Dr Lucy Sheppard-Marks writes for The Conversation about her research into sport and crime and how to better protect athletes…
The psychology of spot fixing – why athletes might gamble their careers
These country-level investigations follow numerous examples of professional footballers being personally investigated for breaking betting rules. In 2022, Reading defender Kynan Isaac was handed a 12-year ban for placing illegal bets.
From the outside it might seem strange that well-paid athletes who seemingly have everything might risk it all in this way. Those who are eventually found guilty can be fined, suspended from playing the sport or even banned for life.
As yet not much is known about the benefits athletes get out of spot fixing, beyond payments from fixers, and researchers aren’t even sure if athletes always get payments direct from bookmakers. But it may not all be simply about money.
My previous research into why male professional athletes commit crime may help us understand why they would gamble their careers – the intense conditions of a professional athlete’s world can prime them for criminality.
Why do athletes do it?
Sport corruption cases have been on the on the increase around the world in recent years.
My study in sport and crime involved interviewing elite male athletes who have committed crimes, ranging from driving offences or drug possession, to importing drugs or grievous bodily harm.
I found the very characteristics that may have made them a good athlete may have also set them on the path to criminality. There are parallels between the core features of athletic excellence such as competitiveness, aggression, appetite for risk and assertion, and some of the traits that underpin criminal activities.
In some circumstances, an athlete may view crime as an intense and thrilling activity that fulfils their need for excitement and fuels their appetite for risk.
Some athletes viewed crime as a means to alleviate boredom, with players struggling to fill the void that was left when not competing or training. The thrill of the crime wasn’t necessarily an initial motivator but it was clearly a reason for repeated offences. As one athlete told me: “Some of those feelings, like feelings of elation and at times camaraderie as well, that I experienced on a football pitch, in a changing room… I got that from crime as well.”
Another athlete said: “There is a buzz of it … Anyone who tells you anything else is lying, it’s a buzz”.
Athletes in my study highlighted their susceptibility to temptation, their sense of invincibility and belief the rules did not apply to them and, in hindsight, their self-centredness. In psychology, these characteristics are linked with a type of behaviour called “terminal adolescence”, where they appear to not grow up because they don’t have to. Some athletes are so indulged they develop unrealistic views of themselves and a sense of invincibility commonly seen in adolescents.
A disregard for consequences was also clear. One participant said: “Of course there are consequences, of course there are people that go to jail, I know them, but I’m not going to get caught so I don’t have to think about that”.
Athletes may take part in crime because risky experiences can give people a sense of control in their largely constrained lives – it can help athletes escape from the restrictive nature of elite sport.
Negative sporting experiences influenced some atheletes’ criminal behaviour too. Rejection, failure and a belief that sporting bodies, coaches or fans are treating them unfairly can incite athletes to rebellion. For example, one professional boxer began a phase of going out with friends and taking drugs after he lost a match because he thought the outcome was unfair.
Substance misuse was also often a negative influence. The need for money to pay for drugs and increasing greed in general were given as reasons for these bouts of self-destructive behaviour.
What can be done?
Sport organisations need to ensure they know the backgrounds, and social pressures, that are inescapable for many athletes so they can protect them. Young athletes’ potential criminality is not always on the radar of coaches, but it needs to be. One of the athletes I interviewed did get pulled up by his coach who had realised what he was doing in his free time – and this was a changing point for him.
Participants in my study touched upon the pressure they felt to be successful and how they struggled with mental health. One athlete described how draining his sport could be, and how the intensity – combined with the pressure an athlete is constantly under to perform – was exhausting.
The destructive criminal behaviour may be self-inflicted but these athletes still need support. Failing to support an athlete who has committed a crime may well make things worse, as they struggle with the financial, social and emotional consequences of their actions.
The frequency of drug and alcohol misuse is also an influence on athletes committing crimes. Athletes were indifferent to the use of class B and C drugs, and the negative impact these drugs could have on their careers, or how these could result in a criminal record. Education should be extended to coaches about how to spot social drug use, as it was clear that athletes in this study were adept at hiding their substance misuse.
The experiences of athletes who have committed crimes can be used allow others to learn from their mistakes. Telling their stories will also enable those who have offended to give back to their sports, and give convicted athletes a focus for getting their careers in sport back on track.