Friday, June 1, 2012

Soccer Scandals and Moral Costs of Throwing a Game

Europeans are gathering around the launch of a new cup sequence. The first qualifiers are about to be played for the World Cup and the world's eyes slowly turn to soccer. The upcoming Olympics will cross our eyes for awhile, but the focus of several billion human beings will turn to soccer over the next eighteen months. The dominance, power and beauty of soccer reminds us that it is by far the world's favorite sport to play and watch. Yet it has been bedeviled for decades by vast schemes of corruption and thrown games. I would like to discuss the moral costs of throwing a game in soccer or any sport.

A recent article in ESPN The Magazine (5/28/12, pp. 78-84) traces the immense scope of the corruption and game fixing that permeates the sport. The sheer dimensions and sprawl of the sport make it almost impossible to control.  Over 10,000 teams, 280,000 players coupled with referees and officials spawn a complex of almost 400,000 people plus 108 seldom solvent national federations.

Skilled fixers can gain entry to the game at almost any spot. The entire world of fixing games has been turbo-charged by huge Asian gambling syndicates that can target any game in the world and through on line computer gaming place immense numbers of small bets to generate staggering sums of return on isolated or under-regulated games. The new betting sequences resemble the micro-trading techniques of Wall Street with very large numbers of small bets being place in very short time periods of relatively unseen activities. The profits return fast and opaque.

Often these involve bribing players to "throw games," at other times they subvert referees who are paid minimum stipends and, like low level players, cannot make a living at their jobs. It does not take much to throw a game in a small low level league in Uruguay or Belarus.

I want to isolate the moral costs of such fixing and scandals to the core of sports and why players play and people passionately follow and care. The costs not only involve the immediate loss, but a deeper loss of credibility to the beauty and moral core of why humans take sports so seriously.

All this came to the fore two years ago at  huge European soccer scandal. The scandal involved immense and systematic subversion of hundreds of games across Europe by a wide variety of means, but mainly by bribing players to underplay and throw the game to meet a spread. The scandal was supported by a syndicate but now almost seems quaint compared to the web-driven on line gambling operations of the Asian dealers. The scandal involved not just players but coaches and in some accounts, doctors, trainers or hotels who gave sedatives to players to incapacitate them or subvert their skills during a game. Many of the games occurred at the lower levels of European soccer  involving East European teams like the Albanian club in the picture. This focus upon less visible games is not unusual for gambling corruption. The teams are often underpaid and avoid the spotlight of big name events. The entire Chinese soccer system has collapsed under the weight of incessant scandals involving not only corrupt referees but also players who throw the games.

What are the true moral costs of athletics of these scandals and why are they so profoundly wrong?

Sports is a game. We forget this at a our peril. Games depend upon rules. Without rules that define goals, outcomes, correct behavior and success or failure, the activity collapses into anarchy like medieval village "games." The skills, competition and assessment would be meaningless. Because they are games, sports remain incredibly vulnerable to subversion. The whole moral edifice can easily crumble.

The point of the game is to excel and win. The point of any sport is that when it starts, the outcome is uncertain, no one knows what can happen. True sport is unscripted  and that drives the moral vision of committing and excelling in competition. Scripted competition is not competition and not sport; sport thrives on uncertainty and effort and performance in the moment.

Gambling drives to win money on teams that win or lose against the odds or beat point spreads. Gambling involves "games of chance," but cheating at gambling turns the chance into certainty. Gambling motivated sports cheating  turns the uncertainty of active competition into a certainty based upon players deciding not to play up to their full potential in order to make money from the gamblers who have far more to make or lose on the game than any one player. Players can underplay or referees can call phantom fouls that disqualify players or set up high probability scoring situations. Either way, the competition is rigged and no longer becomes competition because uncertainty has gone. Skill, work and luck no longer determine the outcome; gamblers setting spreads five thousand miles away do.

