Fraud in sports: Game fixing

This is the fourth in a series of five posts on the topic of fraud in sports.  The first post, from December 5, was about marathon cheaters and how the frauds they perpetrate are discovered, investigated, and reported.  The second post, on December 12, was about fraud and falsification in the thru-hiking community.  December 19’s post was about fraud in sports gambling and betting. Today’s post will focus on fraud in sports both in history and current-day worldwide via game fixing. The fifth and final post in the series, on January 9, will be about major doping scandals in different sports and will focus on the ways athletes cheated by doping and how their use of performance enhancing drugs were supported or not identified by various institutions.

Game fixing is when a match is played to a final result which is partially or totally pre-determined.  Players, on their own or in conspiracy with others, may do this in an ongoing conspiracy in order to make money for and from gamblers.  Coaches and team administrations may also orchestrate losses for various reasons, including to impact their odds for the next season, including in draft position as well as for a friendlier schedule or playoff access.  For purposes of this post, game fixing also includes institutional operations to spy and cheat by teams personnel and coaches, with or without the cooperation of referees and/or players.

Motivations for game fixing are much the same as those for any business fraud: financial gain and future competitive edge.  Game fixing and gambling are often intertwined, with connections and agreements between gamblers and players, referees, or team officials conspiring to fix the outcome of games which are of particular popular interest for wagering.  From the perspective of competitive advantage, teams may lose matches in order to game their future chances at success, either in the current season, in the playoffs, or in the future.
Decisions about manipulating the outcome in order to improve upcoming chances come from careful study of data-based scenarios and analytical history and predictions.  Manipulation of the outcome in this manner undermines the integrity of the events and often leads to major punishment, such as lifetime bans and invalidation of results connected to the game fixing.

  • One of the best-known historical scandals in game fixing is from the 1919 World Series.  After the Chicago White Sox lost to the Cincinnati Reds, eight White Sox players, including star “Shoeless” Joe Jackson, were accused of fixing the series. These players were found not guilty of statutory and common-law conspiracy at trial in 1921, but they, along with a ninth player who knew of the plan but did not participate in it, were banned from baseball for life despite this legal outcome.  In later years most of the players confessed to their involvement in the conspiracy to fix the World Series.  Evidence of the concerted effort by the players to fix the games emerged during the series due to the uncharacteristic and inconsistent performance of the players involved in the plot.  Several of the players eventually admitted to having taken bribes to throw the games, while others made bets of their own to fix a loss for the benefit of gamblers.  At the time the scandal resonated so much in Chicago in particular because many of the players were beloved, especially Jackson, and fans felt personally cheated and mistreated by the conspiracy.  In the ensuing years the motivations behind the cheating have been discussed, mostly centering on the fact that the owner of the White Sox, Charles Comiskey, was notoriously tight with money with the players, providing significant incentive for them to seek financial gain via other, even illicit means:  Flashback: Story of 1919 Black Sox scandal still resonates  
  • Game fixing has also been practiced in sports leagues to the benefit of organized crime.  Organized crime operations have long used gambling to launder money, evade taxes, and seek additional financial gain through dubiously legal business operations.  These criminal enterprises have also funneled their money into owning sports teams, such as football clubs, where they can conduct their money laundering, skim money from transfer fees, and commit tax avoidance and conceal income.  For more on this, check out the OCCRP investigative project report “Game of Control,” discussed in this post.  There’s evidence of Mafia involvement in game fixing across numerous sports and in many countries, including, for instance, in baseball in Taiwan.  Baseball has been extremely popular in Taiwan since the 1800s.  Since the 1990s, the sport has been plagued by gangsters who have induced and intimidated players into participating in game-fixing.  These scandals have resulted in banned players, disbanded teams, and even a major league reorganization to prevent further Mafia intervention, ultimately with no success in preventing the influence of organized crime on the sport:  Gray Area: Inside the Mafia-Run World of Baseball Match-Fixing in Taiwan
  • Though game fixing typically focuses on pre-arranged losses, it is important from the perspective of this post which focuses on fraud and misconduct to include systemic cheating which can lead to gamed wins as well.  From this point of view, it is necessary to include the New England Patriots, who are considered by many skeptics to be chronic cheaters that have been caught and punished many times for their institutional dishonesty to support their winning ways.  There is a major personality ethic halo around Bill Belichick, the head coach who is renowned as a genius and even presented by some as an example of excellent leadership or management, despite many ethically questionable statements and actions, including videotaping opposing coaches for which he was fined $500,000 in 2007.  Fans roundly choose to ignore or rationalize this inveterate lack of integrity, for a simple reason – they benefit from it because their team wins.  Therefore, descending the moral slippery slope is justifiable because the group they favor will meet them at the bottom:  Why Do Fans Excuse the Patriots’ Cheating Past?  
  • As discussed above, many of the motivations for game fixing and other cheating by players that affects outcomes are financial in nature.  Cheaters either want to get money through gambling conspiracies or want to have the future opportunity to get money via increased competitive opportunities.  Insufficient moral engagement is also an issue.  While some players who engage in game-fixing do not see their actions as immoral, because they are focused on the strategic importance of their actions, others do not recognize the moral dubiousness of their conduct or that there is a decision to make between right and wrong at hand:  Match-fixing: Understanding the motivations?  
  • Much of the foregoing analysis has not mentioned any regulatory framework which would govern or oversee leagues, teams, and athletes.  Indeed, the unusual part about most game-fixing cases is not their motivation or their methods but in fact the lax discovery of and enforcement resulting from the plots.  Typically misconduct by players and teams is discovered due to wide-reaching corruption investigations.  However, players surveyed widely believe that they have played in fixed matches or are aware of fixed matches, and firms performing statistical analysis of wagering data identify a huge proportion of games they believe could have been manipulated due to game-fixing.  Games played in sports where anti-corruption units of self-regulatory organizations and league administrative entities would not reach, or fixing efforts that are individual, would largely fall out of the purview of any supervisory scrutiny.  More subtle efforts at game fixing, combined with growing interest in many sports as well as illicit and illegal gambling which also slips outside of regulatory oversight, will pose a daunting challenge to regulators whose reach is already proving inadequate:  Match-fixing is more common than ever   

Check back next week, Tuesday January 9, for the last post in this series of five, which will be about doping scandals in professional sports, including the Olympics and the Tour de France, among other events.

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