lesson, or enough to deter other countries from trying to get away with similar ploys.

Fortunately, the United States has the opportunity to become a leader in fighting this kind of corruption in sports. Last fall, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Rodchenkov Anti-Doping Act of 2019, named for Dr. Grigory Rodchenkov, the whistleblower who revealed the Russian state-sponsored doping scheme and who has been the target of Russian retaliation ever since. This bill would make it a crime for “any person, other than an athlete, to knowingly carry into effect, attempt to carry into effect, or conspire with any other person to carry into effect a scheme in commerce to influence by use of a prohibited substance or prohibited method any major international sports competition” in which U.S. athletes compete; the bill also permits U.S. citizens to pursue monetary compensation for deceptive competition and provides protections for whistleblowers. The bill, now pending in the U.S. Senate, has received bipartisan support, as well as the endorsement of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency.

WADA, on the other hand, has raised concerns about the bill, especially the proposed law’s allegedly impermissible extraterritorial reach. This objection is unpersuasive, for several reasons:

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If the International Community Takes Corruption in Sports Seriously, Russia Should Be Banned from the 2020 Olympics

Corruption in sports has been recognized as a serious and systemic problem (see here and here). One of the most egregious examples of sports-related corruption is Russia’s state-sponsored doping program. A 2015 report issued by an independent commission of the World Anti-Doping Agency found that this program involved athletes, coaches, trainers, doctors, and Russian institutions. Some of the most serious allegations were that members of the Russian secret service (the FSB) had pressured lab workers to cover up positive drug testing results (with one lab destroying more than 1,400 samples), top Russian sports officials submitting fake urine samples, and athletes assuming false identities, paying for destruction of positive doping results, and bribing anti-doping authorities. The former director of Russia’s anti-doping lab, Dr. Grigory Rodchenkov, has provided additional explanations as to how he and others, including FSB agents, enabled doping for the country’s athletes.

In light of these revelations, WADA recommended that the International Olympic Committee (IOC) ban Russia in the 2016 Rio Summer Olympics; however the IOC permitted each sport to consider individual athletes for participation. After an additional 2016 investigation known as the McLaren report produced additional evidence regarding Russian violations, the IOC did ban Russia from the 2018 Winter Olympics, and banned several individual athletes for life, but the IOC permitted 168 Russians to compete neutrally as “Olympic Athletes from Russia.” WADA reinstated Russia’s Anti-Doping Agency as compliant with the World Anti-Doping Code in September 2018, subject to two conditions: (1) Russian anti-doping authorities must accept the McLaren report findings; and (2) Russia must make data in its Moscow laboratory available to WADA inspection.

Yet Russia has not learned its lesson:

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