25 Jul 2011
This piece was originally published in The Australian 23 July, 2011
Professional gamblers aside, sports betting really isn't about the money but about backing your judgment and outsmarting the bookie.
The bookies invite gamblers to take them on and they set odds to entice the punter to put money on a particular result. The bigger the odds, the less probable the outcome.
Enter Heath Shaw, a Collingwood player with inside information that an outcome rated a 100-1 chance by the TAB (that defender, Nick Maxwell would kick the first goal of an AFL game) was far more likely to happen than almost anyone else would have suspected.
The fact that he split a $20 bet with a mate might tell us many things about him, but what was at the heart of the bet was the use of inside information to get one up on the bookmakers (and fellow punters) and in so doing, make a fast buck. Some of Maxwell's relations did the same thing.
The wartime decree of loose lips sink ships might be a family motto in the Shaw and Maxwell households from now on.
The AFL has punished officials and players for breaches of the gambling rules to protect the integrity of the game. The amounts that have come to light have been small in dollar terms but significant in precedence.
Given what has happened in other sports, the AFL is rightly trying to keep a short leash on the gambling monster. Yes, it gets a slice of the action, but it is precisely the league's relationship with sports betting agencies that allows it to protect the game from those who lurk in the shadows.
The pursuit of inside information is at the heart of what sports journalists do for a living. Once gained, should that information be used to place a bet before the public has an opportunity to read about it?
It's inconceivable that a sports journalist could influence the result of a contest, but they could, in the course of their work, gain information before anyone else who is allowed to bet. This type of information is most often useful in the world of so-called exotic betting.
That is betting on secondary possibilities rather than the overall outcome. For example, a journalist might be writing a preview of an AFL match and by hitting the phones learn that a player who normally has an attacking role will be used as a tagger on the opposition's star midfielder.
Before writing the story, the journalist puts a bet on the outcome of a head-to-head contest set up by a sports betting agency, offering odds on which of the two will have the most possessions in the game.
Is it fair that a journalist can lay a bet knowing the result is far more likely than the rest of the public would reasonably suspect? The mug punter is not in a position to ring a club and ask for that information. It is given to the journalist on the basis of a relationship premised on news.
Each year the AFL accredits hundreds of media representatives. In the fine print of the accreditation agreement is the stipulation that, if sport journalists are found to have used information gained in the course of doing their job to lay a bet, they risk having their pass revoked (and for some that could mean an end to their employment). The key part of that phrase might be "if found".
However, even if sports journalists take the view that it's a fringe benefit of the job and they're unlikely to be caught, how many can honestly say having a bet does not affect their work?
When I was producing AFL matches several years ago, I noticed if I had a small flutter - usually because I liked the way a team looked as they were warming up - I became more emotional than normal during the broadcast and started caring about the result too much.
I imposed a no-betting rule on myself on any match I was involved in professionally. Maybe that was just me, but are AFL broadcast commentators susceptible to being more critical than they otherwise would be if the team they have backed is losing?
Can turf writers who have lost money betting on a sure thing be confident they will write dispassionately about the outcome of a race?
If a cricket writer learns that a spinner is going to open the bowling instead of a paceman and can place a bet on the number of overs to be bowled in the first hour, is it right to do so before telling the rest of the world?
The integrity of sport might not be directly at stake but if, as Nick Davies observes in his book, Flat Earth News, journalism is about the pursuit of truth, then sports journalists might use the Heath Shaw incident as an opportunity to reflect on the impact sports betting has on their work.
David Lowden is a senior lecturer in sports journalism at La Trobe University, Melbourne