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Ronald Noble, RKN Global’s founder, on Corruption’s Finding Opportunity: Sports and Referees

We have previously discussed that corruption abhors a vacuum, and whenever there is an organizational or institutional structure, gaps and opportunities in that structure will be exploited for corrupt purposes if the costs do not outweigh the benefits for the perpetrators.  In the realm of sport, we have examined how tennis, which as a one-on-one sport (at least in singles tennis) allows one player a great deal of power to alter the outcome of the game, presents extra opportunities for corruption because the game is simpler to fix.

RKN Global’s founder Ronald Noble draws attention to the fact that while not all sports share the small player-count of tennis, some nevertheless put a great deal of power over the course of the game into the hands of one person with a different role: the referee.

While there have certainly been more recent examples, a case of referee corruption from a few years ago still illustrates so well how the combination of a referee’s opportunity and base human instincts can combine to bring about corruption.  In 2013, a Singaporean match-fixer named Ding Si Yang reached out to a Lebanese referee named Ali Sabbagh, who, along with two colleagues, was in Singapore to officiate at an April 3rd Asian Football Confederation soccer game.  Ding reached out to Sabbagh and his friends, setting them up with prostitutes as a bribe to incentivize them to fix the April 3rd game.

A famous basketball case also shows the power of a referee and how that power provides a tantalizing bait for those who might succumb to corruption.  Tim Donaghy was a successful basketball referee, having moved up the chain from refereeing college games to the NBA, where he officiated at almost 800 games over the course of thirteen years. 

In Donaghy’s case, gambling and its addictive properties provided the impetus for him to corruptly abuse the power he held over the sport. For two seasons, Donaghy placed bets on games at which he officiated.  While he denied to authorities that such betting—which is a clear conflict of interest—affected the objectivity of his performance as a referee, any outside observer would have trouble believing this to be true:  Donaghy’s successful bets attracted the attention of professional gamblers, who shadowed his bets and made an unusually large windfall.

Those inclined to believe Donaghy’s claim that he did not fall victim to corruption might claim that the inside information with which he was armed, including information about the starting lineups of the games, player injuries, and team morale, was sufficient to enable him to bet correctly without actually corrupting the outcome of the game himself.   Needless to say, this is hard to believe.  But even if it were true, making bets based on inside information is itself corrupt.

Ronald K. Noble, founder of RKN Global, qualifies that structural weaknesses such as a referee’s tremendous power over the outcome of a game do not necessarily constitute the motivation that drives a referee to become corrupt and fix a match. Instead, it provides the opportunity for corruption when the motivation—be it bribery with sexual favors, a gambling addiction, or some other incentive—manifests itself.

The awareness of structural weaknesses as a magnetic opportunity for corruption in sports—and indeed, in all areas—provides law enforcement as well as private organizations with a guide to where to focus their limited resources and attention when it comes to anti-corruption prevention and enforcement efforts.

RKN Global on Sports Corruption: Doping

Corruption take as many forms as there are areas of human endeavor; this holds true for corruption in specific areas as well.  Match-fixing is one major area of sports corruption; the other major area, doping, made headlines recently with the revelation that numerous athletes, including many medal winners, were discovered to have cheated through doping in the 2008 and 2012 Olympics.

Ronald K. Noble, founder of RKN Global, focuses his attention on sports corruption because even though at first glance it seems to be innocuous, it really does cause tremendous harm to society at large, to the institutions of sport in particular, and to individuals.

Doping is the use of illegal or disapproved chemical substances to give oneself an advantage in a sporting competition.  Athletes who cheat through doping have always looked for ways to hide their activities from authorities, either through timing so that residual particles from the drugs won’t be present in their system at the time of testing, or through the use of drugs that are undetectable.  Authorities remain one step behind these athletes, in a sense, because it takes time to realize that a new method for hiding doping has been created.  On the other hand, now that samples can be stored for years, the science of drug detection catches up to the cheaters.  This is what happened in the instant case.

RKN Global founder Ronald Noble has great confidence in the every growing forensic capabilities of law enforcement and sports authorities, combined with important initiatives to dissuade athletes and those who support them from engaging in doping and other forms of corruption of sport.

Recently, a large doping program was discovered to have been run by Russia.  In the wake of this discovery, Olympic officials began testing old samples from the 2008 and 2012 Olympics.  The result is that over 75 athletes from those Olympics were found to have been doping.  Forty or more of them were medal winners.  Those found guilty have been disqualified, and their medals awarded to the next-best-performing competitors.

