Match Fixers Betting on Athlete Mental Health Vulnerability

Match fixing (or game fixing) has been on the rise in the USA since the federal ban on sports betting was lifted in 2018. In their most recent annual review, Sportradar Integrity Services reported a large jump in suspicious activity. Their Universal Fraud Detection System detected a 34% year-over-year increase in suspicious matches in 92 countries on five continents, and across 12 sports.

The issue has become so problematic that sports bettors have come to expect it, and audaciously take to online search to gather dark web intel on which games are being fixed on a given day’s sports schedule. A small sample of online search queries occurring in the USA evidence this expectation as sports bettors seek to capitalize on insider information:

Match Fixing Betting

Source: Google Keyword Research Tool

Sports leagues and organizations on American soil are taking the concern very seriously and policies are in place to protect league integrity. For instance, the NFL has stipulated that players can be suspended indefinitely when it can be proven that they have wagered on any NFL games, whether it involves an alleged violator’s team or otherwise. Meanwhile, in the spring of 2023, a sports integrity monitoring tool was launched to help athletes, coaches and staff anonymously report suspicions about gambling activity to regulators and law enforcement.

The legalization of sports betting and match fixing connection is of little surprise to most. What is surprising, if the amount of blame being levied on athletes, with very little public and stakeholder understanding for what may be causing them to get involved in these schemes. If more attention is focused on their mental health, vulnerable athletes will not only be better prepared for the fallout to come from involvement in match fixing betting rackets, they may be less likely to participate in them in the first place. Let’s review.

How Compromised Mental Health May Make Athletes Vulnerable to Involvement in Match Fixing Schemes (and what must be done about it)

Preying on Financial Insecurity

Match fixers bank on the financial insecurities of high school, college, and even professional athletes. These athletes live under the constant fear of having their dreams and financial security ripped away with a single achilles tear or loss of competitive edge. The resulting anxiety and stress can impair their decision making ability, which may lead to them accepting bribes to throw games and shave points from corrupt individuals, bookies, and criminal organizations. This sort of thing is especially concerning at the amateur level and in leagues that are generally rostered with individuals from lower income households:

“However, individual characteristics likely increase the vulnerability to match-fixing exposure; a lower income, being in a role where an individual’s action in a game may have limited visibility, and being on an amateur level where prevention and support services may be harder to access. Also, athletes may be at risk of mental distress because of mistakes made during the game, and where uncertainty may arise about whether these were voluntary or involuntary”

Frontiers in Psychology

Early intervention mental health support must be provided to athletes at a young age to nip these fears about future financial security in the bud. As a part of this initiative, they must be shown that sole reliance on athletics inflates this risk. They must learn to find confidence that they have the intelligence and capabilities to be successful outside of the arena.

Inferred Threats of Violence Cause Fear, Anxiety, Stress, and Concession

While it may seem like something plucked from a Hollywood storyline, please note that it’s an instance of art imitating life. Athletes are being threatened to throw games and shave points and this causes fear, anxiety, and stress. Consequently they may concede to match fixing. Criminal organizations have being accused of using this tactic for decades if not centuries. In some cases threats of violence are direct, while in others it is inferred. If a player accepts a bribe from a corrupt individual or organization, and chooses not to follow through on rigging the game, the consequences are clear. Match fixers don’t accept refunds. Furthermore, athletes are being threatened by sports bettors who blame them for outcomes of a given game. This compounds the fear, anxiety, and stress that they feel even further which makes them even more vulnerable to manipulation.

Of course, everything above indicates a need for improved monitoring and physical security, but the line of defense doesn’t end there. If athletes had better access to mental health support services that specifically address this unique threat, they would be better prepared to manage their emotions and decision making processes.

Preying on Athlete Gambling Habits

Some may think that financial insecurities don’t apply to professional athletes who have multimillion dollar contracts. What they don’t understand, is that elite athletes are statistically more vulnerable to the general population when it comes to problem and compulsive gambling. Just last year an NFL player lost $8 million to gambling in one season. When these athletes incur gambling debt, predatory match fixers swoop in to “save the day”.

Michael Franzese, an American former mobster who was the head of the Colombo crime family, describes exactly how he worked with bookies to force athlete gamblers to shave points:

YouTube video

Can you imagine the mental health implications of having a criminal organization hovering over every move you make on the court, track, or field?

More Accepting of Social Norms Toward Match Fixing?

Researchers have not just argued that the risk of engaging in match-fixing may be high in athletes with a history of compulsive gambling, they argue that gambling attitudes within the world of sports may elevate the risk of athletes actually engaging in fraud. Over 5 years ago, sports betting was a “hush hush” activity in the USA, but it is now mainstream as around two-thirds of the nation offers legal sports betting. Since match-fixing has existed for as long as organized competitive sports has existed, it is only logical for complicit behaviors among athletes to grow along with the widespread acceptance of sports betting.

Culture of Caring to Reduce Risk of Vulnerability to Match Fixing

Everything above indicates that improved mental and behavioral health support is required not just to manage the fallout of athlete involvement in fraud, but for early intervention and prevention. If amateur and professional leagues want to create a sustainable model that keeps vulnerable athletes from falling through the cracks, it’s time to introduce psychological evaluations and ongoing care into the equation.

If you work with athletes at an amateur, collegiate, or professional level and want to learn more about how your institution or organization can better support its athletes, contact Kindbridge today.

Concerned Athletic Organizations and Institutions

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Match Fixing Betting on Athlete Mental Health Vulnerability