Cheating: A Game as Old as Games

January 5th, 2012

Cheating in sports has existed for as long as the sports themselves. During the ancient Olympic Games in Greece, officials placed pedestals inscribed with athletes’ names at the entrance of the stadium. The names were not of great athletes, but of those who violated the rules of the Games, in order to punish them into perpetuity. In today’s version of public dishonor, our media nationally broadcasts the names and crimes of steroid-injecting baseball players, blood-doping cyclists, and plotting figure-skaters. Other athletes, who are perhaps not directly cheating in their sports, are engaging in morally reprehensible behavior. Nearly daily, headlines read of stories like Michael Vick’s dog fighting, allegations against Ben Roethlisberger for sexual assault, and Tiger Wood’s extramarital affairs.

It doesn’t seem to be getting any better. In a 2008 article on the “death of honor in sports,” Marc Ellenbogen grieves the loss of athletes like Babe Ruth and Hank Aaron, noting that sports are now riddled with “greed, dishonor, and arrogance.”  But at the end of his article, in what is now a twisted irony, he murmurs he is thankful there are “still athletes like Tiger Woods …who young people can look up to.” Less than two years after these words were written, Woods publicly admitted to having been unfaithful to his wife, telling reporters he had believed his athlete status meant that “normal rules didn’t apply.”

It’s not just athletes. In May of last year, the International Federation of Association Football (in French: Fédération Internationale de Football Association or FIFA), suspended two of its officials: Mohamed bin Hammam of Qatar and Jack Warner of Trinidad and Tobago. The national body accused these men  of attempting to bribe the 25 heads of the Caribbean football associations who were voting in an upcoming FIFA presidential election. Allegedly, Warner offered them cash gifts of $40,000 each in exchange for their votes for Bin Hammam. Warner adamantly denied the allegations against him.

And, of course, it’s all exposed to illegal behavior on the demand side too—through illegal betting. Often this occurs with collaboration between dishonest athletes and gamblers. It’s been a serious problem for the International Cricket Council (ICC), which last year warned the Pakistan Cricket Board to implement a series of measures to solve alleged corruption, including spot-fixing in the team’s recent tour ofEngland, or face serious sanctions.

In an effort to upend scandals like the one that occurred in Pakistan, and a similar one which unraveled in India, the ICC has enlisted the help of Interpol to help them strengthen their anti-corruption mechanism. In a parallel effort, with the help of FIFA, Interpol is establishing a center in Singapore dedicated to promoting integrity in sports by tackling global betting and organized criminals. Interpol chief Ronald K. Noble has noted the focus of the joint efforts will be to “teach young players, agents, and officials ways in which they can be ‘tricked’ into doing something illegal which might look innocent.”

I think this view is rather simplistic and doesn’t address the root causes of the problem. At the very least it’s a political statement aimed at assuaging the fears of officials who might see cooperation with Interpol as an “investigation” rather than “collaboration.” Of the many underlying causes for corruption in sports, the most important is not a misunderstanding of the rules. The most important is accountability. Organizations like FIFA and the ICC simply don’t have the incentive to regulate themselves or to create transparency in their operations. There are only three groups that can truly hold a sports organization accountable—member associations, fans, and corporate sponsors. Each is unlikely, for very different reasons, to cut off the flow of money and support that make it so influential. So the cycle of corruption inevitably continues.

But by working with Interpol, FIFA and the ICC have shown promise in their ability and willingness to address this obstacle. To the extent that a third party gains access and oversight of the corruption problem—which tends to be internal and self-reinforcing—these organizations can hope to gain some perspective and perhaps some solutions. Or at least we can hope.

Written by Ann Hollingshead

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