Strawberries, cream and … courtsiders; tennis and the challenge of tackling corruption

Tennis, in the UK at least, is a sport of strawberries, cream and luscious green lawns. It couldn’t be more middle-England. Elsewhere in the world they may not, Melbourne perhaps to one side, have the lawns, but tennis is still seen as a sport of grace, style and elegance. It’s not supposed to be about corruption, thrown points and betting syndicates.

Following a report by Buzzfeed and the BBC allegations of match fixing have none the less cast a dispiriting shadow over the game. Indeed, the allegations look set to tarnish a sport which prides itself on good, clean, family fun. According to the BBC the head of the Tennis Integrity Unit has revealed that there were 246 alerts of suspicious betting on matches in 2015. Furthermore, 16 players were repeatedly flagged as potentially being involved.

These are dangerous signals. Any sport that wants to uphold its reputation as being clean needs to show that it has processes in place to deal with allegations like these and, if needed, to punish any miscreants found guilty. The Tennis Integrity Unit (TIU), formed in 2008, should be the tool through which tennis can sort this out. However, the tennis authorities have already tacitly admitted that they are not currently able to do this by announcing that there will be an independent anti-corruption review of the TIU,  The review will focus on transparency, independence and if the integrity education programme should be extended. But has not said how long the review will last.

What might tennis learn from the literature on anti-corruption organisations? The authorities could do worse than take a look at the work of Gabriel Kuris, an American academic. He highlights the potential problems of immediately enforcing stricter laws following scandals. Calls for integrity units ‘with more teeth’ are often made in the wake of a corruption scandal. More teeth means, for many, strong(er) law enforcement powers, but, as Kuris demonstrates, just granting these units these powers does not necessarily make them more effective. On the contrary, simply enacting stricter laws can in fact be counterproductive.

Kuris describes anti-corruption units as either guard dogs or watchdogs. The guard dogs are the units with strong investigative powers who seek, pursue and engage the threats. They have, in other words, real ‘teeth’ with which to go after alleged miscreants. Watchdog ACAs, on the other hand, rely on collecting witness testimony and issuing public reports. Watchdogs may not possess teeth that are as big and sharp, but they can on occasion be better able to combat corruption. Watchdog ACAs are, in other words, much more about the bark and much less about the bite – and for tennis that might be no bad thing.

Anti-corruption agencies that rely on well-developed sets of potential punishments that they themselves have a responsibility to administer require (lots of) resources and real in depth knowledge to make charges stick. These anti-corruption systems can be hard to maintain and require a level of expertise in the alleged misdemeanours that tennis does not readily have available. Until tennis as a sport is able to allocate enough resources to the TIU then pinning hopes on a guard dog institution is simply unrealistic.

Within the TIU there is a lack of resources and arguably a lack of political will and some within the Buzzfeed and BBC investigation even suggest it may have covered up previous issues of match fixing. The Tennis Integrity Unit may subsequently be better off following a watchdog model of anti-corruption.

Watchdog ACAs are able to act more like investigative journalists. Those involved are not forced to focus on producing evidence that would stand up in a court of law, rather they can concentrate on highlighting potential wrong-doing and bring it to the relevant authorities’ attention. This would also enable tennis to think more broadly about how to deal with the endemic of betting that now exists. A full-time betting analyst working with the TIU would certainly make a contribution to understanding rather more about how betting relationships work and pinpointing potential problems before they arise. The TIU has, according to the organisation’s head, Nigel Willerton recognised the need for this and within the review they will be looking into the potential for employing a betting analyst.  Tennis would also be able to quickly raise awareness of specific problems without having to wait for prosecutions to be handled.

The focus may still understandably be on prosecutions, but looking to the future is also key to the success of anti-corruption initiatives. The initial focus for cleaning up tennis, as with any body in sport, should be on developing internal procedures and ensuring an open and independent leadership. This would encourage the greater oversight that is so desperately needed. The TIU should encourage those both inside and outside (such as sponsors) the sport to inspire younger players to avoid corruption whilst at the same time highlighting where the potential pitfalls lie and how to avoid getting caught up in them. There is currently and Integrity Education Program in place but this will need to be extended to encompass more players. The importance for tennis is to bring back trust in the sport and trust in the players themselves.

Tennis would benefit from adopting a watchdog ACA approach as it enables the authorities to be proactive. Kuris suggests that ACAs that follow this model are better able to devote their resources to prevention as they do not have to use the(ir inevitably limited) resources for detailed investigations. Tennis would be able to highlight the corruption risks that the sport faces and create mechanisms to prevent them from flourishing further without being bogged down in trying to bring charges against previous suspects.

Tennis prides itself in ‘family fun’, and having investigations without risk of litigation may encourage more of an open and honest conversation about these issues. However, tennis would require support from other bodies if it adopted a watchdog system of anti-corruption. But corruption in sport remains high on the agenda of many governments and NGOs and if tennis shows it is willing to take the initiative in rooting it out then there is every reason to believe that it will receive considerable support.

Hope is certainly not lost for tennis. But those within the sport need to act on the allegations made and they need to be seen to be taking a pro-active stance in addressing the problem. Then, and only then, will tennis be able to regain some of the trust that has been lost and become the ‘clean, nice, family sport’ which it prides itself on being.

Tilly Prior

University of Sussex

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