How capitalism is screwing sport


For those who believed in the “sanctity of sport” or see it as a way to escape from the harsh realities of the “real world”, it hasn't been a good month.

On February 4, Europol revealed that 380 soccer matches across Europe had been fixed, with 425 officials and players suspected of being involved.

Australian sport was then rocked on February 6 by the release of a report compiled by the Australian Crime Commission (ACC) that alleged widespread use of illegal drugs, match fixing and links between sport and organised crime in Australian sport. The allegations cut across all major sports.

Then AFL club Melbourne was fined $500,000 on February 19 after being found guilty by the AFL of “conduct unbecoming of the game”. This came after an investigation into allegations the club deliberately lost games in 2009 in a bid to be rewarded with higher draft picks.

Then a report was released into Australian swimming at the Olympics that described a toxic culture, including sexual harassment and bullying. Predictably, the media singled out the confession of some swimmers that had taken a prescription sleeping tablet.

Most revealing has been the unwillingness of sport authorities to take on vested interests which lead to these events occurring.

Richard Ings, the former head of the Australian Sports Anti-doping Authority (ASADA), said of the Crime Commission report: “This is not a black day in Australian sport, this is the blackest day in Australian sport.”

Since then, the media and politicians have mostly focused on allegations of drugs in sport, in particular seeking to drum out individual athletes who took performance-enhancing drugs.

However, this is pushes the false idea that it would be enough to find a few dopers and kick them out. This does not deal with the systematic problem of the role of big money and the drive for profit in undermining sport.

The focus on drugs, in of itself, has been called a distraction from a far bigger scandal. ACC head John Lawler said the biggest problem is match fixing, as that is where the real money made.

Lawler said the supplying of drugs was used as a way to get athletes involved in highly lucrative match-fixing activities.

Match fixing has always been a part of sport. But the recent revelations have pointed too is that it has become much more widespread and profitable.

The reasons are two interlinked factors of the “information technology revolution” and the explosion of the worldwide gambling industry this has encouraged, which has gained enormous power throughout sport.

In Australia, sports gambling is on the rise. The Age said on March 22 last year: “Sports betting is the fastest-growing way to gamble in Australia, rising by almost 15 per cent during the past five years, and is the only form of gambling other than casinos that has been increasing in popularity.”

The article added: “The research forecasts that the country's total gambling expenditure will increase by 3.3 per cent in 2011-12, reaching a total of $22.5 billion ― an average of $1265 per person.”

This is no surprise. The Monthly explained in a November 2011 article: “In March 2008, with James Packer’s Crown Limited bankrolling it, Betfair won a unanimous High Court decision which deemed it unconstitutional to prohibit bookmakers from advertising in one state and operating in another.

“Suddenly there were no state boundaries, the shackles were off and the land grab was on. 'It was the most important thing to happen in 150 years of bookmaking in Australia,' says Betstar’s Alan Eskander. “It kick-started the life-cycle of our industry.'”

Since then, gambling has been integrated into sport at a rapid rate. Gambling advertising is so dominant in sport, odds are constantly shown at sporting events and in television coverage. Many teams are now sponsored by betting agencies.

Just about every aspect of a sporting fixture can now be gambled on. Every individual ball in a cricket game can have bets on its result. You can even bet on the colour of the Queen's hat when she goes to the races.

There are huge amounts of money at stake, creating ripe conditions for various match-fixing activities ― from fixing a result to minor details such as when a no-ball will be bowled in cricket or who will kick the first goal in an AFL match.

In this way, sporting codes have made themselves so reliant on gambling that it is hard to tell where sport begins and gambling ends. For instance, the National Rugby League (NRL) seems to exist to serve gambling interests, which is why we saw rugby league commentators actively campaigning against poker machine reforms during matches.

The reality is that the NRL is dependent on gambling for its survival. Leagues club revenues are highly dependent on poker machines, $40 million of which goes back into the league. Without this money, the NRL's very survival would be thrown into question.

It is no surprise that with the growing influence and control of the gambling industry, corruption would be an inevitable consequence. This seems obvious, but from governments down, no relevant authority wishes to face up to the fact. This would require fundamental changes to how sport is run, which is largely in corporate interests.

It is far easier to encourage us all to raise our pitchforks and hunt down individual wrongdoers as scapegoats. But the huge amounts of money in sport, and its corrupting influence, mirrors the rest of capitalist society.

The very nature of the scandals, and the desire to cover them up, is embedded in sport as a profit-driven industry. Each code is fighting for market share in a context where large amounts of sponsorship dollars, revenues and TV broadcasting deals are at stake.

Each club, for its part, is fighting for revenues that come from corporate sponsorship, ticket sales and memberships. This creates a climate in which clubs are willing to push whatever boundaries they can get away with in a bid for success and the financial windfall that accompanies it.

In this context, players as well as fans can be victims. We do not know if the investigation into possible wholesale doping at AFL club Essendon (possibly without the knowledge of the players) will reveal any use of banned substances. But the potential scandal has shone a spotlight on the ugly and largely unregulated practices of growing “sports science” departments.

These departments increasingly use players as guinea pigs for bizarre experiments designed to drive their bodies to increasingly extreme levels of physical prowess. The line between legal and illegal ways of achieving this can be blurry and practices do not have to be on the wrong side of the law to be potentially detrimental to the players.

For this reason, the AFL Players Association, the players union, has responded to the Essendon allegations by insisting sports science departments be heavily regulated and real decision making power is given back to club doctors ― who have a legal and ethical requirement to put the players' wellbeing first.

In a dirty society ― in which the power of wealth trumps all other factors from workers' rights, to public health and welfare, to environmental sustainability ― sport can never be truly clean. Breaking the corrupting power of big money in sport is part of the same struggle as that in society in general.