Ever Get the Feeling You’ve Been Cheated? (Part 3)

The third and concluding part of this piece. (The first two parts are Ever Get the Feeling You’ve Been Cheated? (Part 1) and Ever Get the Feeling You’ve Been Cheated? (Part 2).)

Sport is not fiction – is sport real? – sport is not a spectacle

You must be able to believe that what you are seeing is real” is, on the face of it, an odd thing to say about sport, and not something it would occur to anyone to say about other forms of entertainment. No-one complains, when watching a film, or reading a book, that it is not real1, although they might complain that the occurrences could not be real (that the plot is “far-fetched”) or that the illusion of reality is not credible (because the acting is “hammy” or the characters “one-dimensional”).

But think of the best match, or the best series, that you can remember (Headingley in 1981 or the 2005 Ashes, or whatever it might be) and ask yourself whether it would be of any interest to you if it were a work of fiction. I imagine that it would not, and that it would be precisely those features that made it exceptional in real life – the suspense, the dramatic turnarounds, the heroic individual performances – that made it banal as fiction.

Or try to think of a successful work of fiction (above a juvenile ‘Roy of the Rovers level) which depends on the description of the course of a game for its narrative ; that is, where the narrative of the book coincides exactly with the narrative of a game. I don’t know of any, and I doubt whether it could be done, which it is not to say that a good novel could not be written about cricket, only that the interest of it would have to differ in kind from the interest that derives from reading an account of a real game. In fiction, anything can be made to happen ; the only thing that makes (say) Botham’s performance in 1981 interesting is that it really happened.

Or imagine that you were to discover that a match that you had enjoyed while you were watching it (not even a truly exceptional one with extraordinary happenings, but a moderately entertaining T20), had been entirely scripted in advance, so that the players had been actors (and actors sufficiently skilled and well-rehearsed to make their performance indistinguishable from reality). Even though the two games (the real game you thought you were watching and the fake) were identical in every other respect, would you then feel retrospectively cheated?

Is sport real?

So, if sport is not fiction, must it be real? It can be both too real and not real enough to be real sport.

“Field sports” (hunting, fishing and shooting), though undeniably real, are not real sports, in this sense, because game can be eaten and (so the argument goes) fox-hunting serves a useful purpose as a form of vermin control : real sport must be gratuitous, an end in itself. They also, of course, end in the death in some of the participants. On a similar, if diminished, note, Simon Barnes, in ‘The Meaning of Sport claims that boxing is not a sport, because “Sport is a metaphor” and “Boxing is not a metaphor. Boxing is a death duel.

Then again, there is bull-fighting, about which (in ‘What is Sport?’) Roland Barthes had this to say :

Bullfighting is hardly a “sport,” and yet it is perhaps the model, the extreme of all sports, with its ceremonial elegance, its strict rules of combat, the powerful strength of the adversary and the skill and courage of the man who fights. All our modern sport can be found in this spectacle from another age, inherited from ancient religious sacrifices. But this theatre is not true theatre, for here the deaths staged are real.”

and Ernest Hemingway this, in ‘Death in the Afternoon

The formal bullfight is a tragedy, not a sport, and the bull is certain to be killed … You would think, then, that it would make of bullfighting a true sport, rather than merely a tragic spectacle, if bulls that had been in the ring were allowed to reappear.”

Like a child that contrives to appear at both ends of the back row in a long-exposure school photograph by sprinting from one end to the other, bull-fighting (for Barthes) both is and is not a sport. For Barthes it cannot be real theatre, because it ends in real-life death. For Hemingway it is tragic theatre rather than real sport because the outcome is fixed (the bull, even if it wins the bout, will still die). It is too real to be sport, or fiction, and both writers use the same term (“spectacle”) to describe this not-sport, non-fiction (the heading (“Espectaculos”) (neither sports nor arts) under which the liberal Spanish newspaper ‘El Pais’ publishes its bull-fighting reviews).

Sport is not a spectacle

If bull-fighting is too real to be sport, then, at the other extreme, “professional2” wrestling is too unreal, but it, too, is a spectacle, according to Barthes :

There are people who think wrestling is an ignoble sport. Wrestling is not a sport, it is a spectacle, and it is no more ignoble to attend a wrestled performance of Suffering than a performance of the sorrows of Arnolphe or Andromache. Of course, there exists a false wrestling, in which the participants unnecessarily go to great lengths to make a show of a fair fight ; this is of no interest.

