Profiles 5 August 2015

Simon Barker on Match-Fixing: A little less unification, a little more cooperation please

In a summer that has seen the governance of ‘the beautiful game’ dragged through the gutter and back again, integrity in the sport of football is more important than it ever has been. Simon Barker, the Assistant Chief Executive of the Professional Footballers Association (PFA) responsible for managing contractual, regulation and disciplinary issues between players, clubs and governing bodies, has a role that is constantly being tested. One of the areas that draws a lot of Barker’s attention is that of match-fixing, in his own words a “clear and present danger” in modern day football.

A resources issue

At the Sports Resolutions conference on ‘Integrity and Athlete Welfare’ in May, Jonathan Taylor, a partner at the law firm Bird & Bird LLP argued that to combat match-fixing there needs to be one code, one agency and public/private co-operation to tackle match-fixing as is currently done in anti-doping. One of the arguments for such co-operation is that some individual sports National Governing Bodies (NGBs) don’t want to be involved in combating match-fixing and therefore there is no united front across all sports, which is a major issue.

Barker disagrees. “I don’t think it’s a fact that some sports governing bodies don’t want to get involved at all,” argues Barker. “Let’s take what I’d call the ‘top five’ sports – cricket, football, rugby, tennis and possibly rugby league – and look at the building blocks that you require for a good sports betting integrity procedure. You need to have the rules and regulations in place to let participants know what they can and what they can’t do. That’s very, very important – but a lot of sports don’t have that in place at all. They don’t see it as an issue because there is little betting on their sports, but it’s important to have that.”

For Barker, the issue is not that some governing bodies don’t see it as a priority, but more of an issue of resources. “When you speak to certain sports, Olympic sports for example, they only have one person who’s actually dealing for the whole sport who gets everything put on them – so it’s a resources issue.

“Unless there is a big problem within that sport then match-fixing gets put back with all the other issues. What we’re trying to say to those ‘smaller’ sports – if I can call them ‘smaller’ sports – it’s about putting the building blocks in place before anything happens. Because if something does happen it effects the sport massively.”

Barker believes that much of what can be done to combat match-fixing can be pre-emptive. Much as when Ed Miliband floated the idea of ‘pre-distribution’ by which the state pre-emptively tries to prevent inequality in society before it occurs, or where the NHS runs campaigns for healthier living to prevent the escalation of an obesity crisis, Barker believes that to combat match-fixing, it needs to be prevented before it’s even become a problem.

“Having an education programme in place, even if it’s a small one, is key,” says Barker. “After that it’s down to intelligence and investigation, and having a fair disciplinary and sanction process as well. These are the building blocks. By using your resources in an efficient way you can put things in place that will help you and protect you as a sport from any issues that blow up in your face. That’s the most important thing, but it’s not done across all sports – especially those with fewer resources – effectively.”

Barker admits that the ‘bigger’ sports that do have effective resources in place to combat match-fixing have them in place due to “major issues” that have happened before. Essentially, it’s a reactive policy. “That’s human nature,” admits Barker. “You’re so busy with your sport, because there are so few resources, that’s why you do put it off. The truth is, though, that it’s important to spend a little bit of resources on it – then you are ready to react to it without a doubt.

A little less unification, a little more cooperation please

If there is such a discrepancy between the way that different sports governing bodies try to combat match-fixing, why then does Barker not agree with the idea of having a national or global match-fixing body like UK Anti-Doping (UKAD) or the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA)?

“I’ve seen what’s happened with regard to doping,” warns Barker. “Such an all-consuming body is inflexible, mainly because it’s so big. If I put my PFA hat on and take anti-doping for example – we believe that social drugs, where a player or athlete is not trying to enhance his performance, he’s not trying to cheat his fellow competitors, as we see in the vast majority of cases, is a separate issue.

“It’s a problem that a player has in his life that needs education, needs rehabilitation, needs assistance and needs help from the sport in order to come back into the sport.

“That message seems to have been lost in respect to this massive quest or push towards the idea that ‘drugs are bad for everybody – and if you’re caught with them then we’re going to sanction you very, very heavily’.”

