2017: The year of scandals?

By Prof Dr Steve Cornelius Centre for Sports and Entertainment Law University of Pretoria South Africa

The year following immediately after an Olympic year is often quite an anti-climax. After all, it is hard to live up to the grandeur, expectations and hype that surround the Olympic Summer Games. The quadrennial Games remains the greatest sports spectacle on earth and Rio de Janeiro 2016 was no exception.

It was, therefore, to be expected that 2017 would start out as a fairly low-key year in global sports. However, the New Year dawned with a host of scandals – to such an extent that one can rightly question whether 2017 is going to go down in history as the year of sports scandals.

The first major sports event of the year, the Australian Open tennis tournament, kicked off with the news that one the brightest junior players to have ever taken to a tennis court, was caught up in a web of match-fixing. This revelation came just as the Tennis Integrity Unit announced that Alexandru-Daniel Carpen and Nick Lindahl had been found guilty of match-fixing and banned for life from the sport. The Australian Open turned out to be a memorable occasion with the Williams sisters meeting in the final of a Grand Slam tournament for the umpteenth time and the match between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal arguably turning out to be one of the greatest finals ever played. But through all this the rumours of match- fixing in tennis just would not go away.

And it is not only tennis that has come under scrutiny. It seems that cricket can still not shake off the scourge of match fixing, with Pakistani officials investigating various players for their parts in the fixing of cricket matches. Football has not been immune either. South African football officials announced that it has involved law enforcement agencies to assist with an investigation into allegations of match-fixing in the lower divisions.

It is hard to think of any scandal which could threaten the integrity of sport more than match-fixing, but an even deeper and darker shadow was cast over English football as allegations of child abuse surfaced. To date, more than 255 complaints involving more than 77 clubs have surfaced. And if other child abuse scandals that have rocked the United Kingdom in recent years is anything to go by, we can prepare ourselves for some very shocking revelations.

Allegations of sexual exploitation was not limited to English football. In the United States, revelations about sexual misconduct involving American football players, coaching staff and managers at Baylor University keep escalating with more and more victims of rape and sexual assaults coming forward. Further revelations of how Baylor football officials used alcohol and sex to lure promising young players to Baylor also surfaced. It is probably only a question of time before some of these players realise that they were also victims of a heinous system and take legal action against the University. In view of all the revelations, it is mind-boggling and extremely sad that neither the Big 12 Conference, nor the NCAA, took it upon themselves to ban Baylor from further participation in their events. Any one of the revelations about the abuses at Baylor, taken by themselves, is abhorrent. Taken together, the revelations speak of arguably some of the worst atrocities committed in the context of sports since the times of the Roman Empire.

Allegations of human trafficking and exploitation of underage football players, particularly from Africa, also refuse to die down. A report from FIFPro revealed that the majority of football players in Africa earn a mere pittance and often go unpaid for months at a time.

As the news of the Russian State-sponsored doping broke in the run-up to the 2016 Olympic Games, it was hard to imagine that anything would overshadow such a massive conspiracy. But the seemingly endless scandals rocking sport have done just that. The Russian doping scandal simply fades in comparison to some of the other problems that face a range of sports today.

But perhaps, far from being the year of scandals, 2017 might just go down in history as the year of change. Most of the scandals mentioned above are historical issues and some date back almost 50 years. But what is significant, is that most sports federations are beginning to take allegations of misconduct seriously indeed. More and more sports federations are establishing integrity units and putting resources into investigations to restore some confidence in their sports. As long as they ensure that these integrity units can truly operate independently and investigate all aspects of a particular sport without fear, favour or prejudice, 2017 may just be the year in which decent people reclaimed sports from thugs who threaten to undermine its integrity.