What makes sportsmen go corrupt?

Cricketers and other sports heroes build their careers on reputations. Why do many of them risk throwing it all away?

Sharda Ugra
Sharda Ugra
In the case of the Pakistanis accused of spot-fixing, the first responses pointed to their backgrounds - the culture of corruption, and poverty - but that doesn't explain everything  •  Getty Images

In the case of the Pakistanis accused of spot-fixing, the first responses pointed to their backgrounds - the culture of corruption, and poverty - but that doesn't explain everything  •  Getty Images

In the first week of January, as the last two days of the Ashes play themselves out and the South Africa versus India Test series comes to an end, Michael Beloff, English barrister and head of the ICC Code of Conduct commission, Justice Albie Sachs, a retired South African judge, and Sharad Rao, a leading Kenyan barrister, will find themselves in a room with Salman Butt, Mohammad Asif and Mohammad Amir in Doha, Qatar, and begin to ask questions. Those questions will no doubt be factual, legal, contractual.
They certainly wouldn't have been the very basic questions that flooded the minds of thousands who woke up one Sunday morning to see Mazhar Majeed and a stack of pound notes on their TV screens. Our questions were about guilt and innocence, reason and impulse. The ICC's three-man tribunal's findings may not answer them.
Butt, Amir and Asif, the third Pakistani allegedly involved in the spot-fixing scandal, have not been proven guilty by the ICC's own code of conduct, never mind a court of law. They remain suspended though, and their reputations stand soiled.
Sporting heroes build their careers, their lives, on reputation. Of athlete as fighter, athlete as adventurer, athlete as risk-taker, but a man or woman doing so always within the rules of their sport. When the boundaries around those reputations begin to fray, we are faced with the same old, weary questions. Guilt and innocence. Reason and impulse. It's what was asked of Hansie Cronje or Mohammad Azharuddin or Saleem Malik, even of Mark Waugh and Shane Warne.
Why? Whatever the hell for? What on earth were you thinking?
We want to know what leads men of such skill, achievement and fairly firm financial ground, to make choices that, before they are unethical, are so utterly illogical.
In the case of the Pakistanis accused of spot-fixing, the first responses were predictable. Of young, relatively poorly paid men seduced by the lure of easy, instant cash. Of "belonging" to a "culture" of endemic, unremitting corruption. Of their "backgrounds" - the villages of the developing world.
Yet those are extremely simple sweeps of statement around an act that is beyond being background, class or wealth. In April this year, world snooker champion John Higgins and his manager were secretly filmed on tape talking about matches with the same News of the World sting operator. Higgins was cleared of allegations of being in discussions around "throwing frames" or results but was fined £75,000 and banned for six months for bringing the game into disrepute.
Higgins, who returned to competitive snooker on November 11, came from the "corruption-free" West, from Scotland, and was one of his sport's high earners. Yet he fell into the same trap, set by the same NOTW reporter, over the same issue, and got into talking about a so-called business deal. About, essentially, sport and money. It was exactly what Majeed, the "manager" of the three Pakistanis, was caught doing. Cronje was a devout Afrikaaner; cricket had made Azharuddin famous, rich and much loved; Warne and Waugh belonged to a team culture other nations are still trying to emulate.
Even keeping in mind that the Pakistanis have not been found guilty, the basic question never goes away. What makes some cricketers cross the line? The word most commonly used around discussions of this kind is "greed". Is that what differentiates people and in this case, elite performers? That there are some who, under normal circumstances, can be bought and others who can't?
Mike Brearley, the former England captain and a practising psychoanalyst, believes it is hard to select common features amongst those who succumb to temptations. In a measured email response to ESPNcricinfo, Brearley did not rule out either the culture of corruption or a lack of support for young players as being ingredients. He referred to the doomed fatality of the first step that a cricketer takes when he gives even casual assistance to someone on the wrong side. "Once in (in very small, tiny ways), it is hard to get out (as of the mafia or the communist party)". From an innocuous predetermined no-ball to the ICC tribunal in Doha hearing is not a slippery slope. It is rapidly melting ice.
Greed, though Brearley believes, "doesn't quite capture it, any more than sexual desire captures sexual adventurism and dishonesties". There were, he said, other facets that, when pieced together, lead to a succumbing. Brearley lists them: "the excitement of risk-taking, the omnipotence of believing one can get away with anything, and the filling of the sense of emptiness in one's life".
Like Brearley, Dr Sandy Gordon, professor of sport and exercise psychology at the University of Western Australia's School of Sport Science, Exercise and Health, pointed out that the contexts and environments of the opportunities to take risk differ across teams, individuals, cultures and countries. Gordon, who has worked with many international cricketers and teams over the last two decades, did however say, "Those predisposed to take risks will always be on the lookout for excitement and means of avoiding boredom, and as a consequence [are] susceptible to temptation."
Sport's history is full of those fitting the description. Some of the greatest athletes of the last hundred years - Michael Jordan, Mike Tyson, Diego Maradona, George Best - have crossed over into one of these: drugs, alcohol, gambling, white-collar offences, and violence against women. Former England allrounder Chris Lewis is in jail for smuggling cocaine into Britain.
One of the more unusual terms Gordon used in his responses to ESPNcricinfo was the "derailer". It comes from a psychological questionnaire called the Hogan Development Survey (HDS), used to study an individual's responses under stress.