“I understand that,” concedes Barker, who played football for Blackburn Rovers and Queens Park Rangers during his professional playing career. “I understand on the basis of anybody who is taking performance-enhancing drugs to cheat their fellow competitors and cheat the sport – that there needs to be a sanction without a doubt.” Yet Barker believes that anti-doping policies are too inflexible when it comes to social drugs. “We [PFA] have spoken many times with WADA with regard to it and they’ve understood and agreed in many cases with the debate but it gets lost politically at the top level. They won’t change it. It’s as though it shows a little bit of weakness and that they can’t be seen to let the drugs cheats win.”

“But it’s not about that,” Barker explains. “And that’s my biggest worry with regard to match-fixing.” Instead, Barker wants more cooperation. “The cooperation that’s going on, particularly in the UK and in Europe, is a great leap with regard to sports betting integrity – with regards to combating corruption.” Barker singles out the newly formed Sport Betting Integrity Forum for particular praise. The forum, formed at the end of 2014, brings together representatives from sports governing bodies, betting operators, sport and betting trade associations, law enforcement and gambling regulation.

Barker believes that the fight against match-fixing is never easy – no model will ever be perfect as it’s a constantly evolving game of cat and mouse. He advises however, that it’s important that the UK gets its “own house in order first.” Once that happens, you “can speak to other territories, other bodies to see if you can cooperate.” Barker emphasises that it is “about cooperation – and I think that WADA have struggled with regard to regulating doping doing it across the globe. There will be certain countries where their doping tests aren’t really up to standards. “ 

However, if Barker believes that one of the flaws in having a global anti-doping body is that it fails to discriminate between performance-enhancing and recreational drugs, then surely match-fixing doesn’t have such an issue?

“Match-fixing is one aspect of sports betting and corruption,” says Barker. “There is inside information, sports betting integrity, spot-fixing – which isn’t match-fixing – and then different territories have different rules with regard to these areas. What WADA have tried to do is bring the same thing in for everybody even though the testing is different in different countries.”

A global game

One issue with combating match-fixing in the UK is that part of the offence is often conducted abroad, especially with the evolution of online betting. Can the PFA do more to help other governing bodies abroad? Should there be more data clearing houses, or information exchanges?

“The biggest problem you have is the unlicensed, unregulated market in different territories. That’s always going to be difficult. It’s when the bets are placed on events that happen in this country. We can try and control when people are making bets in this country, but what we maybe can’t control is events happening in other countries. Then it’s down to other governing bodies and other governments. All that we can do is speak about what we do in this country and we can look at what happens in other countries and learn from them as well. It’s that cooperation which I think is the most important thing.”

Education, Education, Education

Last month the Professional Players Federation, the national organisation for the professional player associations in the United Kingdom (of which the PFA is part), announced a partnership with the online bookmaker Betway, which became its fourth partner in addition to Ladbrokes, Betfair and Bet365. How closely does the PFA work with the sports betting industry and should there be more cooperation?

“We [the PFA] do work closely with the betting operators as we do with other sports governing bodies. The bookmakers involved in the PPF partnership now put a certain amount of money in towards funding of betting education programmes, which for us is great. It’s what we’re about – educating our members, the players, the athletes about what they can do, what they can’t do.”

Throughout the interview, Barker continues to refer to an educational video made by the ECB which features the convicted match-fixer Mervyn Westfield, in which the former professional cricketer warns players not to follow the same path that he chose.

“One of the great things that came out of a very, very sad case was that the ECB were able to make this video. It is something that I speak about a lot. Everyone should watch the video – it’s very upsetting. I really did feel for him as I think he was a pawn in a much bigger game. Once he realised what he was doing was wrong and said, ‘No, I’m not,’ it was too late.”

Just as Gerard Elias QC, the Chairman of the Cricket Discipline Commission (CDC) for the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB), in a recent interview with the Sports Integrity Initiative, emphasised the importance of education of players to combat match-fixing, Barker believes that education, done properly, is key.

“It’s trying to get that information over in a way that players can understand, in a way that’s real to them,” Barker explains. “E-learning programmes are one such way. The fund from the PFF partnerships mean that a few other sports are going to be able to use such methods now as well – like snooker, darts, golf etc. They can use the experience and knowledge that has been used in football, cricket and rugby for example.”

