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Issue #1717      February 3, 2016

Sport

Has integrity got a sporting chance?

Last year a furore erupted over claims of bribery within FIFA, soccer’s international federation. Questions have now been raised about a payment to FIFA by soccer’s peak body in Australia of $500,000, which somehow ended up in the private account of Jack Warner, FIFA’s former vice president.

Allegations of corruption have also been made about bids by Russia and Qatar to host future international soccer tournaments, but many nations have used bribery and intimidation to win the highly lucrative events.

Tennis and cricket have also been the subject of corruption allegations, with revelations that some players have thrown matches to benefit a gambler or syndicate. Police even questioned competitors in the recent Australian Open tournament about possible gambling corruption.

One Australian player has been convicted after tennis integrity officers tracked him down, using metadata information, but Attorney general George Brandis has now banned sporting officials from gaining access to metadata records.

In 2013-14 Australians bet $4.6 billion on sport, with online betting accounting for $2.75 billion. Betting on sport is a highly destructive social problem, yet gambling firms are now directing very effective advertising campaigns at youth, depicting betting as harmless and socially acceptable fun – and the government has raised no objection.

Australian betting firms are forbidden from offering on line wagering in real time, but international gambling companies are beyond Australian control and the government is now considering lifting the restrictions. International gaming company William Hill was even allowed to sponsor the Australian open tennis, an open invitation for television viewers to break the restrictions. Illicit performance-enhancing drugs have dogged sporting competition for decades.

Former champion cyclist Lance Armstrong was convicted of the offence, and cricket and thoroughbred racing are also mired in drug scandals. Victorian chief steward Terry Bailey, who has cracked down on racing corruption involving drugs, last year had shots fired through his front door.

Thirty-four players in Melbourne’s Essendon Australian Football club were recently convicted of using performance-enhancing drugs by the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), a Swiss-based international tribunal, despite having been cleared of the charge by an AFL tribunal chaired by a retired judge last year. Whether guilty or not, the players are now bearing the punishment rather than the club management, and major damage has been done to the club and the sport.

All competitors are tainted by evidence of corruption. Any tennis competitor is now likely to be suspected of having thrown the match if he or she unexpectedly loses it, especially to a competitor of considerably lower status.

Sports involved in match-fixing risk a huge loss of popularity. Two decades ago figure skating was highly popular in the US, but after revelations that some competitors had thrown matches spectator numbers plummeted.

Sport has the potential to teach us the importance of struggle, the development of skill, dignity in defeat and generosity in victory. But those values are undermined by business interests that profit from ruthlessness and brutality in sport.

Greyhound racing may never recover from revelations last year about the use of live animals as bait. Minister for Trade Barnaby Joyce refused to take action to prevent the transport of dogs to Asia where they are raced to the point of exhaustion and then slaughtered to produce meat for human consumption. In Australia the widespread killing of greyhounds who fail to win owners money continues unabated.

Last November the Victorian Sports Minister enthusiastically praised the “Ultimate Fighting Championships” in which competitors fight in a cage, beating each other into submission or unconsciousness. He said it gives “a big boost to our economy and jobs to Victorians”.

One disgusted viewer described one such match between two women fighters as “… 56,000 [spectators], mostly men, cheering on a female competitor landing direct, finishing blows to a semi-conscious female opponent’s bloodied face …” The Victorian sports regulator recently banned Australian firms from accepting bets on the “sport” because of suspected links to corruption and money laundering.

Last December former Essendon AFL coach James Hird declared that “power and greed” were dominating his sport, and that leading sporting bodies succumbed to commercial interests, relied on public relations spin, suppressed dissent and criticism from players, and refused to defend them. He commented: “…strong sporting organisations … have the media on their side and there are certain rules you have to abide by if you want to play …”

Clubs often supply players with prescription drugs as pain killers for injuries, rather than removing the player from the field. Two rugby league players were recently hospitalised in Sydney after taking pain killing drugs with potentially dangerous side effects.

When Australian Rules footballer Adam Goodes was subjected to racist abuse from some spectators he maintained his dignity, earning great respect from the public, but football authorities refused to condemn the abuse, declaring that the spectators were “entitled to support their team”, a complete failure of duty of care by management.

Many businesses profit from and promote violence and degradation in sport. And in sport, just like everywhere else, employers try to squeeze every bit of profit from their employees. Members of the national women’s soccer team, the Matildas, who last year were receiving a base salary of only $21,000 per annum, (less than the minimum wage) went on strike and won salary levels between $30,000 and $41,000 plus match fees. They also want paid maternity leave, already an entitlement in women’s professional netball.

Individual players have certainly been found guilty of unethical behaviour, and it’s no good saying “I was just following orders.” But the real problem is the domination of sport by business interests and the ruthlessness and insatiable greed generated by the corrosive corporate culture.

Next article – Whose snouts in the trough?

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