The public is completely uninterested in knowing whether the contest is rigged or not, and rightly so; it abandons itself to the primary virtue of the spectacle, which is to abolish all motives and all consequences ; what matters is not what it thinks, but what it sees … Extrapolated, fair wrestling could only lead to boxing or judo, whereas true wrestling derives its originality from all the excesses which make it a spectacle and not a sport.”

There is, as usual, an element of mischief about this, but there is nothing to suggest that he is not genuine in his preference for a sport which is staged, fictional, a form of theatre, intelligible in terms outside itself. In short, he is not a sportsman, or a sports-lover at all.

Since ‘Mythologies’ was written, the word “spectacle” has escaped from its ordinary language bounds, acquired a life of its own, and has, in some circles, acquired an almost theological significance, as a kind of omnipresent, miasmic force by which “all that once was directly lived has become mere representation3” and every hope of an authentic experience is thwarted by the appearance of an inauthentic doppelgänger. I have difficulties with this theory, but it has many virtues as an accurate description of the psychological effect of an electronically mediated world, and it seems to me to have a particular application to sport.

Any sport consists of an elaborate system of rules that constructs an artificial world within which it is possible to have an authentic experience. As anyone who has watched a lot of County cricket, or lower league football, will attest, that experience is rarely obviously thrilling, or even interesting (it is not spectacular), but, even if it not “real” in the sense that bull-fighting is real, it is and must be known to be authentic. When something genuinely marvellous happens (such as Botham in 1981) it reassures us that miracles can occasionally happen in real life, and not only in fiction.

So, to return to my original taxonomy of match-fixing, the first and third types are experienced as such serious offences against sport because they reduce sport to one thing that it is not – fiction – and have the potential to expose apparent miracles as conjuring tricks. They are, at least, though, recognisable as “cancers” and, as such, attempts can be made to remove them. The eighth and ninth types are not only not generally diagnosed as “cancers” but seen as a sign of health.  But they too, more insidiously, have the power to rob sport of its authenticity and reduce it to something else it cannot be – a spectacle.

The public is completely uninterested in knowing whether the contest is rigged or not, and rightly so; it abandons itself to the primary virtue of the spectacle, which is to abolish all motives and all consequences ; what matters is not what it thinks, but what it sees …” 

And now, I’ll hand you back to Charlie Dagnall …

1In fact, there are plenty of people (mostly men) who say that they don’t read fiction because it is not real – often those who enjoy sport the most.

2The type of wrestling Barthes was writing about was, technically, amateur, but “professional” in the sense that it was fixed.

3Guy Debord ‘The Society of the Spectacle’ (and his many disciples and imitators).

Ever Get the Feeling You’ve Been Cheated? (Part 2)

In the first post I offered a broad definition of “fixing”  as being “any sporting contest in which all, or any, of the outcomes of the game have been decided in advance, rather than arising naturally from the efforts of the contestants to win the match”.  I went on to identify nine types of “fix” that might fit that definition, which I called :

1. The fix proper (fixing the result)

2. The coercive fix (fixing because of outside interference)

3. The spot-fix (fixing particular incidents)

4. The tactical fix (fixing by underperforming in the hope of future advantage)

5. The tacitly accepted fix (“sports entertainment”)

6. The mutually agreed demi-fix (where a result is contrived, but not a specific result)

7. The fix of no significance (exhibition matches)

8. The professional fix (ensuring certain outcomes in the interest of entertainment)

9. The regulatory fix (being forced to ensure certain outcomes because of the playing regulations)

I suggested that all of these fixes attract some disapproval, in roughly decreasing order. However, although all fit my broad definition, only two (1 and 3) are what are usually referred to as “match-fixing”, in the sense of a “cancer” that, if left untreated, is supposed to be have the power to kill the game. Of the others :

2 is a special case, in that the blame for it attaches to agencies outside sport, and those inside sport are seen as victims, rather than perpetrators. The problem is one of many, and one of the least important, associated with corrupt or authoritarian governments and the fix is seen as an externally inflicted injury to sport, rather than an internal cancer.

