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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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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