New Zealand sport and gambling have been uneasy bedfellows of late. Whether it’s an entire game, or just some of its exponents, the links between our leading sports figures and gambling have been coming under ever-increasing scrutiny—and what is revealed has often been far from edifying.
Sportsmen (it does generally seem to be men) have always liked to gamble. To be successful in sport at the highest level, you have to enjoy winning. A lot. And experience tells us that those who like to win in one area of life often have the same sort of desires elsewhere. However, it does seem that some New Zealand sports stars have found difficulty in recent years in distinguishing between what is acceptable and what is not when it comes to gambling.
In some cases, fear has caused a sport’s governing body to take pre-emptive, preventative action, only too painfully aware of the danger to a game’s integrity that can be wrought by a betting scandal of any description.
New Zealand Rugby, for instance, earlier this year introduced strict new guidelines regarding betting on matches, not only for players, but for their families too. The Anti-Corruption and Betting Regulations are based on guidelines issued by the International Rugby Board (IRB) and affect New Zealand’s 2000 professional players, team officials and others associated with the game. All are now required to sign an anti-corruption pledge as part of an intensive education programme of seminars presented by NZR staff.
This has been a pre-emptive move by NZR, and as General Manager Neil Sorensen said, “We want rugby to remain an honest test of skill and ability. Our sport has a good record, but we can’t take it for granted. We’ve seen international examples of the damage that corruption can do to sport and we don’t want to see that happen in rugby.”
The NRL too has had to take action to deal with gambling in their code, although in their case it was a reactive rather than a preventative measure. Earlier this year, eight players were found to have bet on matches in contravention of the league’s rules, resulting in bans from competitive games and fines. Slade Griffin who was born in Australia but has represented New Zealand at under-18 level, was one of those banned for two matches for betting on games involving his own club, Melbourne Storm.
However, these are small beer compared to the biggest cases that have not only gripped New Zealand but have grabbed headlines around the world.
Since September of this year, New Zealand jockeys have faced stringent new rules that prevent them from betting on any race anywhere in the country if they are riding on the same day. Contrary to the legislation in most other racing countries, until this change Kiwi hoops have been able to bet on horses they were riding, as well as on any other race they weren’t riding in. The 150 or so licensed jockeys in the country are now also only allowed to place bets via an electronic account in their name with New Zealand’s TAB.
The reason behind the tough new legislation was a scandal that had an impact on the racing fraternity around the world. Jockey David Walker was banned from riding for seven years when he was found guilty of pulling up two horses he was riding in meetings at Waverley in July and Awapuni in August, after making head-to-head bets on other horses in the same races.
And then there is the Daddy of all New Zealand sports betting scandals. Former Black Cap batsman Lou Vincent was banned from cricket for life in July 2014 after he confessed to fixing matches along with a teammate. He admitted a total of 18 offences, including having fixed the outcome of a T20 fixture between Sussex and Lancashire, and a 40-over match between Sussex and Kent in August 2011.
But the ramifications have been more far reaching, and have dragged in other players, most notably star all-rounder Chris Cairns, once the poster boy of New Zealand cricket, who is currently appearing in court in London charged with perjury.
In January 2010, Indian Premier League founder Lalit Modi tweeted that Cairns had been removed from the IPL as he had previously been involved in match fixing. Cairns vigorously denied he charges and brought a libel action against Modi, during which he told the court he had “never cheated at cricket and would never contemplate doing so.”He was awarded NZD$185,000 in damages when the court ruled in his favour.
However, in August 2013 Vincent told the ICC that Cairns had indeed been involved in fixing matches in India and that Cairns’solicitor at the time, Andrew Fitch-Holland, had approached him during the libel proceedings against Modi and asked Vincent to provide what he called a “false statement.”Vincent’s claims that Cairns had fixed matches—despite his assertions under oath to the contrary—and that he had also approached current New Zealand skipper Brendon McCullum to do likewise, is the basis of the perjury charge. The trial continues in London and Cairns has been released on bail.
So what does this entanglement between sports stars and betting tell us? Few would argue that restrictions can and should be placed on gambling activity that could conceivably influence a sportsman to behave corruptly, as in the cases of David Walker or Lou Vincent, where their actions altered the outcome of games and thus damaged the integrity of their respective sports.
However, any calls to ban professional sports people from taking part in all forms of gambling activity surely go too far. Attempting to enforce blanket betting bans would not only be unfair to sportsmen who simply wish to have a punt like the rest of us, but would also be unenforceable.
It would be impossible, for instance, to prevent athletes from gambling online, without an intolerable encroachment on their freedom and privacy. And rightly so. For instance, while it might be illegal to operate an online casino in New Zealand, it is perfectly legal for citizens to play at one based offshore and those can be very easily found and accessed. It is therefore unreasonable to restrict professional sports people from an activity that is open to the rest of the population, as long as it doesn’t pertain directly to their sport and they can’t in any way influence the result. While none of us want to hear that the jockey of the horse we’ve backed has made a bet on a rival in the same race, it shouldn’t matter in the slightest if a professional rugby player, or jockey, or cricketer likes to play online pokies, or to have a bet on the EPL, or buys a lottery ticket.
Reaction to these and other betting scandals needs to be kept in perspective. We should maintain a clear distinction in our minds between recreational gambling and corrupt betting that seeks to profit from the manipulation of a sporting outcome. Let our sports stars while away an hour or two at an online casino, or playing the pokies, or even enjoying a game of bingo should they so choose. It’s important not to let the actions of a corrupt few influence what is available to the many.