4 is certainly usually condemned, but, because it is an attempt to achieve an ultimate advantage by manipulating the rules of a competition, it is seen as a form of cheating, or gamesmanship, contrary to the spirit of the game, but not, in itself, an offence against sport, in the sense that deliberately losing would be, or placing personal financial advantage above winning.

6 (although it, in many respects, resembles 4) is generally approved of, because it is seen as a legitimate tactic in pursuit of victory, and as being in the interests of the spectators (it is intended to produce an interesting finish). Only “purists” object, and their remedy lies in altering the rules of the competition, rather than punishing the perpetrators.

5 and 7 are essentially the same type of fix, except that, in sports which are classified as “sports entertainment”, there is no expectation that any contest should be anything other than scripted, whereas exhibition games and charity matches in cricket and football are generally seen as less serious forms of sports which are normally genuine. Aficionados of professional wrestling would be disappointed by a fair contest, whereas fans of football and cricket expect it to be the norm, to be departed from only in exceptional circumstances.

8 and 9 I shall return to in a moment.

So, to return to the original definition, there seem to be two additional elements that need to be added when defining the pernicious, “cancerous” form of match-fixing:

1. There must be an element of deception. This excludes 4 (where there is usually little attempt to disguise the fix), 6 and 7 (where the fixing is open) and 5 (where the performers and audience collude in a suspension of disbelief).

2. The motive must be personal self-interest, rather than legitimate sporting self-interest (trying to win the game or competition), or the interest of the crowd in seeing an entertaining contest. Before his motive was revealed, Hanse Cronje was widely applauded for making a “sporting declaration” against England, and the crowd would have seen the same game whatever his motivation.

So, to amend the definition, let us say that match-fixing is “any sporting contest in which all, or any, of the outcomes of the game have been decided in advance, rather than arising naturally from the efforts of the contestants to win the match, without the audience being aware of it, and for reasons of personal self-interest.”

Now, let us return to type no. 8, and ask whether it fits the new definition. The point is not here whether match-fixing of the first and third types are more common in T20 tournaments – though there is considerable evidence that they are – but whether the hypothetical situation I describe (in which a bowler is persuaded to bowl hittable deliveries to a star batsman in the interests of entertainment) would be objected to as match-fixing in the “cancerous” sense.

The first question is whether the audience would be aware that it was happening, to which the answer is, I think, that they probably would not. Even experienced cricket-watchers find it hard to distinguish deliberate ineptitude from the unfeigned variety, although I suspect ex-professionals are much better able to detect the signs. As it is the express intention of, for instance, the ECB that T20 is designed to attract an audience who would not otherwise be interested in cricket, it is even less likely that they would be able to do so. In any case, as I have suggested in describing the ninth type of fix, the playing conditions in T20 tournaments virtually compel the bowler to serve up hittable bowling, without the need for any covert fixing.

The second question is harder to answer. The bowler, in our hypothetical situation, might well argue that it is not only in his personal interests to obey the instructions of his employer, but in the interests of the crowd and the good of the game in general, in that a high scoring game, with plenty of spectacular batting, is what the crowds will pay to see. He might well also argue that, as a professional, there is no real difference between playing well for money and playing badly for money, if that is what is required of him.

There is, I think, another question, which is whether the audience, particularly the new, hypothetical, one that the ECB is pursuing would care if they knew that what they were watching was fixed (or half-fixed, like a half-baked baguette), or whether they would embrace the “don’t ask, don’t tell” approach of professional wrestling. Would the perpetrators, in short, plead not guilty to match-fixing proper by pleading to the fifth type of fixing, and admitting that what they were purveying was “sports entertainment”?

Given that the WWE was explicitly stated to be a model for the new T20 competition when I attended an ECB presentation on the subject at the Leicestershire Members’ Forum last Autumn (you can read my account of that here), and this slightly troubling exchange from 2012 (in fairness, I am not sure that Dagnall was aware of the technical meaning of “sports entertainment”)

the answer, from the more go-ahead factions within the game, would appear to be “yes”, or, more precisely, “so what?” or “who cares?”.