The derailer refers to traits that belong to the "dark side of personality", which can sometimes take over under pressure and play an important part in decision-making - traits that are normally tolerated, even indulged, as Gordon says, but which, when "tempted with opportunity", can derail. "It's about character meeting opportunity and/or sport revealing character," Gordon said. Temptations come in many disguises; what stays constant, though, is the powerful lure.
The personality types on the HDS scales include "colourful" (seekers of attention, productive, with ability in crises, and possessed of belief in self and ability), "bold" (overly self-confident, arrogant, with inflated feelings of self-worth) and "mischievous" (charming, risk-taking, limit-testing and excitement-seeking). Gordon says "bold" and "mischievous" characters abound in the entertainment industry (e.g. professional sport...) We may often call them "characters" in cricket.
The Herschelle Gibbs-Mickey Arthur war of words, or rather contest of chapters in their new books, is, if nothing else, a reflection of the constant tussle between such characters and their circumstances. Some "characters" in a team may just be trouble-makers, who get into drunken brawls, smoke marijuana, chomp on cricket balls, run into problems with match referees, get into fisticuffs with team-mates. Some could be trouble-chasers whose dark side derails into bad choices. Individuals on the "bold" and "mischievous" scales, Gordon says, are more prone to making "intuitive decisions motivated by pleasure. They can over-estimate themselves and their ability to get away with ill-advised risks. In addition, they typically fail to learn from or admit their mistakes and can also intimidate others, be demanding, aggressive and overbearing." The most intimidating personalities in a cricket team are most usually, its captain or its star performers.
The skirmish between "character and opportunity" is, researchers say, a component of competitive sport today. Dr Maria Kavussanu of the University of Birmingham's School of Sport and Exercise Sciences has done extensive studies on "sports morality" to understand why athletes - young, old, amateur, professional - cheat, break rules or are physically violent on rivals.
"[It is about] the excitement of risk-taking, the omnipotence of believing one can get away with anything, and the filling of the sense of emptiness in one's life"
Mike Brearley on some of the reasons why sportsmen stray
When caught, athletes use what Dr Kavussanu calls "moral disengagement". It is a handy defence mechanism that has eight psychological fallbacks that form the range of excuses whenever rules are broken - be it by way of red cards in football, illegal equipment in Formula One, insider betting and fixing in cricket or tennis, or just positive dope tests. Among these crutches are the old favourites "Everybody does it", "I was just obeying orders" and "We did it for the team's sake", which are essentially an abdication and a passing on of responsibility.
Tiger Woods described what life was like inside elite sport: "I thought I could get away with whatever I wanted to, deserve to enjoy all the temptations around me. I thought I was entitled. Thanks to money and fame, I didn't have to go far to find them." That was his answer to the questions "Why?" "Whatever for?" "What were you thinking?"
In a team sport like cricket, it is what Maqbool "Max" Babri calls a squad's "micro culture" that can kick in strongly, one way or another. Babri, a psychologist who worked with the Pakistan team before their 2009 ICC World Twenty20 win, says teams need role models within their own structures. It could be a senior figure - the coach, say, whose role is not merely that of a technical instructor but also "counsellor and psychotherapist, who players can go and talk to without fear".
The coach's role is that of the adult figure among a group of young, ambitious, high-strung men on a high wire of ambition and expectation. The rest of every individual's "micro-culture" - family, schooling, peer group - adds up to his eventual personality. Babri says. "If I was treated badly, I will treat people the same way. If I don't receive respect, I can't give it."
The speed and intensity with which derailers in personality kick in could depend on the micro-cultures. Which is why, to give an example, the list of the NFL players accused of assaulting women is still growing. Or why cyclists keep testing positive for drugs. Or why bookies believe they can still approach cricketers.
Elite sport contains characters Gordon calls "narcissitic personality disordered", who believe that their "exalted status, based on personal performances" makes them "entitled to do and say whatever they please. The consequences of their behaviour are rarely considered until someone else brings it to their attention." Or when they get caught.
Kavussanu argues that the status of sport in society adds to the athlete's sense of entitlement. "When people play sport, it is as if that is doing something that is not the same as everyday life... maybe that is why people are more forgiving towards professional athletes." The bubble in which elite athletes now live is protected not merely by their agents, managers and bank balances but by the blind adoration of their fans. It probably accounts for why Mohammad Azharuddin is now a Member of Parliament and why Warne and Ajay Jadeja are now experts on television, holding forth about spirit and conduct.
As sport grows in public appeal, global spread and financial strength, it contains very few counter-balances against temptation or even unquestioning celebrity worship. Those who are meant to be what Gordon calls the "cultural engineers" of national sports bodies, "have allowed, even facilitated, too many crises to go through to the keeper."
It is why the ICC's first-ever suspension over the spot-fixing scandal was significant. Its future course of action in policing cricket and punishing those found guilty contains meaningful consequences for the sport as a whole.
In this tussle between the dark side of personality and the pull of culture, character and opportunity, Brearley offers a simple and pertinent observation. To us, to fans, to everyone who lives surrounded and held in thrall by the world of sporting celebrity, the man with the famous "degree in people" wrote: "It is often hard to know with conviction about individuals that one comes to know well."
Also read psychologist Rudi Webster's column on what prompts human beings to cheat

Sharda Ugra is senior editor at Cricinfo