Backing yourself

The AFL has handed a lengthy suspension to Collingwood player Jaidyn Stephenson, who was found to have bet a total of $36 on exotic bets, including one that he himself would kick a goal. Stephenson was silly to make the bets, but clearly there was nothing sinister here. This article points out the hypocrisy of the AFLs high-minded stance in combination with their eagerness to take money from the betting companies.

On the other hand, the availability of bets seems to me to make corruption inevitable.

Suppose that a player is willing to break the rules and is short of money. They can get a friend to back them for a large amount to score a goal. Then, they have a strong incentive to take a shot whenever the chance presents itself, even if they could pass to a team-mate in a better position. Or, they could get their friend to back a particular team-mate and pass to that player whenever possible.

I’ve wondered about this for a long time. Is it happening? It seems like it would be just about impossible to detect. It’s worth comparing horse racing, where there have been plenty of examples, even the options for cheating are far more limited – in essence, doping the horse, doing a Fine Cotton style substitution, or riding to lose in full view of the stewards.

19 thoughts on “Backing yourself

  1. “It seems like it would be just about impossible to detect”

    Not as impossible as you might think. Suspicious bets, especially large bets on exotic outcomes, are routinely investigated. If I make a bet on behalf of my footballer friend online then my identity is known immediately. Any social media links with my friend are easily discovered. I can make the bet anonymously at a TAB, but I will be filmed and soon (if not already) my identity can be discovered through facial recognition.

    Of course none of this is foolproof and footballers can cover their tracks if they take enough trouble. But they are footballers. We’re not dealing with Professor Moriarty levels of criminal genius here.

  2. I had never heard of Fine Cotton before. I am still laughing at the Clairol. It sounds like a Donald Westlake novel.

  3. I had never heard of Fine Cotton before. I am still laughing at the Clairol. It sounds like a Donald Westlake novel.

    There have been reports of a lot of corruption in Chineese football and I rememeber seeing a clip where one player made really gallant efforts to get an own goal.

  4. “I don’t think punting on footie games is particularly productive.”

    It’s not meant to be productive. It’s meant to be entertainment, in the sense that it adds to the enjoyment of watching a game. And some people think they can money out of it, of which a small proportion do.

    Not my idea of fun, but who am I to tell other people what to do with their time and money?

  5. Very difficult as you say to fiddle the results of team sports, unlike horse racing. Players must be tempted though to try towards the end of their careers when any sanctions of administrators would have less impact. Horse racing enthusiasts accept that it is all a little dodgy. In fact, that is part of its appeal as exquisitely demonstrated in Gerald Murnane’s ‘Something for the Pain’. It is not hard to understand why gambling companies sponsor the football. Less obvious is why a couple of Melbourne universities should sponsor clubs. The marketing types that now inhabit universities presumably reckon that the costs to the reputation of universities, especially by broadcasting to politicians that they no longer know what they should be doing, is offset by the free tickets available to sponsors at finals time.


    I first became aware of this kind of scheme when I read a detective novel about it. The novel was set in Boston, so it’s possible that the author was inspired by the real-life Boston College case which is mentioned in the Wikipedia article, and also in the the memoir Wiseguy: Life In A Mafia Family, the basis for the film Goodfellas.

  7. Collingwood have made a stand to dump their pokies so it’s not out of character to whack one of their boofhead players for gambling.

    Clubs have done well out of pokies but invariably it has been at the expense of those who can least afford it.

    You can argue about the freedom and right to place a bet but from a sporting clubs perspective it’s hard to set an example of fair play while clearly profiting from the misery of others.

  8. “Very difficult as you say to fiddle the results of team sports” But you don’t have to fiddle the results, unlike a horse race. You can bet on events that are easy for a single player to affect, and only marginally related to the outcome, like first player to kick a goal.

  9. “We’re not dealing with Professor Moriarty levels of criminal genius here.” I guess that’s why so many have been caught in cricket, where this kind of betting has gone on longer. Still, you’d have to imagine that there are plenty of players who are smart enough (or have smart enough friends) to get away with this, and that they are doing so.

  10. First, I would suggest withdrawing all government subsidy from professional sport. This would go a fair way to de-powering professional sport which has become over-influential and over-damaging to our society. Government subsidy of professional sport is extensive and operates as a subsidy, in the main, to already rich and over-privileged people. On any opportunity cost assessment, the monies spent on professional sport could be better spent on wider community initiatives for physical and mental health.

    It’s difficult for a non-academic like me to find hard data on sports subsidies in Australia, direct and implicit. I suspect they are substantial, especially in very politicized fields like football (various codes), cricket, Olympic sports and car racing. I call these “politicized” fields because these sports are used for political exposure and legitimation, for promoting capitalist ideology and consumerism in general and for running the “grey gifts” or money and political favours economy. We can note for example that subsidising sports which facilitate gambling, and have a business relationship with gambling, amounts to an indirect subsidy for gambling itself.