“So what?” is always a hard argument to counter, but I will attempt, in the third (and, I hope) final post in this series, to explain why anyone who genuinely cares about sport (or cares about genuine sports) should care about match-fixing, and why it is incongruous, at best, to put so much effort into rooting out one type of fixing, while enthusiastically embracing another, more insidious, form of it, by re-examining the commonly expressed opinion that “you have to be able to believe that what you are seeing is real”.

 

Ever Get the Feeling You’ve Been Cheated? (Part 1)

There are few ideas regarding cricket that no-one will dispute. One of them, however, concerns “match-fixing”. It is universally agreed to be an evil, and is often described as a “cancer”, the implication being that, if it not excised, if a “cure” is not found, then it will spread, and kill the game. The reason most often given for this opinion is that the spectators “have to believe that what they are seeing is real”.

It is not my intention to write a contrarian piece, arguing that there is nothing wrong with match fixing : on the contrary, I regard what I have written above as an “obvious truth”. However, like other “obvious truths”, it is worth examining closely, if only for its rarity value, and in the hope that it might, as it were, crack apart to reveal some hidden truths.

In this first post, I shall begin with a provisional definition of what “match-fixing” is, and attempt a taxonomy of it, by distinguishing nine types. In a subsequent post, or posts, I shall attempt some analysis, some unpicking of threads. So …

A (broad) definition of “match-fixing” in sport : any sporting contest in which all, or any, of the outcomes of the game have been decided in advance, rather than arising naturally from the efforts of the contestants to win the match.

Nine types, of increasing ambiguity :

1. The Fix Proper.

Where one or both teams, or one or more individuals, contrives to achieve a particular result to a contest. The motive is usually financial and will result in the players perpetrating the fix, some outside party, or both, making money by betting on that outcome. The more unlikely the result, the greater the profit will be, though also the more likely to be detected.

This form of fixing is traditionally associated with sports, such as boxing and horse-racing, which attract, or exist largely to facilitate, betting, which take place in a milieu hospitable to organised crime, and in which one individual can achieve a result on their own (a boxer “taking a dive” or a jockey reining in a favourite).

In team sports, individuals may be able to influence the result by underperforming (goalkeepers in football are a common target for fixers), but, in cricket, the individual best placed to achieve a result, without collusion with the other side, is the Captain. The best-known recent instance in cricket involved Hanse Cronje, the South African Captain, setting England what would, in other circumstances, have been considered a sporting target, because he had accepted payment to ensure that the match did not end in a draw.

This form of fixing is universally disapproved of (except, presumably, by those who profit from it).

2. The Coercive Fix.

In which an outside agency, often a government or some other political figure, but sometimes the owners of a club, seek to achieve results for the side which represents them by means of threats or bribery, usually of the match officials or the opposition. It has often been suggested, for instance, that Real Madrid and Dynamo Moscow benefited unfairly from the patronage of General Franco and the KGB respectively, and Italian football has been dogged by various scandals involving the bribery of match officials.

The closest equivalent in cricket might be the once-frequent suggestions of political interference with Pakistani officials, though it was not easy to distinguish this from the suspicion of biased umpiring in other countries in the days before neutral umpires were introduced.

This form of fixing, too, is universally condemned, though the players and officials involved attract less opprobrium, being seen as victims rather than perpetrators.

3. The Spot-fix.

Apparently the most common form of fixing in cricket in recent years, this is similar to the first type, except that the agreement is to pre-arrange a part of the game and not its result. The element of the game that is fixed may be significant enough to effect the final outcome, or it may be completely insignificant (Matthew le Tissier, for instance, has admitted to trying, but failing, to kick the ball straight into touch from a kick off, and it is possible to imagine a fix that could have no effect on the outcome of the game at all, such as a bet on the number of players wearing hats at 3.15).

Although apparently, in most cases, more trivial in its effects than match-fixing proper, it attracts a similar level of condemnation, and, as the Pakistani trio discovered in 2010, may even lead to criminal prosecution.

4. The Tactical Fix.

This involves a team, or an individual, choosing to lose a particular match because they believe that, in the longer term, this will result in some advantage for them. An example would be a team who choose to lose a game in the qualifying round of a competition because they believe this will give them a more favourable draw in the next round, and thus a better chance of winning the tournament.

A related phenomenon is when, rather than actively “throwing” a match, a club fields a weakened side in a cup competition which they see as a distraction, thus increasing their chances of winning another, more significant, trophy.

