Justice Lodha Committee’s recommendation that if betting is legalised in India, it will reduce corruption in cricket in particular, and sports in general, is an extremely flawed and inconsistent conclusion. The conventional wisdom is that if a certain activity is banned or curbed, be it betting, prohibition or certain imports, it provides an incentive to illegality and, hence, corruption and sports-fixing. The reverse logic is if such activities are legalised, the incentive vanishes. However, this thinking doesn’t really apply to betting and sports for various reasons.
First, most countries, including developed nations, have banned or curbed betting in a bid to curtail gambling among their citizens. Obviously, these nations have solid reasons, including sporting ones, to pursue such policies. In the early 1990s, then National Football League Commissioner, Paul Tagliabue, said, “We do not want our games to be used as bait to sell gambling. We have to make it clear to the athletes, the fans and the public, gambling is not a part of sport, period.” Such arguments, wrote the Washington Post, “helped push the passage… of the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act, which confined legal sports betting to Nevada and three other states” in the US.
Second, the experiences in a few nations that legalised betting, either fully or selectively, prove that there are no links between illegal betting and corruption. For example, one has witnessed several such cases in the United Kingdom and Australia, where both land-based and online sports betting is legal. In the UK, three Pakistan cricketers and an agent were found guilty of spot-fixing during a test match between England and Pakistan at Lord’s. The order specifically stated, “You (the accused) procured the bowling of three no-balls for money, to the detriment of your national cricket team, with the object of enabling others to cheat at gambling.”
In fact, legal online betting sites were used by “fixers” to earn extra profits. “The most high-profile case of match-fixing in tennis occurred, “ wrote Kevin Carpenter, “when Nikolay Davydenko, ranked number four in the world at the time, was involved in a match which (global) betting exchange Betfair said bore all the hallmarks of having been fixed, with Pounds 7 million having been placed on the game, most of which was placed on his lower ranked opponent.” Davydenko, however, was cleared of all the charges.
This brings us to the third issue. The objective of the “fixer” is generally to maximise profits. If this is true, then it hardly matters if the money is earned in illegal or legal markets. A legal betting forum will only increase the volume of the business, as more people find it easier to gamble, and, enable the “fixer” to earn higher profits through a legitimate route. As long as the “fixers” find it easier to manipulate the system and those involved with it, be it the players, umpires and officials, they will continue to eye the additional profits they can earn.
More importantly, fixers and illegal mafia syndicates can distort legalised betting, especially the online betting exchanges. Ed Hawkins in his book, Bookie Gambler Fixer Spy, relates an incident where an Indian bookmaker, who was allegedly a part of a global illegal betting syndicate, moved the legal odds on Betfair. The bookie boasted that since they could manipulate the legal and illegal odds, and fix games, they ruled the entire betting business. Thus, it is immature to think that legal betting can curtail sports corruption.
Finally, one has to remember that it is imperative to target the factors that contribute to corruption in sports, rather than myopically blame illegal betting for it. As Carpenter pointed out, there were several reasons that contributed to “fixing”, and money was one of them, although he dubbed it as the “main motivation”. In addition, if renowned sports bodies, like FIFA and BCCI are wracked with corruption scandals, how can sports be cleaned up through legal betting?
But there is indeed a silver lining. Legal betting can indeed help the regulators and investigators to track down the fixers. Since a legal activity will leave an online or paper trail, it will become easier for the law-enforcers to pinpoint patterns and distortions that hint at “fixing”. For example, global stock market regulators regularly look at unusual stock movements, and investigate them to find out if the prices were being fixed and manipulated.