Match Fixing & the NBA

Soccer in the Lower German Leagues, a Target for Bribery

For a few sweet hours on Saturday, none of that mattered. SSV Ulm beat F.C. Eintracht Bamberg, 3-1. The Ulmers dominated the game and loved every minute of it.

Who cared that only 39 fans in Ulm’s black-and-white colors made the trip to Bamberg, a journey of about 155 miles, or that the Neu-Ulmer Zeitung newspaper had not bothered to send a reporter?

For those few hours, everyone could forget that three of Ulm’s best players had recently been fired after they were accused of fixing matches.

The three fired players — Davor Kraljevic, 31; Dinko Radojevic, 31; and Marijo Marinovic, 26 — are a case in point. They are under investigation and suspected of rigging four matches last season and two matches this season for several thousand euros each.

Earning $4,500 to $6,000 a month, they were among the best and highest-paid players on the team. But as one official familiar with the investigation explains, their choice was between $525 in taxable bonus payments if the team had won, and about $7,500 in cash per rigged match.

“Their calculation was, get paid well to lose or get paid poorly to win,” said the official, who declined to be identified because the investigation is continuing.

Over 200 games across Europe are currently under investigation which makes the NBA’s Tim Donaghy scandal look minor league. Follow up from yesterday is here. An excerpt:

What broke Marcel Schuon was his fear of the gun.

A middling player in Germany’s second-tier soccer league, Schuon had gambled away everything. He had borrowed from the bank. Built up debts with a dingy betting office. Borrowed more. Gambled more. Lost more.

But Schuon, 24, had always resisted when the betting office owner offered “an easy solution” — an own goal, or a handball in Schuon’s team’s next road game.

Then, in early April, a man at the betting office told him that the boss, a man identified by Schuon’s lawyer and the German news media as Nurettin G. — a stocky Turk in his 30s — had a gun. When Schuon next met the boss, on the city outskirts, he agreed to throw a game against Augsburg in return for having 20,000 euros, or about $30,000, in betting debts excused.

FIFA, soccer’s equivalent of the NCAA, is investigating but Declan Hill, author of The Fix: Soccer and Organized Crime, remains unimpressed:

European and North American soccer needs a proper system for reporting attempted corruption. Imagine that you are a professional player in some soccer league, and a criminal approaches you to fix a game. What do you do now? Who do you report it to?

The corruptors are really good at this type of approach. During my research, I wore a secret wire to meetings with fixers, runners and some of the players they met. The fixers are very professional. They know what to say to the players. In the usual fix, they will say something that isolates a player from the rest of the team: “You do know that your coach is on our payroll ” or “We control your team owner. He gets his cash from us.”

In the best case, these kinds of statements are untrue, but they put doubt in a player’s mind. In many cases, they are actually true and remind the player that if he tells anyone, he may face some very serious consequences.

Establish an independent security unit with a telephone hot line that every player and coach knows he must call if approached to fix a game. This is what the Danish Football Association has done. It leads the soccer world at the moment in anticorruption measures, because it is one of the only soccer associations to have taken this issue seriously.

Another reform is to adopt the rule used in professional tennis. This is another sport that has been hit by a wave of gambling and allegations of fixing. It was not that all or even a number of players were fixing matches, but it was that when many tennis players heard about fixing or corrupt approaches, they would not tell the authorities for fear of being labeled a rat. There was a culture of acceptance. The tennis officials, in large part, changed this culture by adopting a policy under which the players must tell the authorities if approached to fix a game.

Soccer officials should learn from tennis and start to put into place some of their anticorruption policies.

Give the NBA some credit, at least the only betting scandal they’ve had so far involved a referee. They’re also much more vigilant, at least on the surface, about keeping gambling out of the game. Kings scout Jack Mai was recently fired and banned for betting on games as recently as last season. But anytime you have current and former players with gambling debts, it doesn’t take much imagination to read the stories above and figure out the quickest way for athletes at any level to get back to even.

In an NCAA survey of 2,000 football players, 102 admitted they’d taken money to play poorly, knew a teammate who had taken money, been threatened or harmed because of sports wagering or been contacted by an outside source to share information.

One of those “outside” sources used to be Michael Franzese, or at least guys who worked for the former capo of New York’s notorious Colombo Family.

“The leagues and the NCAA realize they can overcome a lot. They can overcome the steroid issues. They can overcome the harassment issues and guys getting in trouble for guns, and (fans) will still come back. But if there is a gambling scandal, if fans think athletes are doing something to change the nature of the competition, that is going to be a problem,” Franzese says.

“It has always been a big fear and it’s very real. Athletes have a propensity to gamble. It’s an extension of their competitive spirit and if they get themselves in trouble, get addicted, you know they’ll do something to affect the outcome of a game. It’s that simple. That’s what the leagues are afraid of.”

This article from 2003 by Tom Farrey was almost prophetic:

As the NBA moves forward, the league may find out whether it was decades of anti-gambling zealotry or mere coincidence that kept its games clean all these years.

“Will we look back (a decade from now) and see a much, much stronger alliance between gambling and sports? That’s probably going to happen,” [Tom McMillen, former NBA player and Maryland congressman] said. “And if that happens, all you need is one major incident and you can do tremendous damage to the integrity of sports. I think that’s a risk factor that professional sports, and particularly the NBA, need to take a look at.”

Bill Simmons from 2007 (When the Donaghy story first broke):

…When news of the Donaghy scandal broke, everyone’s reaction was the same: “Which one?”

That’s why I had one group of friends frantically organizing a “Who was the crooked ref?” office pool on Friday morning instead of wondering, “How could this happen?” That’s why [David] Stern ignored the FBI’s advice and used such harsh language in his official statement on Friday; nobody understands the gravity of this crisis more than someone who grew up in New York in the ’50s during CCNY’s famous point-shaving scandal. This was his worst nightmare, worse than a repeat of the Artest Melee, worse than a repeat of Kermit Washington’s punch, worse than anything except a terrorist act during an NBA game. Over everything else, Stern always wanted his fans to feel completely safe when they’re attending games, and he always wanted them to believe that the integrity of the game was intact. Now, they don’t feel that way. At all.

Don’t think the NFL or any other sport is immune to this either. How easy would it be to pay off a quarterback to make sure his team doesn’t cover? The scariest part is that if the fixing is done right there’s no way for us to know. This doesn’t mean I’m going to stop gambling anytime soon, but we do need to be aware. Justin’s dad gives us all some good advice, “Son, people will always try and fuck you. Don’t waste your life planning for a fucking, just be alert when your pants are down.”