Fraud in sport – why do people cheat?

Sport – in particular international cricket – has had its fair share of time in the spotlight for cheating allegations.

Every cricket fan will recall the infamous ‘sandpaper’ ball-tampering scandal[i] which saw three Australian cricketers banned. Cameron Bancroft recently, in late December 2018, explained how he was pressured as an impressionable rookie by the Australian vice-captain David Warner to tamper with the cricket ball in a test match.  Bancroft said he wanted to fit in and that compromised his values in doing what he was asked by David Warner[ii].

In 2018, James Anderson, England’s leading fast bowler, accused the Australian national cricket team as sometimes “trying too hard to be aggressive[iii]”. In another instance, Nasser Hussain, former England captain, said the International Cricket Council’s (ICC) corruption charge against Sri Lanka’s Sanath Jayasuriya was “just the start[iv]” – suggesting that he believed there would be more accusations of corruption in sport to come.

With more and more news stories, highlighting the instances of cheating and corruption in sport, two key questions prevail.

What drives respected sports stars to cheat? And why risk losing all you’ve worked so hard to achieve?

Fraud

When a person is caught cheating – or committing a fraudulent act – they have done it with a purpose, typically for personal gain.

Academics have worked for decades to try and pinpoint exactly why a person may commit fraud.  The closest answer is credited to Donald Cressey’s Fraud Triangle[v] which states that individuals are motivated to commit fraud when three elements come together:

  • Pressure
  • Opportunity
  • Rationalisation

Does fraud in sport differ to other workplaces?

At the heart of fraud is undoubtedly pressure. The source of this pressure is arguably, subtly different for those cheating in sport.

In many cases of employee fraud, the cause of fraudulent activity may be as a result pressure to achieve certain targets – which in turn can create a pressurised environment to preserve employment.

These individual cases of fraud often stem from a person’s employment or another party they represent.

For professional athletes, their performance is their means of income. Unlike those working in other sectors, their career may only last for a few years. Of that comparatively shorter career, an athlete may spend only a few years at the top of their game and, if they’re luck, at the pinnacle of their sport.

Success in sport brings a unique set of rewards that don’t typically occur in other sectors. These rewards may include significant earnings, fame and sponsorship – each of which can bring a natural high and a need to sustain them.

In other sectors, fraud is often for direct financial gain or sustaining performance but in the sports sector, it appears more likely to be as a method to elevate performance or sustain ranking.

Given the size of rewards, the short career-span of an athlete and the need to maintain high performance, it is arguable that, in comparison with other sectors, the pressure is disproportionately intense.

As a result, there is an argument that athletes should be educated to become aware of the risks that may develop from pressure to perform. Protection to aid self-discipline and to ensure athletes are not enticed to commit acts of dishonesty for their own gain, the gain of their club or team or the gain of external third parties who have a financial interest in their performance, is a subject that should be on the agenda of governing bodies and sports clubs of all sizes and status.

Preventing fraud

In sport, as with all sectors, it is only a handful of people who cheat and commit fraud but when they do and are caught, they grab the headlines and that impacts on all competitors.  The risks are not just for competitors but also suppliers and agents to competitors and clubs who may be creating the risk. As a result, there is an ongoing need for sport and wider sectors to focus on financial crime compliance to ensure consumers and participants are protected.

Governing bodies are needed to drive a programme of change to ensure financial crime compliance is on the agenda in their sport in the knowledge that placing focus firmly on preventing dishonesty allows for a fair and honest playing field.

For a more in-depth analysis of financial crime in sport, visit: Exploring why participants make the decision to cheat

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