VICE Sports Q&A: Ex-Interpol Agent Chris Eaton on What to do About Match-Fixing
An expert talks about the development of the sports betting industry, now worth $2 trillion annually, and how governments can combat about match-fixing and betting fraud.
Baishampayan Ghos, creative commons
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In Declan Hill's 2013 book The Insider's Guide to Match-Fixing in Football, which is an adaptation of his doctoral dissertation, Hill begins with a discussion of the social acceptability of match-fixing in different societies around the world. He notes that the behavior societies find unacceptable—what sociologists term "deviant behavior"—can vary dramatically from country-to-country, culture-to-culture, and that variation can occur in a short time.
"Over the years of human history there are very few practices that have, in one society or another, not been regarded as normal and then deviant and then normal again," writes Hill. "Drug taking, slavery and various sexual practices...have all been regarded in some eras or in some cultures as normal.
"One of the few, almost unique, exceptions is match-fixing."
Hill goes on to argue that, in almost every culture the world over, match-fixing is a deviant behavior. It's viewed by most members of society, in most societies, as wrong.
It's a fascinating observation, but one that troubles me. It's not that I disagree with Hill, or that I have any evidence that runs counter to his observation. What troubles me is this: If match-fixing is viewed as deviant in almost every culture the world over, why is it that the practice of match-fixing is not universally illegal? Hell, it's not even specifically illegal in most countries. Even in countries like Germany, where recent cases of match-fixing scandalized the entire nation, the act of actually fixing a match isn't a crime. Rather, most countries use ad hoc regulations, or existing fraud regulations to go after fixers, which can make things far more complicated for law enforcement.
To try and make sense of how it is that something so universally abhorred is essentially tolerated, VICE Sports reached out to Chris Eaton. Eaton is a veteran of the Victoria Police (Victoria, Australia, is one of few jurisdictions around the world with specific match-fixing regulations) and Interpol. Today, he is the Sports Integrity Director at the International Centre for Sport Security, a Qatari think tank devoted to sporting issues. He is one of the most sought-after voices on the subject of match-fixing and gambling fraud in sports.
In following interview, which has been edited for length and clarity, Eaton paints contemporary match-fixing and betting fraud as thoroughly 21st century problems, problems that pose jurisdictional, law enforcement and regulatory questions that governments simply didn't have to deal with even 10 years ago—and are arguably not equipped to deal with now.
VICE Sports: How big is the gambling industry? What numbers do you use to talk about match-fixing?
Chris Eaton: You must not divorce betting fraud from match-fixing, so let's put it in perspective. The sports betting industry is between 1.5 and 2 trillion dollars a year, turnover. That puts it in the highest five economies in the world, in terms of turnover. Now, the vast majority of that 1.5 or 2 trillion dollars is illegal or under regulated.
We will not give a figure [on how much match-fixing there is], because it's impossible.
VS: It's such a huge problem, and yet little is being done about it. Just to start with, it seems crazy that match-fixing isn't even illegal in most places. Why haven't more countries created specific legislation against match-fixing?
CE: I think, quite frankly, it's a lack of appreciation for the gravity of the offense and the gravity of the circumstances. There are three elements to me that have to be appreciated. One is that [if you consider international events, like the Champions League] there's already a number of jurisdictions involved in the sporting event itself: Often players come from multiple countries, referees come from multiple countries, clubs are often multiple-owned.
Similarly, sport betting is roundly international and global, so you already know that often the people who are committing the betting fraud are not committing it where the match is being fixed. They're probably in Southeast Asia or Central American or Eastern Europe, for instance. And they're defrauding gamblers who are not in the jurisdiction where the match-fix has taken place.
Third, the people involved are of course organized crime, the cartels that are managing both the sporting outcome and the betting fraud. And they're often not in the country where the match is being played.
There's an enormously complex jurisdictional question here. Not only is it a jurisdictional, but it's: Who's going to fund it? Who's going to do it? Is it going to be the German police, if the team is an African team playing a German team with other European referees, where the criminals are operating out of Southeast Asia [through] sporting bookmakers out of Central America?
The problem is, once you have mixed jurisdiction and mixed players from organized crime and sport betting, I think the police and the jurisdictions, the governments, virtually give up.
That is a shocking indictment on the commitment of governments and the commitment of national police themselves. Because you are giving organized crime the most massive free kick by letting them fix matches and commit betting fraud with impunity.
They now have the biggest cash cow that organized crime has ever had. It's bigger than narcotics. It's bigger than people trafficking. It's bigger than arms smuggling, because there is virtually no product, no cross-border risk, and it is all digital money immediately paid out in an international environment. So this reluctance of governments to engage internationally and globally in protecting sport by legalizing and regulating sport betting is an absolute failure of responsibility in the global context. They are really empowering—they're cashing-up—organized crime with this stupidity of letting sport get away with ignoring it and letting sport betting get away with their day-to-day business without really caring about the gamblers of the world being ripped off.
VS: In my experience, fans are pretty apathetic to the issue and the threat it poses to professional sports as we know them. Why do you think that is?
