Earlier this year, Australian sport was rocked by an investigation carried out by the Australian Crime Commission (ACC). Known as Project Aperio, the ACC probe revealed an epidemic of substance abuse, match fixing and gambling, and links to organised crime in all codes.
Australia’s largest sporting codes, the Australian Football League (AFL) and the National Rugby League (NRL), have been severely tarnished by the report. The Essendon Football Club in the AFL, and six NRL clubs, most notably the Cronulla Sharks, are now being investigated by the ACC. 150 players, staff and administrators from both codes are also being investigated. Criminal charges are expected to be laid.
Richard Ings, former President of the Australian Sports Anti-Doping Authority (ASADA) commented that “This is not a black day in Australian sport, this is the blackest day in Australian sport”. While many people were disgusted by the findings of the investigation a poll conducted by The Age in February revealed that 67% of people were not surprised by the results.
After all, these problems are not new. The AFL, the most profitable of all the sporting codes, has a long history of scandals. As far back as 1910, Carlton player Alex Lang was banned for five years for having accepted a £100 bribe to ‘play dead’ in the first semi-final against South Melbourne.
In 1997, Richmond’s Justin Charles became the first – and to date only – footballer to be suspended for 16 matches having used performance enhancing drugs. In 2002, the Carlton Football Club was fined $937,500 and stripped of draft picks for salary cap breaches totalling $1.37 million during the 1998 and 2001 seasons.
More recently, the Melbourne Football Club was fined $500,000 in February for ‘tanking’ – deliberately losing matches to gain draft picks – during the 2009 season. As a result, former Melbourne Coach, Dean Bailey, and Football Director, Chris Connolly, were banned for their part in what the AFL described as “conduct unbecoming the game”.
Sport, like everything else, does not exist in a vacuum. It remains a part of the society that created it and it is not immune from the economic and social processes of the times. In a period of neo-liberal capitalism sport has become much more than just a game. In fact every aspect of sport is seen by its big business backers as a commodity.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s a raft of pro-market reforms were introduced that were closely bound with corporate sponsorship and broadcast deals. The fact that professional sport is played primarily to make profit for big business is what lies at the heart of the problems revealed by the ACC probe.
The AFL, despite recording a profit of $82 million in 2012, operates in a way where clubs are forced to compete against each other – not just on the field – but for revenues that come from corporate sponsorship, ticket sales and membership. Consequently clubs are willing to push whatever boundaries they can in their bid for success and the financial windfall that comes with it.
The only real way to put an end to match fixing, gambling and substance abuse in sport is to remove the profit motive. The fight to clean up the game needs to be linked to getting rid of the big business domination within it. If we want a game that truly reflects the ethos of fairness and respect then we need to create a society that promotes that – a socialist society.
On the basis of a socialist system that prioritises people’s needs and not profits, sport would be well resourced and accessible to all. The clubs would be democratically run by the players and the club members on a not-for-profit basis. Players and club staff would receive good wages, but not the over inflated wages they receive now. In other words the people’s game would be owned and controlled by the people themselves.
By Conor Flynn