Enlist fans in corruption fight
The Australian Crime Commission's report into the extent to which performance-enhancing drugs have become entwined in professional sport - and in certain amateur sports as well - has met with a gratifyingly quick response from all parties. Club officials, coaches and administrators have welcomed the report and declared their willingness to co-operate with current and future investigations. The federal government and the Australian Sports Anti-Doping Authority have promised to introduce powers to catch drug cheats and to compel athletes, coaches, doctors, sports scientists and other officials to give evidence against alleged malefactors. Indeed, Sports Minister Kate Lundy told the media on Thursday that "if you want to dope and cheat, we will catch you''.
A fear of apprehension, combined with meaningful penalties for those found guilty of rule violations, will certainly go a long way towards minimising the scourge of drugs in sport. It will not eliminate it entirely, of course, since there will always be individuals who believe they can outwit the system, as well as unscrupulous club owners, coaches, and sports doctors or scientists who are prepared to corrupt or hoodwink young and callow athletes in the pursuit of sporting glory.
The other scourge identified in the ACC report was the susceptibility of professional sports to manipulation by criminal elements (including match-fixing). In the view of many, this is a far more serious problem than drug-taking, and likely to be much harder to eliminate.
Some Australian football and rugby league coaches assert that it is difficult to fix matches in "bouncing ball games'' where teams comprise a dozen or more players, and perhaps it is. But it's not impossible. A European Union intelligence report released this week found that the results of hundreds of professional football matches, including World Cup qualifiers, had been rigged. The corrosive effect that betting can have on professional team sports was demonstrated as long ago as 1919, when eight players from the Chicago White Sox team conspired with gamblers to throw the World Series.
Nowadays, gambling is an even more prominent aspect of professional sport, with betting odds regularly updated during broadcasts, and bookmakers advertising during the commercial breaks. All of it suggests the various football leagues and their broadcast partners have given their imprimatur to gambling. The bewildering array of wagers and bets also adds to the temptation to gamble, and possibly to manipulate or suborn individual players.
The major sports codes have said they will establish "integrity units'' to counter match-fixing, but a more effective approach might be to dissociate themselves entirely from gambling. That would potentially involve reduced revenue from television broadcast rights, however, something that most, if not all of those who run the football codes would be reluctant to contemplate.
It is the commercialisation of sport - the imperative to strike ever more lucrative broadcast deals, to sell more merchandise, to seek more sponsors, to buy more expensive players, and to leave no stone unturned in the pursuit of a competitive edge - that is arguably at the heart of the malaise identified by the ACC.
The administrators are to be applauded for their willingness to back measures to stamp out illicit drug use, but some give the impression they are anxious to put the episode behind them so as to avoid distractions for the coming season. Jake White, who coaches the ACT Brumbies, maintains that rugby union's unpredictable nature protects it from match-fixing. Be that as it may, rugby at an international level is not a code that has proved immune from accusations of cheating or drug-taking.
The tendency of administrators to downplay or minimise the extent to which their sport might have been corrupted, or to pin the blame on a few "bad apples'', is understandable, if not excusable. Giving anti-doping authorities stronger powers should ensure the codes are less willing to sweep problems under the carpet.
Administrators will also be encouraged to act more decisively if key club and code sponsors review their commercial deals, as some have indicated they might do. It is here that sports fans can play a role, too, if they choose - by resorting to social media to query or criticise those companies which underwrite cheating through their sponsorship deals. For a group that has long complained of being ignored or overlooked by the clubs and administrators, this is an opportunity not be be missed.