CE: These sorts of global issues that cross over jurisdictions and cross over cultures, they take enormous amounts of time for the negativity to be actually felt in the pocket. Fans don't usually vote with their feet for a long period of time. They like to think this is just a small aberration, or a short-term aberration, and we'll all return to the values of sport. All their heroes will come back and be heroic. Well, right now, sport has been more on the front pages of newspapers than it's been on the back pages of newspapers.
VS: And then there are the leagues. It seems to me sports leagues around the world face a conflict of interest when it comes to match-fixing and gambling fraud. Once incidents of match-fixing make it into the public, the league's brand suffers.
CE: First and foremost, sport governing bodies failed to protect the values of their sport, the credibility of the competition. They focused over the last 15 years primarily on business development and competition development. They've let the values of sport, the real essence of sport, slide as a priority. They thought, 'this will look after itself.' Well it doesn't. You have to look after values.
You can see this with the IAAF. You can see it with FIFA. You can see it with tennis. The whole structure of their integrity responses were all about suppression, not about transparency and confronting the problem immediately. All they've done is put off the disaster, and they've made the disaster bigger and harder to control.
The fact is the incentive should have been driven from the culture, from the belief in the sport values. Those things have clearly disappeared in a rush to become the biggest sport business operators in the world. Only now are we beginning to see just a small step toward appreciating that you have to separate the issues of business from the issues of protecting the integrity and the values of sport.
VS: Perhaps the thing that fascinates me the most about match-fixing and betting fraud is just how modern the issue is. It's really a problem of our time, of the 21st century.
CE: It couldn't survive, it couldn't have done what it's done, it couldn't have grown as fast as it's grown, it couldn't have been as innovative as it has—the innovation in sport betting is absolutely amazing, because it's a business that turns over billions of dollars a day round the world. And when you introduce that sort of turnover into a business, you have enormously talented people finding ways to attract the main part of the dollar.
VS: When fans think about all this, I think they often arrive at a place of helplessness Like, we can't do anything, so we might as well pretend it's not a problem and enjoy what we have.
CE: That's the same for any global problem. The refugee crisis. The narcotic crisis of the 60s and 70s. The people smuggling crises and terror crises of the past five, ten years. These are so big, that people give up and despair. Sadly, even governments.
I think what we're seeing here is two things: We're seeing sport close its eyes and hope for the best, and we're seeing governments turn a blind eye. And these two guys—sport governing bodies and governments—ought to be ashamed of themselves, because they've allowed criminals, who have not closed their eyes and have seen everything, to take complete advantage of the vulnerabilities of sport betting and therefore to rape sport.
VS: So what can be done? People think match-fixing is bad, and it's so difficult to deal with because of the speed and innovation brought about by the internet. It's an issue that takes place on a global scale, outside of the control of any single government.
CE: The first thing you must do is legalize or recognize sport betting globally, around the world. No more of this nonsense of prohibition. All prohibition does is drive sport betting into the netherworld, into the darkness, and that's where criminals thrive.
They've [established a global regulatory structure for] banking. They've done this with other financial instruments around the world, because they recognize the money involved. If you don't control sport betting properly, it will continue to rape sport, and sport—or society—will be the victim.
Now, like in banking where you have "white" or fully-legal banking, you have "white" or fully-legal sport betting, particularly in Europe, or for instance in Australia.
Then you have massive amounts of "gray" sports betting, which operates out of safe haven countries, and they are under-regulated. The regulator doesn't really care about them. We don't even really know who owns these massive organizations. They come out of Southeast Asia, particularly Manilla, in the Philippines, and out of Costa Rica. They probably transact between 40 and 50 percent of the global level of sport betting around the world.
Then you have the "black," totally-illegal sport-betting operations, out of Southeast Asia especially, Eastern Europe, and North America, where sport betting is still illegal.
It sounds to me like you're from America.
VS: I am.
CE: It shocked me [when I learned sports betting was illegal in the United States], given America's experience with prohibition of alcohol. Prohibition was the birthplace of organized crime in that country. Now you're prohibiting sport betting, and the same thing is happening: you're giving a new lease on life to organized crime.
The vulnerabilities of sport betting to fraud has changed over the last 10 years. [It went from small time criminal enterprises to] being controlled by, in a global sense, or at least allied with organized crime cartels around the world, who are controlling the general sport betting fraud activity, and therefore are controlling the funding of match fixers.
This has become so endemic that it's very difficult to overcome in a retrospective enforcement way, let alone a preventative way.
The fact is that unless you reform sport betting. Unless you make that money traceable. Unless you make every gambler, big and small, identifiable, you will not be able to defeat match-fixing, because you will not have taken the money out from the organized crime groups that are taking advantage of it.
VS: So the key is making sports betting transparent?
CE: You have to start where the money goes, mate. It's the old law enforcement attitude. We've learned over the last few generations that the best way to deal with financial crime is to cut the money off at the source. The source of the money to pay for players and referees and administrators—to buy referees and players and administrators, to buy whole clubs—comes from betting fraud. Stop the flow of money from betting fraud by regulating and legalizing betting and making it come under the supervision of government.