    This article on the US condition sums up some of the issues.

    No doubt, the American case is worse than the Australian case in absolute terms. Whether it is worse on a per capita basis might be open to research.

    Second, I would suggest much greater control of gambling, viewing it as a habit as damaging as smoking and excess alcohol consumption. Thus, we should ban all alcohol and gambling advertising on a basis as stringent as that applied to tobacco in Australia. Promotion of tobacco, alcohol and gambling in relation to any sport, amateur or professional, in any way, should be absolutely banned. So-called “sin taxes”, really Pigouvian taxes, should be set as high as practicably possible without increasing too far the incentive to illegally supply these (dis-)services.

    Of course, none of the above suggestions will ever happen. We will go on destroying our society and our children because that’s we do under the sacrosanct, uncriticisable, unreformable capitalist system.

    “While money doesn’t talk, it swears
    Obscenity, who really cares
    Propaganda, all is phony” – Bob Dylan

    The above from the man who also sold out… to the ladies garments and car industries. I couch it this way to avoid company names. Dylan adopts nihilism (who really cares?) and sells out. It’s the only action possible in the end. If a system generates enough corruption, it corrupts everybody without exception.

  11. Effectively the AFL is protecting the interests of its partner, the gambling industry, by handing out such a draconian penalty.

  12. Seems to me it is always going to be easier to ‘throw’ a game – to deliberately miss an opportunity when it arises – than produce a score to order. It is not the participant betting they will win that is going to cause problems, but them betting that they won’t. I’m not sure this incident is either typical or the sort of gambling that rules are needed for.

  13. Even the most skillful of players can butcher what should be a straightforward scoring opportunity (see Sam Kerr’s penalty shot against Norway) or can make a sub-optimal decision (e.g. to try to score themself rather than passing to a better-placed teammate, or to pass to a less well-placed teammate when they can score themself). How does an observer tell the difference between bona fide skill errors and brain fades on one hand, and a corrupt spot play on the other?

  14. “How does an observer tell the difference between bona fide skill errors and brain fades on one hand, and a corrupt spot play on the other?”

    It’s often very difficult to know, but sometimes it is obvious, as in the case of the late Ryan Tandy, who got a lifetime ban from the NRL. From his Wikipedia entry

    “The Totalisator Agency Board (TAB) announced that 95 per cent of bets placed on the first scoring play of this match were for the unusual option of a Cowboys penalty goal. Friends and associates of Tandy placed a large number of bets and then taken [sic] action in the match to allow the opposing side to score a penalty goal. Tandy gave away possession to the Cowboys in the opening moments of the match by knocking on, and then gave away a penalty. These actions put the Cowboys in a position where a penalty goal was a likely outcome. However, the Cowboys decided on an attacking option and scored a try instead.”

  15. There might not be many of these bets on individual events placed. So it is easier to track and easier for suspicions to be raised. The number of large bets placed might be very small. Keep in mind that a lot of these operations seem to be caught not because people notice a change in the performance of the athlete or referee but because some part of the wider syndicate is detected. With horse racing it is probably easier for the illicit transactions to be lost in the general sea of money.

    In the above Tandy case seems like the amount of bets being placed was the give away.

    I feel that it would be easy for jockeys to throw a race given that the performance of race horses is highly random.

  16. It is easy to imagine people have got away with it, but not really that they have made really significant money out of it. So the risk does not out way the reward given how much athletes earn.

  17. Following up on my earlier comment:
    In the novel I mentioned, the private investigator, hired to investigate rumours of point shaving, obtains videotapes (it’s an old book) of the games, but is unable to confirm whether there’s anything wrong in the games, although he is a sports fan; he has to recruit the assistance of an expert, who is able to pinpoint the moments when one of the players is deliberately not making the best play, with the result that the team misses an opportunity to score. In the novel, an extremely talented player is the key to the scheme; he can control the results because he’s so much better than anybody else on the court. He can always ensure his team wins, if their position ever seems in danger, but he can still ensure that they don’t win by enough to beat the spread.
    In the real life Boston College point shaving scheme organised by Henry Hill and James Burke, the players were not able to control the score consistently; the crooks made a lot of money when the games went to plan, but a number of times the games did not go to plan, which is why (according to Hill) Burke got fed up with the whole scheme and ditched it. (Incidentally, although it’s not even mentioned in the film, this is the crime for which Burke–the original of the film’s Conway–was convicted and imprisoned, on Hill’s testimony.)

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