Without trust, sports will become worthless

Here’s a great column by the Associated Press’ John Leiscester on cricket, but really it’s about sports in general:

Pakistani fast bowler Mohammad Asif, 28, surrounded by members of the media, leaves the Southwark court in London, Tuesday, Nov. 1, 2011. Pakistan cricketers Mohammad Asif and Salman Butt were convicted Tuesday of fixing parts of a test match against England in August 2010 in the most serious corruption scandal to hit the sport in more than a decade. The 12 jurors were unanimous in their decision that both players were guilty of conspiracy to cheat, but could only reach a 10-2 majority verdict on the charge that Butt took money to do so. (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis)

Often, the best place to study the good, the bad and the ugly sides of humanity is in the petri dish that is professional sports. That was truer than ever this week, in the tears of a grieving father on a floodlit field in northern England and on the ashen, clouded faces of crooked cricketers who met justice in a courtroom in central London.

Billy Sharp’s 2-day-old son, Luey Jacob Sharp, died Saturday. Yet, somehow, Sharp still found the courage, the fortitude and the will to turn out and score for his team, Doncaster Rovers, on Tuesday night in English soccer’s second-tier league, the Championship.

After his left-footed volley curled over the Middlesbrough goalkeeper in the 14th minute, Sharp lifted up his jersey to reveal the tribute, “THAT’S FOR YOU SON,” written on his undershirt.

Before kickoff, Sharp cried as his fellow soccer players and spectators marked his baby’s brief life with a minute of applause. Admirers on Twitter quickly and rightly noted that Sharp’s professionalism starkly contrasted with the spoiled-brat behavior of the far better-paid and better-known star Carlos Tevez, who rowed with his club, Manchester City, over his manager’s allegations that he refused to do what he was told.

Doncaster manager Dean Saunders said Sharp phoned him the night before the match to say that he wanted to play.

“Unbelievable, really, considering what’s happened. I mean, you know, how bad can it get?” Saunders said. “But, sometimes, getting out on the pitch is the best possible way of putting your mind at ease a little bit.”

It was, in short, one of those sporting moments where people transcend themselves, where they inspire, touch our hearts and our souls, generate respect and a rainbow of emotions that can run from distraught to delighted.

Sports provide many such moments. As well as Sharp, recall the trembling hands of Muhammad Ali lighting the Olympic flame in Atlanta in 1996 or Alex Ferguson’s breathless “Football, bloody hell!” when his Manchester United team scored twice in the last minutes to win the 1999 European Cup — just two of countless examples when sports make us go, “Wow!”

Which is why is the cheating, greed and corruption of Pakistan cricketers Salman Butt, Mohammad Asif and Mohammad Amir is so bad and so ugly.

When such people fix games, and when they take money to do so, they erode trust in sports. They undermine the idea that sports people — win, lose or draw — will always want to do their best and always try their hardest. If that belief in the integrity of sports and those who partake in them was ever allowed to die, then belief in the feats of people like Sharp, Ali and Ferguson’s Cup-winning team would die, too. That must not be allowed to happen.

Match-fixing and its links to massive illegal gambling markets are clearly threats to sports. Whether they become truly mortal threats remains to be seen.

Illegal gambling generates estimated revenues of almost $500 billion in Asia alone, the secretary general of the international police agency Interpol, Ronald Noble, said this March. Organized crime is often involved, he added. IOC President Jacques Rogge on Wednesday called illegal sports betting “endemic” and said “there has been match-fixing in many, many sports.” European soccer boss Michel Platini in September appealed for political action, saying sports administrators alone cannot stop the “alarming” spread of match-fixing.

“European football is afraid, and I think I can even say that European sport as a whole is afraid,” Platini said.

Afraid, but not fatalistic. The battle is not lost yet and won’t be as long as cheats such as Butt, Asif and Amir are caught and remain, as now, the minority. The players could be jailed for as long as seven years. Sentencing is on Thursday. The hope of many in cricket is that the high-profile case will spur more action against match-fixing and corruption both from the sport’s administrators and in Pakistan, a long-troubled cricketing power.

Still, without shady investigative reporting by the now defunct British tabloid News of the World, Pakistan’s cricketers may never have gone on trial at Southwark Crown Court.

Working undercover, reporter Mazher Mahmood handed over bundles of marked cash to a fixer in a covert sting that exposed the cheating.

Cricket’s administrators and many other media organizations would balk at the methods that The News of the World employed. Now the tabloid is no more, closed in July after evidence emerged that its reporters hacked phones, who will climb into the gutter of sports next time to unmask the criminality that goes on there?

“I do accept and acknowledge the investigative journalism that led to this trial,” Metropolitan Police Detective Chief Superintendent Matthew Horne said outside the court after Butt and Asif were convicted Tuesday of fixing parts of a test match against England in August 2010 at Lord’s, the home of cricket.

Amir previously pleaded guilty. Thank goodness that he, in particular, was caught early in his career. Just 18 at the time of the Lord’s fix and the youngest cricketer to take 50 test wickets, it’s frightening to imagine how many other matches he might have gone on to corrupt.

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