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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The U.S. Indictments of FIFA’s Corrupt Officials Are Legally, Morally, and Politically Justified

For avid soccer fans and students of anticorruption, last week’s announcement that top FIFA officials had been indicted by U.S. authorities was not all that shocking. Commentators on this blog have been documenting FIFA’s collision course with the criminal justice system for some time now (see here, here, and here). But as American law comes to bear on the world’s most powerful sporting organization, it has caught the attention of millions. The reaction of many has been a wry “How fitting? The Americans going after soccer, and relying on tenuous legal reasoning to boot.”

Harvard Law School Professor Noah Feldman articulated the critique in a recent Bloomberg article, entitled “The U.S. is Treating FIFA Like the Mafia.” Feldman’s overarching point is that, while FIFA may be a problematic organization, the U.S. enforcement action reflects dubious politics more than genuine legal interest. Professor Feldman raises three main objections to the DOJ’s indictments–focused, respectively, on the law, policy, and politics of the indictments. First, with respect to the law, he casts doubt on the legal basis for prosecuting FIFA officials under the U.S. Racketeering Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO), given that the alleged offenses occurred on foreign soil, and suggests more generally that the entire case is absurd because RICO is designed to go after organized criminal enterprises, not sporting organizations like FIFA (or groups within FIFA). Second, Professor Feldman contends that, as a matter of policy, even if the U.S. has a sound legal basis for prosecution, exercising its jurisdiction in this case is inappropriate due to the lack of a strong U.S. interest in misconduct within FIFA, given that the U.S. cares much less about soccer than most other countries do. Third, and related to the preceding point, Professor Feldman suggests that the political fallout from the indictments is likely to be damaging to the U.S. He argues that the underlying premise of the RICO action–that FIFA (or a group within FIFA) is a criminal enterprise–is “incendiary,” and will be viewed as an imperialistic power play by the United States against soccer’s true fan-base (a.k.a, the rest of the world).

In my view, Professor Feldman is wrong on the law, shortsighted about the scope of U.S. interests in the alleged criminal conduct, and overly pessimistic about the political repercussions of the U.S. action. If the facts alleged can be proven, the U.S. is legally, morally, and politically justified in treating the indicted FIFA officials as RICO offenders.

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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. Continue reading

FIFA’s Faustian Bargain: Corruption for the Cup?

In a Road to Damascus twist, on Tuesday FIFA President Sepp Blatter asked the Swiss government to launch a criminal investigation into corruption related to Qatar being chosen to host the 2022 World Cup. This unprecedented move comes on the heels of a week of backlash to the FIFA Ethics Committee’s final conclusion on the Qatar question: “The potentially problematic facts and circumstances identified by the report concerning the Qatar 2022 bid were, all in all, not suited to compromise the integrity of the 2018/2022 bidding process as a whole.”  These “potentially problematic facts” include a swath of bribes (“improper payments”) paid by Mohamed bin Hamman, a chief supporter of the Qatari bid and former Asian Football Confederation president, which the report concludes were not directly related to securing the Cup, as well as payments by Qatari officials themselves, which made a “negative impression” but did not technically fall afoul of FIFA rules. The Committee’s decision was quickly and repeatedly slammed as a farce, and was followed by strong calls for the investigative report upon which it was based to be made public. Blatter adamantly refused to release the report, which made it all the more surprising when he seemed to go a step further by calling for the Swiss Office of the Attorney General to investigate. Should a criminal investigation proceed, not only would the government’s findings be made public, but corrupt FIFA officials would find themselves facing something entirely new: the pinch of handcuffs rather than a pinch to their finances.

While FIFA lodging the criminal complaint should be applauded, singing halleluiahs over Blatter’s conversion to the church of anticorruption would be a bit premature. In fact, this may be his most strategic move yet.

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The End of a FIFA Fiefdom?

Allegations of corruption have dogged FIFA for years–particularly under the leadership of Sepp Blatter, who has been FIFA President since 1998–but with little impact. The buildup of controversy surrounding the bidding contest for the 2022 World Cup, however, may prove the tipping point in Blatter’s reign. Early last month, Michael Garcia, FIFA’s independent investigator and a former U.S. Attorney, submitted to FIFA’s Ethics Committee a 350-page report on corruption in the 2018 and 2022 World Cup bidding contests. The report purportedly details millions of dollars in bribes paid to FIFA executives in order for Qatar to host the 2022 tournament. A few weeks later, the chairmen of the Ethics Committee released a statement affirming that, in accordance with FIFA’s Code of Ethics, if Garcia initiates proceedings against specific individuals based on his report, only the final decisions (not the report itself or any other preliminary materials) will be made public.

The next day Garcia went rogue. He called publicly for the report’s widespread release (with appropriate redactions as necessary to protect sources). His call was quickly echoed by several members of FIFA’s Executive Committee, including Sunil Gulati, the head of US Soccer, Jordan’s Prince Ali bin al-Hussein, and CONCACAF President Jeffrey Webb. In addition to the revolt that may be brewing within, external pressures are mounting on FIFA as well, with calls for the release of Garcia’s report coming from Michel Platini, head of the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA), as well as U.S. Senator Bob Casey and the international NGO Transparency International. And in Switzerland, where FIFA is based, last April the Federal Council–apparently in direct response to concerns about Swiss-based international sports federations that have been “discredited repeatedly by corruption scandals”–reversed its longstanding position and declared that “private corruption will be prosecuted automatically, even where it does not lead to competitive distortions.”

All this activity is honing in on one specific question, which will likely be definitively answered at the June 2015 FIFA Congress: Will Qatar keep the 2022 World Cup? Continue reading

Maybe Brazil’s Painful World Cup Defeat Was a Blessing in Disguise

So the 2014 World Cup is over (congratulations, Germany), and the result was a disappointment for the host nation, to say the least.  Brazil’s ignominious 7-1 defeat in the semi-finals will probably go down as one of the worst sports losses in the country’s history.  As someone with many very close Brazilian friends, I’m hesitant to suggest that there may be anything good about Brazil’s loss.  But I’m going to anyway, from the perspective of anticorruption activism.  Here goes:

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Allegations of Corruption and the Qatari World Cup

Just five days after FIFA voted to award Qatar the 2022 World CupJack Warner, a senior FIFA official (and now a politician in Trinidad), received $1.2 million from a company controlled by the leading proponent for a Qatari World Cup (the proponent, Mohamed bin Hammam, has since been banned from football for life ). Some have argued that this impropriety should cost Qatar the World Cup, and FIFA has created and empowered an ethics committee to investigate potential wrongdoing. The United States FBI is also investigating the payments. If FIFA finds wrongdoing, it might reassign the cup on that basis.

I believe that to reassign the Cup on the basis of corruption in the FIFA vote would be a mistake. The Qatari World Cup is a magnifying glass on unfair labor practices in Qatar, and the Cup’s potential impact on human and labor rights is too great to give up.

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