While this results in some justice in that the violators have been stripped of their medals, it does not provide complete solace to those who really won.  American high jumper Chaunte Lowe discovered this week—8 years after she competed—that she won a bronze medal.  While satisfying, she cannot get back the opportunities that would have been available to her had she been recognized in 2008:  Sponsorships and other financial doors have subsequently shut as she has aged out of her sports career.

The damage caused by corruption cannot be easily undone.  And while the battle against doping and sports corruption continues, at least in this case a partial victory has been gained against those who would corrupt sport and wrongfully seize the opportunities of victory for themselves.

RKN Global on Sports Corruption: More on Why They Do It By Ronald Noble

Sports corruption in general, and match-fixing in particular, is largely driven by money.  Organized crime is, of course, motivated by money—the money they can make and the money they can launder in altering the results of sporting events and gambling correctly on the outcomes they control.  It is less obvious why players, who have devoted their lives to a sport which is typically their passion, would throw away their passion and their integrity “just” for money.

Ronald K. Noble, founder of RKN Global, notes that while for some people, greed is enough reason to participate in corruption, it often is not sufficient by itself.  On the contrary, even when money is a factor in a sport player’s participation in match-fixing, it is on the flip side, where the player is not motivated by greed but by dire financial circumstances and the need to feed his or her family.  However, there are other reasons that combine with financial rewards that lead players down the road to sports corruption.

One of those factors is the appearance of harmlessness.  The action requested of the player—at least at first—doesn’t seem so bad.  Once he has done it, however, the person who asked him to do it has the upper hand:  he can say to the player, “now you’ve cheated, unless you help me fix one more game, I’ll report you and your career will be over.”   But the first opening is one where the player is presented with something that doesn’t look like the end of the world.

A player once recalled how this approach looked in soccer, when he was asked to help the other team win by three or more goals: “For you, it’s very difficult to win. . .”  Translation: You’re going to lose anyway, so I’m not asking you to change the outcome.  Your team isn’t going to lose any more.  So you’re not hurting anybody, and you’ll make a nice amount of easy money.  Come on, help us out, everybody wins. . .

RKN Global’s founder, Ronald K. Noble, says that sometimes, the players are lulled into participating in corruption because the request doesn’t even affect the score.  Since people can bet on numerous details of sporting events, a player might be asked to fix one of these details.  His team’s chances of winning remain basically the same, he reasons.

Of course, the match-fixing is far from harmless, as we have seen previously.

RKN Global on Corruption in Sports, Part 4: The Whys of Corruption

Once we develop an appreciation for the harm that corruption causes in sports or any other field, we naturally want to look for ways to prevent it and stop it from occurring.  In general, as well as in the specific case of sports corruption and match-fixing in particular, it is important to understand why people participate in corrupt schemes in order to address those underlying reasons in developing a societal response.

Ronald K. Noble, founder of RKN Global, identifies a number of factors that lead previously honest people into corruption.  They include financial pressure and the lure of easy wealth, the innocuousness of the first step down the path of corruption, the role of organized crime in drawing them in, pressure from corrupt club management, the structure of sporting leagues (such as relegation systems), and the institutionalized weaknesses that many sports possess which make corruption more attractive and easier to put into effect.

Money is perhaps the most obvious of reasons that people descend the path to corruption.  It is not always greed, however, that is the motivator.  Sometimes, players are so poor that they struggle to make ends meet and support their families.  This was the case for Croation soccer player Mario Cizmek, who went fourteen months without a regular paycheck, as well as players like Omar Pape, a Senegalese player playing for a Swiss team that was relegated to a lower division, slashing his paycheck, who was then primed to be seduced by the money offered to him in exchange for playing with less than his best effort.

While salaries at the highest levels of many sports, including soccer, are often astronomically high, the majority of even professional players do not earn such enviable sums of money.  Top level players do extraordinarily well, often making the equivalent of millions of dollars.  In the lower leagues, however, those numbers plummet.  A recent survey of Brazilian football players, for example, revealed that 82% of them made no more than 1,000 reals a month, the equivalent of about $250 dollars, just over the minimum wage. 

RKN Global and Ronald K. Noble insist that corruption is not inevitable. Players can resist the temptation to commit match-fixing, in spite of the financial hardships they find themselves under.  However, the sad, human reality is that many do not.

It is important for us as a society to empower those players to stand firm in the face of those who would corrupt them, no matter what hardship they are under and no matter what windfall is offered to them.