A variant is when two sides collude to achieve a result which is to the benefit of both and, usually, the detriment of another (the best-known instance being the match between West Germany and Austria in the 1982 football World Cup).

Although this type does attract condemnation, it is generally less intense, and different in kind, from that which attaches to match-fixing proper, being seen more as a form of sharp practice, and easily eradicable by amending the rules of the competition.

5. The Tacitly Accepted Fix (“Sports Entertainment”).

A term coined to describe professional wrestling in the U.S.A., “sports entertainment” indicates that, even though a bout may have the appearance of a sporting contest, the participants are following a script, and that both the outcome and the narrative of the match have been agreed in advance.

Although such “sports” are regarded by many followers of “serious sport” as risible, they are not disapproved of in the same way as match fixing proper, in that there is no element of deception involved.

6. The Mutually Agreed Demi-Fix (“Contrived Finishes”).

Very common in the English County Championship, this involves the Captains of the two sides making an agreement that the side batting last will be set an agreed target, usually achieved by one side gifting the other runs, or forfeiting an innings, and is a tactic used when there is otherwise little likelihood of either side winning.

Attitudes to this vary. Those watching the game tend to approve of it, seeing it as a legitimate tactic to avoid the game petering out into a draw, and regard the ability to negotiate a favourable deal as a legitimate skill of Captaincy. Although there is often some grumbling about having to watch a prolonged spell of “declaration bowling”, it is only usually disapproved of when one Captain is felt to have been overly generous, or when the contrived finish is seen as being to the detriment of another County.

7. The Fix of No Significance.

Where, in a match that is that is not intended to be a serious contest between two teams, but a form of exhibition or spectacle, the course of the game is manipulated in the interests of entertainment. There is no real evidence, for instance, that W.G. Grace ever refused to leave the wicket, having been dismissed, saying “they have come to see me bat, not you bowl”, and, although he was capable of all sorts of sharp practice, it is improbable that he would have done so in a serious First Class game. If, however, he had said “they have paid to see me bat …” in one of the many exhibition games (often against odds) from which he made most of his money, that would have been a simple statement of truth, and there would have few complaints from the audience.

Though many “serious” fans of sport will find such games tiresome, there is no real disapproval involved, because it is felt that the course of play is being fixed in, as it were, a good cause.

8. The Professional Fix.

Imagine that you have been employed, on a very generous salary, as a bowler in a franchised T20 competition. Perhaps you have been employed because, in spite of the fact that you aren’t very good, you are capable of bowling the odd delivery at 95 mph, which, with a bit of fiddling with the speed gun, can be passed off as 100 mph (and replayed endlessly to publicise the competition).

It is more likely, though, that you are a moderately talented local seamer, there to make up the numbers, and soak up some loose change. Your employer, the franchise owner, has a quiet word in your ear, and reminds you that the crowd (not to mention the TV audience and the sponsors) has come to see the star batsmen bat and not you bowl, and that it might be a good idea if you could provide the opposition’s “gun bat” with a few well-pitched up deliveries in his favoured area, rather than striving too officiously to get him out. As a professional, you recognise that your first duty is to your employer, and that your salary depends on the success of the competition, so you comply.

Or do you?

9. The Regulatory Fix.

So, you have decided that your real duty is to the Spirit of Cricket, and you try, to the best of your ability, to get the batsman (Kohli, Warner, de Villiers or whoever) out, or, at least, restrict his scoring. What do you do? You could try bowling wide outside off-stump to a packed off-side field. You could try bouncing him repeatedly, to test his physical courage, or induce a mis-timed hook. You could try some leg theory. You could aim to restrict his scoring by packing the outfield with fieldsmen, or slip him the odd full toss. As a last resort, you could even try bowling underarm.

Except, of course, that you wouldn’t be able to do any of those things, because some combination of the “Laws” and the playing regulations would prevent you (and if you did succeed in hitting him on the head, he would be wearing a helmet, and any edges you might induce would be thick enough to send the ball high into the exultant crowd). You would, in fact, be in exactly the same position as someone who had accepted inducements to bowl hittable balls, and you would find yourself in, precisely, a bit of a fix.

(What the general attitude to the last two types is, or should be, and whether, or why, anyone should care, are questions I shall attempt to address in a subsequent post …)