By Iacovos Iacovides, APC Sports Consulting Ltd
Betting is deeply ingrained in the cultural framework of sports and is even viewed as a pre-existing activity which is part and parcel of competitions. In the 21st century, it is hard to conceive of a world without sports betting, especially in Europe. However, sports betting was not always as prevalent as it is today and in some places of the world—such as the US—there are still legal restrictions on betting, or at least on certain variants of it.
In this article, I will attempt to take a step back and examine betting, its effects—both direct and indirect—on sports and athletes by drawing a lucid line between sports and betting with a particular focus on athletes.
Sports betting in itself is not inherently unethical or dodgy, but the behaviours and incentives it leaves behind can be malicious and outright illegal. From match-fixing to illegal betting there are dozens of scandals that have shaken sports to their foundations and left officials, athletes and fans alike speechless. Scandals in sports are over a century old and have taken place in all parts of the world from the US to Italy and beyond.
One of the first recorded sports scandals in modern history was during the 1919 World Series when the Chicago White Sox squared off against the Cincinnati Reds. It is alleged that Joseph Sullivan—a professional gambler—bribed 8 players of the White Sox to lose the game. It is also alleged that the arrangement was organised by a gambling syndicate. The 1919 World Series fiasco is considered as one of the worst betting scandals in history, although a lot would argue that the Italian debacle of 2006 was equally dismal, if not worse.
The Italian scandal, better known as Calciopoli, sent shockwaves across the football universe and rocked the sports to its core, while simultaneously implicating some of the sport’s juggernauts in the scandal including Juventus, A.C Milan and Lazio. The teams and institutions involved were severely punished, the credibility of Serie A was damaged and the quality of Italian football took years to recover.
However, sports betting is not necessarily synonymous to match-fixing, as there are other problems resulting from betting as well that have one common denominator:
By definition, the existence of betting alters the very nature of sports by giving birth and feeding a tangential industry which in turn seeks to maximise profits. It furthermore, creates another avenue through which financial gain related to sports can be sought out. The danger that this entails is that the betting industry might try – or better yet, is trying—to meddle in the outcomes and proceedings of sports competitions.
For example, team and not only officials might try to influence, and mess with, the performance of athletes in order to attain the outcome that they favour and after all, although, we rarely think of it in those terms, athletes have bosses too and will most likely do as they are told. Of course, it is not just team officials. It could be relatives, fans, agents and the list goes on almost endlessly.
Anyone who has engaged in sports betting recently will know that it is not just about who is going to win or lose. Nowadays you can bet on almost everything that the human mind can conceive; yellow cards, red cards, number of corner kicks, fouls—if you can think of it, it probably exists. Therefore, players are also susceptible to betting themselves. What’s the harm in making an additional grant or two (or ten or a hundred)? What better guarantee that John Johnson will get a yellow card in the first half than John Johnson betting that himself? One would argue that there are laws prohibiting athletes from betting on their teams, but then again, they can always have a friend/distant relative do it for them and it would be next to impossible to identify and prevent that.
Sports betting has turned into a gigantic, uncontrollable industry that carries the potential danger of obliterating the lines that divide sports and betting. The lack of relevant and flexible legislation that takes into account the size of the gambling industry is also part of the problem. What we desperately need is something to reinforce the borders between sports and betting and keep the latter in check. This could be done through international laws that are constantly reviewed and amended based on new trends, and their vigorous implementation by national authorities. At the end of the day, what needs to be addressed are the adverse incentives that are created because of betting, that human nature is so responsive to.