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The O'Brien Column: Companies withdraw support in the light of dirty dealings

Friday 28th April 2000

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The O'Brien Column

It is a fair bet (pun intended) that companies in several countries have watched closely the current drama about former South African cricket captain Hansie Cronje's alleged associations with bookmakers.

Business has strong links with many sporting codes through sponsorship and the use of sports stars for advertising endorsement contracts, the latter ranging from clothing to food, finance and travel.

Those businesses could become involved partly for social reasons but the main driver is that a return on investment in sport and individual sportspeople is a financial return in increased sales revenue from goods and services and consequent profitability.

Directors and executives of public companies have to account to shareholders for returns on all investments, whether directly in the organisation's daily production and sales or indirectly through such activities as sponsorship and the use of "celebrities" (real or as the result of public relations hype) to promote goods and services.

Businesspeople take a hard-nosed approach when events such as those allegedly involving Mr Cronje get into the public arena.

That was seen when South African companies moved quickly to cancel product endorsement contracts with him.

Some sponsors would take decidedly dim views, albeit it often privately, if teams and/or individuals got into strife away from sporting venues.

It may be thought unfair in some quarters that sportspeople, who are often relatively young and under general pressure from the media and the public, should have to conduct their private lives in goldfish bowls.

Maybe, but if they are willing to take the benefits of professional sport and the accompanying lucrative corporate contracts they have to put up with the consequences of adverse conduct, particularly when incidents involve offences against law and order.

The latter, by definition, take private lives into the public world.

Shareholders would legitimately be outraged if their companies were seen to financially support sportspeople involved in such offences, apart from the adverse response to the companies.

Any hard-nosed approach to Mr Cronje and any others can be contrasted with the almost naive initial response from the few sports commentators who saw the allegations as some kind of plot from the subcontinent, although most were more realistic.

There was the occasional link to claims of biased umpires, ball-tampering and other quasi-racist insinuations about Indian and Pakistani sport and doubts over the operations of the New Delhi police.

Then came the handwringing and fulminations against the descent of the gentleman's noble game into the underworld of illegal gambling and sleaze, bookmaking being forbidden in India.

Former English test cricket captain Tony Lewis's book Double Century: The Story of MCC and Cricket has fascinating stories about the history of betting and even dreaded "match-fixing" in the game.

Mr Lewis recorded that in 1817 Surrey professional cricketer William Lambert was "warned off Lord's forever for 'selling' a match."

Lambert was, according to Mr Lewis, the first person to score a century in each innings of a match, achieved at Lord's in the same 1817.

Betting and its associated "selling" of matches went back much further.

Referring to the MCC's Laws of Cricket 1788, Mr Lewis says players were especially open to bribery when there was big money riding on their results and "legs" approached them.

"'Legs' were bookmakers' runners. They offered shady deals in dark corners and some players could not resist.

"Inevitably there was many a young cricketer up from the country, struggling to keep his money in his pockets in the big city.

"The 'legs' would be at him with ready cash. Even in winter, when the cricketer had gone home, a knock on the door could mean a 'leg' down from London trying to fix a contest for the next season."

Mr Lewis also wrote there were bets on individual innings, "even on the stroke" which sounds remarkably like the "spread betting" systems of bookmakers today.

It is interesting to speculate that when the English took cricket to India they could have included unsavoury practices in their bags.

The current problem for companies with sporting connections, and eventually for their shareholders, is sorting out dirtiness from purity. The vast majority of people involved in sport have never used drugs but drug-cheating remains an issue in many codes.

Equally, the vast majority have never been involved in associations with bookmakers or match-fixing (difficult as that can be, apart from spread-betting) even if they were at a level to have the opportunity.

Unfortunately, sport, gambling and corruption have been linked for years in many countries, whether in US baseball (recall the day a favourite team was sadly called the "Black" sox?), boxing (taking a "dive"), Australia (professional cycling at the start of the 1900s), horseracing everywhere, although that has improved massively in recent years, or monetary killing.

We have laws against crime, for example, but crime is widespread. There will always be pockets of such activity.

Companies play a part in cleaning them out through swift removal of their dollars when the cesspits are found.

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