AT THE heart of the sporting world, regardless of whether a game is being played professionally or for fun, there are some fundamental rules.
They are so fundamental they are rarely written down, but basically they require the participants to conduct themselves according the regulations of the game, to the exclusion of any considerations off the field of play.
When a sportsman or sportswoman strays from this standard it is an offence to our sense of fair play. It demeans sport as a whole, sucking some of the joy out of it.
Which is why the move yesterday by Maria Miller, the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, to hold a summit on the issue of match-fixing with representatives from the worlds of football, tennis, cricket, rugby union and rugby league, was a most welcome one.
The phrase “match-fixing” is perhaps misleading. The cases that have come to the attention of the football and cricketing governing bodies in recent years have rarely been about matches being “thrown”. The actual outcome of a contest is rarely the issue.
Instead, bets are placed on relatively minor incidents – the number of wide balls in cricket, for example, or the number and timing of yellow cards in a football match.
Insignificant as these small details may be during a match, these are the increasingly arcane subject matter of international betting on a huge scale. Large sums of money can rest of the outcome of these wagers – hence the incentive for betting syndicates to try to shift the odds in their favour by offering inducements to players.
The players who succumb may well use the relatively insignificant subject matter of the wagers as a justification for their behaviour. After all, they may rationalise to themselves, it’s not as if anyone if paying them to lose.
This may seem to some of those involved like a moral grey area, but it is not. Firstly, it is a disgrace to the very principles of sport. If, when watching a game, one begins to doubt the motives for every single slip or infringement, the integrity of the contest is soiled. And secondly, as police involvement in these cases makes clear, this kind of behaviour clearly involves criminality.
Here in Scotland we should not take any succour from the fact that this is an English sports minister holding this summit. The Scottish Football Association is to appoint an “integrity officer” to combat match-fixing north of the Border, who will work with police and bookmakers to root out cheats.
There is clear evidence the Scottish game is just as open to influence as elsewhere. According to the Professional Footballers’ Association Scotland, in one recent third-tier Scottish football match, £500,000 of wagers was placed by one betting syndicate.
The idea of a “grey area” on seemingly trivial bets needs to be removed from sport. This is a black-and-white issue.
Charities need us more than ever
DAVID Cameron called it “the Big Society”. But the notion that we look out for those less fortunate than ourselves predates the Conservative leader’s political slogan-making and is hard-wired into a civilised society.
Often the way it finds expression is through the work of charities and non-governmental organisations in what has come to be known as “the third sector”. But just as the demand for the services these bodies provide is on the increase, as a result of public spending cuts and the impact of austerity measures on the poorest in our society, so their income is under threat.
More than half of charity leaders in Scotland expect their organisation’s income to fall in the coming year. This sobering statistic comes in a survey by the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations (SCVO), the umbrella group for the third sector.
This is a sector with great energy and great imagination, applying social entrepreneurship to repairing the fractures that undermine society as a whole. And yet SCVO chief executive Martin Sime has said that plans to develop new services and develop existing projects are “being jeopardised by rising demand and funding shortages”.
The number of households not feeling the financial pinch this winter are few, and the instinct may be to cut back on charitable giving, regarding it in some way as a luxury. And yet a moment’s scrutiny would tell us this is questionable.
It is easy to donate in times of plenty. It is in leaner times that giving becomes a greater virtue, and a reflection of our better nature.
With Christmas almost upon us, we should bear that in mind.