The corruption of referees destroys the games logic and structure. The rules mean nothing unless they are interpreted fairly and transparently. This depends upon the referees. Players contribute to play because they believe they have a fair chance to compete under the rules. Once the rules are twisted by referees who have determined who they want to win and how, the game becomes meaningless. It has no meaning because it has lost its moral structure which depends upon rules and the rules depend upon transparent and consistent interpretation. The corruption of referees means the games need not even be played. The ESPN article actually documents phantom games that are set up, bet upon and never played--the logical conclusion of fixed games.

Throwing a game involves a more complex moral phenomenon for the athlete. Throwing a game violates the core integrity of athletic competition. The moral algorithm of integrity in sports might look something like this:


Gamblers persuading players to throw a game attack all three dimensions of athletic integrity. The insidious aspect of throwing a game arises not when a player must change the win/lose outcome but rather has to act to keep in the point spread. A player can rationalize this by saying "I'm not losing the game, we're still going to win, I'm just keeping the score close or within the spread." This hides the true moral cost from the player because the team still wins.

First the player must rein in or distort their skill. They must miss passes they normally would make or miss a header they would normally connect with. Second, they give less then what is required or a situation. A true athlete exists as totally present to the situation and commits their mind, perception and body to what is called forth. But holding back effort might mean a player gets by a defender or a player loses a scrum for a ball. Either way, they pull back from what is required of their effort. Third, in the most torturous situation, a player must subvert their judgment to make bad decisions. This is actually harder than it seems because it assumes the player knows what to do and all their training, pattern recognition and primed behavior push them in that direction. The player must instead make a bad decision, knowing what a good one is, and yet make it seem as if this was their natural primed decision.

In throwing a game a player betrays him or herself and violates their relation to their identity as an athlete. The athlete chooses to not play up to their maximum skill during a competition. The athlete chooses to sacrifice her or his exquisite judgment in a complex instant and decide badly, knowing it is a bad decision--this is not a mistake, it is sabotage.

The most difficult to ferret out is when the athlete "dogs" it and does not give their full effort or concentration. Even if skilled and judging well, they mar their actions with less effort bringing down their level of expected excellence. The athlete violates their promises to their teammates to give all their energy and focus to achieve a common goal. The athlete violates their relation to their fans by not providing the fullest commitment to perform before them or to achieve on their behalf when they have paid money or invested time and attention to the team and player. At the end the athlete is no longer the same person they were before they cheat, they cheapen their personhood.

Throwing a game also violates their relation to the integrity of the game to which they have devoted their lives and breaches their relation to their teammates. Each teammate depends upon the focused and energetic skill of their fellow members. If one player fails, even in minute ways, this ripples out and distorts the play of everyone else. Players bond as a team committed to a common goal of excellent performance and winning. They implicitly rely upon finely tuned responses to each others skill and rhythm. These goals enable players to overcome their egos and differences to cooperate and sacrifice together. Maximum team play hinges on mutual trust; once gone or even eroded by suspicion, effective performance corrodes.

Finally throwing a game disregards faith with the spectators and fans who invest money, time and emotional loyalty in following the team. These persons (for good or ill) commit to the team and follow its members and stake emotional and intellectual energy on them. I'm not even talking about how players throw over their promises to owners when they accept the owner's pay to act with  skill, effort and judgment. Ironically gamblers sever any relation to teams because they only care about the spread or win/loss, not the quality of play or their own loyalties.

Gambling seeks certainty for gain using  money to distort the play and change the odds of an outcome. Sport competitions are not games of chance. They are athletic competitions decided by human beings exercising skill, effort and judgment under intense competitive conditions against players and environments. Skill, force, effort, coordination, judgment and, yes, chance all play roles in the outcomes. Gamblers can figure out probabilities based upon differential information, but their probabilities of chance fundamentally differ fundamentally from the real life probabilities players deploy.

Throwing a game corrupts the moral core of sports integrity. This moral perversion eliminates the point of the game.

1 comment:

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