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Is the ICC at fault?

I’ve heard various people suggesting in the last 24 hours that the ICC is somehow at fault over spot fixing, with the accusation being that they have sat on their hands about it for a long time.

I’m no apologist for the ICC, but having interacted with their integrity team a number of times over the years, I think there are a number of reasons why the charge is unfair.

First of all, there is a limit to what the ICC can do in the absence of hard evidence. You would think that the News of the World evidence is as good as you can get, but it won’t surprise me if the police fail to secure a criminal conviction out of it. A world governing body of sport has to tread very carefully before depriving someone of a career. I hope that if these allegations prove accurate, the ICC do not find their hands tied by some legal technicality.

Second, the ICC is not the regulatory body creating the black market. There is only one set of people who can pull the rug from under the feet of the black market, and that’s governments. While governments continue to outlaw betting, people who think it perfectly legitimate to express their view will have no option but to do so in the black market. As a result, backstreet bookmakers will continue to make prices and build up positions that are heavily weighted towards a specific outcome, which makes it worth their while to pay for that outcome to be secured. If you could pull a large slice of the opaque market into the transparent, regulated market, you would go a long way to solving the problem.

Third, the ICC was not only one of the first governing bodies in sport to take advantage of free information offered to them about betting taking place on their sport, but it also started to educate young up-and-coming players about the issues of sports corruption long before half of their counterparts had even thought about it. They have the most comprehensive programme in sport. They get to young potential stars very early, to save them from getting themselves into deep water.

Imran Khan was asked on Five Live tonight what can be done to protect the players, with the implication being that they are being coerced into doing horrible things. All credit to him that he replied that it was not about protecting young players, because you couldn’t protect them from greed. He recognised immediately, and made no secret of his view, that in the vast majority of cases, this is not about coercion and kidnapping, but about the offer of financial reward which greedy, corrupt people will take.

The ICC education programme has been all about making sure that it is not about coercion and kidnapping. When pundits suggest, as happened on Five Live tonight, that “if I were asked to bowl a no-ball or my mother would be kidnapped, I’d do it”, they are way behind where the ICC is at. The ICC has been working to mitigate this problem for much of the last decade.

How do they do it? They get to players when they are young – well before they ‘make it’, which must mean that they cover a lot of players who never do – and they warn them that ‘friends’ might ask them for seemingly harmless information about the pitch, or what their team is likely to do if they win the toss. They warn them that if they pass on that information, they may suddenly find themselves on the wrong side of the line. They warn them that the ‘friends’ may suddenly blackmail them: they have broken the rules and that they will be shopped, unless they go one step further and just help them out. They warn then, in other words, about the slippery slope; and how to avoid the top of it.

So the ICC is completely on top of all these issues which pundits are suddenly coming out with as measures that need addressing. But what they cannot do, as a world governing body of sport, is stop unscrupulous, greedy, corrupt people from taking money to secure micro or macro outcomes of events in which they are taking part, if those people are being offered large sums of money by other unscrupulous, greedy, corrupt people whose source of wealth is coming from illegal markets which governments exacerbate by their failure to regulate properly.

In the midst of this, National Governing bodies of sport in the UK will be ill-served if they try to hijack this unfortunate position by encouraging legislation which will just grow the black market which causes the problems. Their sports betting group’s desire to go on the front foot over this issue by calling for a reduction in novelty bets in the UK strikes me as bizarre.It could be a turning point in their fight for a sports betting levy.

It seems painfully obvious, in the case of this particular ‘betting scandal’, that the scandal has less to do with betting than it has to do with outright fraud. Equally,  it is evident that the problem in question is not in any way exacerbated by the regulated UK betting market. Such, at least, appeared the almost unanimous view of the callers to this morning’s Five Live phone-in, as it has been of those journalists with whom I have discussed the issue today – some of whom are, in general, sympathetic to the NGBs’ basic cause.

In that context, using the current scandal as an excuse to call for a levy from UK bookmakers “to help them clean up sport” suggests strongly that their agenda is more about ‘getting a piece of the action’ than it is about governing sport. The issues raised by the Pakistan betting allegations are ones for governments to deal with by creating a licensed betting environment, and sports to deal with (as the ICC has striven to do), by educating players. They are not something that any UK-licensed bookmaker can either influence or solve.

There is a reason why the UK, which has the most open regulatory system in the world (which allows any operator which passes a threshold of requirements to accept bets from its citizens), has the smallest black market in the betting world; and a reason, too, why France, (with a system which seeks to outlaw some types of betting for competition reasons) does not. There is a reason why the biggest black markets in betting are believed to be on the sub-continent (where betting is illegal), in Japan (where there’s a state monopoly), in Hong Kong (where there’s a state monopoly), and in the United States (where online betting is banned).

The current betting scandal underlines more clearly than any to date the dangers of doing anything which makes betting opaque. The French model of regulation is undeniably more opaque than the British one, for all the fact that the British one is not perfect. Anyone responsible for governing sport in this country who makes calls to the contrary either doesn’t understand the problem that we are all dealing with, or believes that the pursuit of an agenda is more important than protecting sport from corruption.

I’m not sure which is worse.

Posted in Betting industry, Europe, Regulation, United States.

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