Betting in football and snooker: A move to zero tolerance?
On 26 April, footballer Joey Barton received an 18 month suspension and was fined £30,000 for breaching the FA's rules on betting misconduct. In very general terms, the rule concerns and prohibits all those involved in the game at a certain level from betting either directly or indirectly, on any football match or competition that takes place anywhere in the world. Barton was held to have breached this rule in respect of 1,260 bets on football matches spanning over 10 years.
The Independent Regulatory Commission of the FA (the Commission) can issue a suspension for such period and on such terms as it considers fit to preserve the integrity of football/or the public's confidence in the integrity of football. Accordingly, the Commission has a wide ambit when it comes to sanctions. In Barton's case, the Commission concluded that the suspension issued was the shortest possible sanction in light of the totality of Barton's betting breaches. By way of mitigation, Barton submitted that his age, his gambling addiction, and his own ignorance of the rules should be taken into consideration, but the Commission did not accept that any of these merited a reduction being made to the length of the suspension. Barton's suspension is one of the longest imposed at the elite level and it will be interesting to see if it signals a fresh crackdown on betting misconduct in football.
In contrast, breach of the equivalent rules in snooker result in a default lifetime ban unless the member can show 'clear and exceptional mitigation'. Despite the clarity and the serious consequences of a breach, players still fall foul of the rules and only last month former world champion, Stuart Bingham, was found to be in breach in respect of bets he placed on other players' matches.
In a more serious breach in 2013, former world number five Stephen Lee was banned for 12 years after being found guilty of match fixing but escaped a life time ban as the conduct related to matches which occurred before the rules on ban lengths were amended. And in 2015, amateur John Sutton received a sixyear ban after being found guilty of match fixing and passing on inside information (probably as a result of coercion). Without further guidance on what constitutes 'clear and exceptional mitigation', it appears that ignorance of the rules and coercion are appropriate mitigation arguments.
Snooker has been plagued by allegations of corruption since its inception as a professional sport but the significant tightening of the rules in recent times has gone some way to help rebuild the sport's reputation. Undoubtedly the WPBSA now have tools at their disposal and the appropriate deterrents in place to help rid the sport of match manipulation and corruption.
The betting rules at the elite level of football and snooker are unequivocal and players should be aware that any breach of their regulatory body's rules leaves them open to serious punishment. The rules on sanctions are less clear which has a lot to do with the difficulty of proving an individual's state of mind. Accordingly, mitigation arguments can greatly influence penalties. In all cases, players would be wise to simply heed the advice of the European Sports Security Association and not bet on their own sport at all.