Ronald K. Noble on Sports Corruption: The Human Toll of Match-fixing

Corruption in sports is an everyday occurrence.  It can strike every sport at any level, anywhere in the world. Examples of fixed matches, as well as doping scandals, abound. Yet rarely do the disgraced come forward and talk about how their lives were destroyed because they succumbed to corruption.  Several years ago, a Croatian soccer player did exactly that.

RKN Global’s founder Ronald K. Noble underlines the human suffering—of those who were innocent and get corrupted—caused by match-fixing.  The future integrity of many of our youth and of their heroes depends on how well we combat corruption in sports.

Mario Cizmek had a successful career in football spanning twenty years. He overcame the difficulties of living with diabetes to play for FC Zagreb from age eighteen to twenty-six, then becoming a free player in various countries and finally playing for FC Croatia Sesvete.

His club fell on hard times, and the players went months—fourteen months—without getting their regular salaries.  This led to desperation, where all the attention and care of the players was how they would make ends meet.  “We had no money, and we no longer spoke about training or football, but only about how we were going to survive,” described Cizmek.  The situation made them ripe for corruption by match-fixers.

A former coach of a well-regarded team made himself a presence among the team members, and insinuated himself into their lives.  The way that Cizmek described it,

“He was always somewhere around the field, at places where players socialized such as at coffee bars.  He literally became part of us, because he was always with us.  He used his good psychological skills to convince us to trust him and to feel safe.  Occasionally he [lent] some of our players money and he was often trying to convince us that we would succeed in getting a big transfer.  He seemed like a real savior and he really had a big influence on us.”

Ronald K. Noble and RKN Global underscore the insidious and well-planned way in which organized crime corrupts players.  They learn the players’ weaknesses, gain their trust, and exploit them, making them participants in crime and destroying their lives.

Cizmek intended to take the money for losing one game, but once he was in, he could not get out.  In total, he fixed six soccer games before he was arrested in front of his wife and daughter.  Cizmek was sentenced to ten months in prison.

He lost his job.  He lost his friends. He lost his wife.   He lost his passion.  “All of my achievements are erased as if they never existed,” he said.

Mario Cizmek is one example of a promising life destroyed by corruption. It is essential that we equip our youth who are involved in sports with training and education on how to recognize and avoid the machinations of those who would use and discard them for corrupt and evil gains.

RKN Global on Corruption in Sports: Match-fixing: How Bad Can It Be?

Match-fixing, the wrongful manipulation of a sporting competition, is an insidious form of corruption that is far from being child’s play.  While there is a growing consensus about the dangers of match-fixing in the sports world and among legal authorities, there are occasionally those who argue otherwise.  Their arguments are wrong and unsupported, and need to be addressed.

In particular, they argue that people watch sports for their entertainment, and don’t really care whether a match is fixed or not.  They further contend that changing details within a game (like the score, or an on-field detail) that doesn’t affect who wins and who loses is harmless because the outcome of the game is still uncertain.  Finally, they argue that players who take bribes and succumb to other corrupt enticements are just looking to maximize their profits, just like anyone else in business.

Ronald K. Noble and RKN Global stand at the forefront of trying to combat various forms of corruption.  They emphasize that the “harmlessness” of match-fixing and sports corruption is really an illusion—the harms are very real.

One significant problem is that match-fixing comes together with a package of other crimes, including violent crimes like murder. Another is that match-fixing hurts sports players, the values of our society, the values that we pass on to our children, and our very society itself.

Among the violent crimes that match-fixing often brings in its wake are murder, assault, and extortion.  In 2013, for example, an Indian inspector instituted the first step in legal proceedings relating to a match-fixing case in Indian cricket.  He stated in his complaint that organized crime figures are

“are contacting cricket players who have been recently engaged by IPL sponsors at very high prices for the respective teams with a view to stage-managing some matches to make windfall gains through several bookies, who facilitate illegal gambling in the sport. Players who will be ‘fixed’ will be paid huge amounts of money to underperform during pre-decided bowling overs/spells.”

Less than two days later, the inspector, Badrish Dutt, was found shot to death next to his girlfriend at his flat.  Some have argued that he was murdered by crime organizations because of his investigation into match-fixing.

RKN Global’s founder Ronald K. Noble says that corruption in sports is no mere game.  Corruption is often accompanied by the lowest and most heinous crimes.

There have also been cases of suicide by players who have been caught or accused of match-fixing, and suspicious murders of numerous football directors in Bulgaria, among others.

Already five years ago, the Bochum, Germany Police Commissioner, Friedhelm Althans stated that “I can’t identify the people who have died [from match-fixing], but I certainly believe it.”

Match-fixing is, therefore, not “harmless” sports corruption.