Saturday, January 23, 2016

MATCH-FIXING: THIS WILL GET MESSY

With so much of the tennis world's attention on the joint report on match fixing from BuzzFeed and the BBC, the game that we love and enjoy so much has a golden opportunity to turn the corner on an ugly chapter in its recent history.  There's nothing like a scandal to make people think twice about whether they're doing enough to ensure the integrity of the game isn't brought into disrepute by a few bad apples - just how many remains to be seen.

But there's something that worries me about the way this story is being discussed in the blogosphere, driven by how it's been addressed by those members of the media with an interest in tamping down concern that the problem is rampant (again, that remains to be seen).  The first step to solving a problem is to identify it.  The next step is to validate and/or admit that it is in fact a problem.  But to hear the way it's been discussed in the blogosphere, I'm not certain there is a clear understanding of what the problem is, as identified by the BuzzFeed report, or that we are collectively prepared to confirm that it is indeed a problem to be addressed.

The roundtable discussions on ESPN and the Tennis Channel when the BBC report was imminent, but after the BuzzFeed report had already been published, centered around the desperate reassurances (as calmly delivered as they were notwithstanding) that this is a problem restricted to the minor leagues of tennis and that the report centered around information originally reported way back in 2007.  That was clearly the message of Chris Fowler (for whom I have very little respect) and Cliff Drysdale (for whom I have enormous respect, although he has an obvious dog in this fight).  Brad Gilbert almost seemed to tacitly excuse the problem by distracting the discussion over to the (in)ability of these players to make ends meet on the outskirts of the known tennis galaxy.  It was only the pointed criticism of Patrick McEnroe that resonated with me, and forms the basis for my concern that this problem isn't actually going to be adequately addressed.

McEnroe confronted Chris Kermode's reassurances to the effect that everyone should take a deep breath, because we're handling this, indicating that this was woefully insufficient.  The lack of transparency in who has been banned and why, when investigations have begun, what precipitated them, and ultimately how they're handling the entire question of match-fixing, is not only the point of the BuzzFeed report, but is also the reason why the furor over it maintains access to oxygen.  Would it were not for the ample fuel of the opaque, the tepid responses of the blind apologists might have been entirely unnecessary, let alone sufficient.

That's the most salient point of the report - not the details of how they've determined which players frequently play matches have seen strange better patterns, nor the details of the Nikolay Davydenko case (with an exception for one detail, which I will explain later).  The real issue is that the Tennis Integrity Unit (TIU), charged with dealing with this, is woefully understaffed, both in manpower (a unit of two) and brain power (no professional betting analysts).  It's no wonder that their operations and progress are so secretive:  who who want the world to know how inept you are at dealing with something that has the potential to be so pernicious?

I would also argue that the details and methodology of betting analysis have not sufficiently distinguished between evidence of match fixing or evidence of someone using inside information to make a profit.  The former is very clearly illegal and would spell the death of professional tennis, but the latter is not strictly illegal, nor is it necessarily a bad thing.  If betting on tennis is to be allowed, does it not behoove the bettors, particularly those doing it for more than just a laugh, to do their homework and gather as much information about the players that they can?  The collapsed allegations against Davydenko is a case study in just this phenomenon.

Many with renewed interest in the events of that era are operating under the misapprehension that the "evidence" against Davydenko was obvious, and that the ATP let a guilty man go free because he stonewalled their investigation.  Setting aside the absurdity of both of those things being simultaneously true (which makes no sense) the facts are as follows:


Davydenko openly discussed his injury problems with the Russian press (not the mafia…the press). He was the #4 ranked player in the world playing a 125 in Sopot, Poland. He almost certainly received an appearance guarantee that was larger than the winner’s check. Most importantly, Davydenko was talking, in Russian, within earshot of on-court microphones, about an injury that he had already discussed, and was saying that it was getting worse during the match, and was saying he would retire…all of this during the match which is broadcast on the Betfair site.
It wouldn’t take a genius who 1) knew of his injury 2) spoke Russian 3) understands appearance fees in tennis and 4) is watching the match in progress to realize that a golden opportunity was presenting itself by way of those idiots who had bet on Davydenko based on ranking alone and not bothered to follow the match or don’t speak Russian.  There is a difference between match fixing and a punter doing his/her homework and gaining an edge.  There is absolutely NO EVIDENCE at all whatsoever that Davydenko fixed the result. The only thing suggesting match fixing was irregular betting patterns and the fact that Betfair cancelled settlement of all bets on the match.
Neither of which has anything to do with Davydenko.
You will also note, when you read the BuzzFeed report, that there is DIRECT evidence against Martin Vassallo Arguello (in his phone records) that, by way of 82 confirmed text messages, he was in contact with associates of known Betfair account holders.  Not all the contents of those messages were legible because Vassallo Arguello had attempted to delete them.  The report said this evidence would lead to a separate investigation – THAT evidence is a MUCH better case against him than the “evidence” against Davydenko, but for some unexplained reason Vassallo Arguello was never pursued.  

That is one of the more damning conclusions of the BuzzFeed report - that evidence of wrongdoing was and continues to be ignored by the TIU.  I should also point out that evidence against Potito Starace and Daniele Bracciali resulted in their ban by the Italian Tennis federation, some of which stemmed from their association with the same cast of characters that Vassallo Arguello was associated with. Of course their ban was the result of a police investigation and not a tennis investigation, which further discredits tennis authorities in this matter.
My specific beef with the BuzzFeed report is not their conclusion, but the evidence they use to arrive at that conclusion.  The Davydenko case elicited strong evidence of match fixing, just not match-fixing by Davydenko.  In that sense the TIU was correct in closing the Davydenko case, not because he stonewalled, but because their investigation didn't elicit any evidence of wrong-doing.  The additional information they sought, phone records of people associated with Davydenko, was essentially a witch hunt for which there was no basis aside from strange betting patterns.  Those betting patterns could be explained by other less sinister reasons, but the BuzzFeed report is correct in pointing out that Vasallo-Arguello, who happened to be Davydenko's opponent that day, provided investigators with plenty to follow up on, which they should have and didn't.  And this leads to legitimate questions about their commitment to identifying and solving the problem of match-fixing.
The problem is that the report then goes on to suggest a black list and a grey list of players who they are convinced have been involved in match-fixing and might have been involved in match-fixing (respectively), but the evidence is not 82 text messages with known betting site account holders (or associates thereof)...it's just the suspicious betting patterns, which the Davydenko case shows is tenuous evidence of wrongdoing.  
Betting patterns must figure into accusations of match fixing, but they cannot be the only evidence that castigates and ostracizes accomplished professionals as cheats. Betting patterns in addition to evidence of illicit contact with those who might be in a position to benefit from that contact, is a high bar, but the consequences of getting it wrong are too heavy for those players who might unjustly be accused and convicted in the court of public opinion, as was Davydenko.
I'm concerned that the rush to re-convict Davydenko, and put the entire story to rest, while ignoring the very real evidence against Vassallo Arguello, combined with a reliance on betting patterns and not enough hard evidence, is a sign that the tennis world is too eager to convince itself that it is dealing with match-fixing.  That often leads to weak convictions on dubious investigations and heavy-handed sentences handed down to the absolute wrong people, much as they do with anti-doping in a transparent attempt to have their cake and eat it too.

If that is the case, then this will definitely get messy.
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