One thing that really grates with Barker is that he believes that it is only the players getting sanctioned for match-fixing, when really any such cartel is far bigger than the individual, who if often just a pawn in a much bigger game. “All that I keep hearing is that we need to get more and more sanctions – and what we’ve all seen is that its nearly always the players and athletes who are the ones that sports governing bodies can sanction against. It’s never the match-fixer, it’s never the criminal gangs. They’re outside their jurisdiction. There are always other people involved. They’re obviously the ones that the police and government react to, but it’s harder – a lot harder. You’ve got jurisdictional issues with regard to that as well. The easy option is almost always the athlete and the player.

“I’m not proposing that there shouldn’t be any sanctions – all I’m saying is that we should be very proactive with regard to stopping this happening at source, and that’s where education comes into it – it’s so, so important. If after the education process, the athlete still decide to do something wrong, then there has to be a sanction there – there always has to be.”

Barker uses the comparison of drink-driving as an example. “If you’re looking at your mobile phone when you’re driving your car, for example. If you don’t know that it’s wrong or that there is a sanction at the end of it, then you’d maybe do it. You might still do it even though it is morally wrong to do it – it could actually cause a major accident, kill somebody. But with a sanction at the end of it, with information readily available – if you still persist then at least the authorities have done as much as they possibly can to try and prevent it. Prevention for me is bigger than a sanction or a cure at the end of it.”

A legislative issue?

Gerard Elias QC argues that the UK needs a specific law to combat match-fixing. Barker disagrees. “I think it is covered in the current legislation. I think that for players and athletes, for the vast majority, it is covered under sports governing bodies’ legislation and rules. A lot of sports governing bodies are pushing for a specific match-fixing law whereby it would be covered – where it would actually catch the match-fixer itself. My biggest worry is it’s just going to be the easy option again – the player and athlete that will be the one that gets caught. Then they’re going to jail for seven, eight years and then the match-fixers themselves are getting away again absolutely scott-free.

“In theory I wouldn’t disagree with a match-fixing law. But from what we’ve been told there is enough legislation already so that people can be convicted for fraud reasons and under other Acts if there was a want or a need to actually do that.”

Even if Barker doesn’t believe that there needs to be a specific match-fixing law, does he think that the government invests enough in combating match-fixing?

“They will never be able to put enough in,” concedes Barker. “We know that there are a lot of cut backs going on in all different areas of government – it’s been left for sports to deal with it. The betting operators have put a certain amount of money into education – they will also say that they will pay a lot of money to those areas, and the Gambling Commission (a body set up under the Gambling Act 2005 to regulate commercial gambling in Great Britain) is a government agency. At this moment I don’t think the government will, invest any more because of the general climate involved in cutting back resources, even though I think that they should!”

The cold turkey approach

Last year the FA introduced new regulations to prevent any participants – which includes employees, players, and match officials – from betting on any football related matters worldwide, and they can’t instruct third parties to do so either. The PFA however, didn’t embrace the move automatically.

“We were a bit unsure about this,” explains Barker. “We had been doing a lot of education and we had debated this move of a long time before it came in. However I think that the way that other sports had gone and the direction that sport in general was going towards meant that this was the easiest message to get across.

“It still doesn’t change anything – we still have to continue that education. The one thing that we did want to make sure was that the responsibility and burden of this wasn’t just on athletes and players. There are a number of people within a football club who, if they were that way minded, could corrupt things.

“Therefore the new regulations had to encompass not only players but owners, directors, managers, physios – anybody who was a full-time employee of the club. Everybody needs to shoulder that burden. It is what it is. Now it’s in the rules and regulations. That’s what we are educating our players on. People get used to it and they move on. It’s now part of the culture.”

And adapt they will. In the ever evolving fight against match-fixing the ability to adapt, to evolve and to keep one head of the pace is crucial. Here the PFA have someone at the helm who is forward-thinking and not afraid to voice what he thinks. There is much still to do and many debates still to be had, but with Barker representing the rights of the players in a messy and complicated world, he’s making sure that everyone’s interests are covered.

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