I was talking to my 16-year-old daughter about the match-fixing scandal that rocked tennis this week on the eve of the Australian Open.
“You mean some of games were rigged?” she asked. “Doesn’t that happen in all sports?”
Well … uh … I don’t know.
Movie fans enter theaters fully aware that the next two hours could demand a “suspension of disbelief.” Some movies – I’m thinking “Die Hard” where Bruce Willis launches a car off a toll- gate abutment into a helicopter that’s hovering at the mouth of a tunnel – require a lot more than others.
But when it comes to sports, we want to believe what we see. Cynical adults (and teenage girls) might call us naïve, but our emotional investment is way too large to view sports as just another scripted drama.
We know pro wrestling is fake. Everything else needs to be on the up-and-up.
Point-shaving? Sure, that has gone on in college basketball at least since the CCNY scandal in 1950. In a 2006 study and another study in 2013, researchers estimated that point-shaving occurred in about 5 percent of regular-season games with double-digit spreads. There have been instances as recently as a few seasons ago, when Auburn guard Varez Ward was arrested on charges of bribery and conspiracy for allegedly trying to shave points.
However, no one except gamblers really care if Team A fails to cover the spread while beating Team B. Our only real concern is Team A intentionally losing a game it would’ve won. There’s a huge difference between “throwing” and “shaving.” Margins of victory are bettors’ primary reason for living, but most of us just want assurance that the victors are legit.
So it was shocking this week when Novak Djokovic, the world’s No.1 men’s tennis player, said someone tried to offer him $200,000 to lose a first-round match at a 2007 tournament in Russia.
“I was approached through people that were working for me at the time,” he told reporters Monday at the Australian Open. “It made me feel terrible because I don’t want to be anyhow linked to this kind of – you know, somebody may call it an opportunity. I don’t support it. I think there is no room for it in any sport, especially in tennis.”
Actually, tennis is the perfect sport to rig.
It’s under-the-radar enough to avoid extensive scrutiny. There are no teammates to foil your plan by playing well. There’s no coach to put you on the bench for a spell. Besides the wiseguys, no one else is involved or required.
According to an investigation by BuzzFeed News and the BCC, there is evidence of widespread match fixing at major tennis tournaments since 2008. Richard Ings, a former anti-corruption executive with the Association of Tennis Professionals, put it this way in the report: “If you were to invent a sport that was tailor-made for match fixing, the sport that you would invent would be called tennis.”
BuzzFeed reports that authorities have been repeatedly warned about a core group of 16 players, all of whom have held Top-50 rankings. None of the players faced and sanctions and the majority of those named are playing in this year’s Australian Open.
“Betting worth billions. Elite players. Violent threats. Covert messages with Sicilian gamblers. And suspicious matches at Wimbledon. Leaked files expose match-fixing evidence that tennis authorities have kept secret for years.” That’s how the report opens.
Tennis officials claim that since the inception of the Tennis Integrity Unit in 2008, 13 low-ranking male players have been disciplined and five players have been banned for fixing. “I can assure you that tennis is not treating this lightly,” ATP president Chris Kermode told BuzzFeed. “The idea that tennis is not acting appropriately is ludicrous.”
More than 20 gambling industry officials – international police, detectives and sports integrity experts – have a different opinion. They told BuzzFeed that world tennis is failing to confront a serious problem within its sport. By not naming names and making public examples of corrupt players, the sport is giving a tacit approval of their behavior.
Frankly, I never knew betting on tennis was a big deal. It isn’t talked about very much over here, but bettors worldwide wager more than $7 billion annually on tennis, according to recent estimates by the United Kingdom Gambling Commission.
It’s easy to understand how a player might succumb to temptation, netting a check from fixers plus the haul from betting against himself. Besides, a player doesn’t always have to pull off a fix. BuzzFeed reports that some cases involved losing, say, the second set. Or reaching a specific score in a specific game, say, 40-40 in the third game of the first set.
Kermode said evidence is much harder to come by compared to information, suspicion or hearsay. But if officials found enough to discipline and suspend players in the past, they should put all findings in the open and conduct their investigations there, too. Maybe that would make players pause before engaging in corrupt activity.
This much is clear: Officials need increased efforts to keep folks from seeing tennis as a racket.