• Open season

    The flood of money attracted by T20 was good for the game. Now, though, things need to be reeled in before all is lost, writes Tom Eaton in the latest Business Sport Monthly.

    Bear with me. I’ll get to the cricket in a moment. But first, I want to introduce you to two Americans.

    Their names are Daniel Hicks and Joan Hamory Hicks. Daniel is at the University of Oklahoma and Joan is at the University of California Berkeley. And they have some interesting ideas about why people commit crimes.

    In 2012, in a study titled, ‘Jealous of the Joneses: Conspicuous Consumption, Inequality, and Crime’, Hicks and Hicks delved into an idea South Africans will be particularly familiar with, namely, that crime is a symptom of inequality. The greater the chasm between rich and poor (the theory suggests), the more likely a country is to suffer from higher crime rates.

    To explore this notion in greater detail, the pair overlaid crime stats from the FBI with data gleaned from the Consumer Expenditure Survey, produced by the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. In layman’s terms, they looked up everyone who had bought high-end goodies like expensive cars, gadgetry and designer clothes, and then checked how many of those had been the victims of a crime.

    The data showed a clear correlation between being wealthier and being the victim of certain crimes. But it also revealed another, for more interesting correlation.

    Wealth, the authors pointed out, is often hidden. Most criminals have no idea how much money we have in our bank accounts. And yet wealthier people are clearly being targeted for certain crimes. So how are criminals deciding who is wealthy and who isn’t?

    The answer is simple: they’re using their eyes.

    According to ‘Jealous of the Joneses’, inequality alone is not enough to spawn crime. What is needed is <itals>visible<itals> inequality – or, as we know it, conspicuous consumption. Being rich doesn’t automatically make you a better target. What puts the bullseye on your back is when you flash the cash.

    When I was in Stockholm a few yeas ago, a proud Swede asked me if I had seen any poor people. I replied that I had only seen a few, sheltering in subways or sleeping rough in parks. ‘And how many rich people have you seen?’ he asked.

    I was tempted to reply that every Swede I’d seen had been rich, simply by virtue of being able to afford to live in an expensive city like Stockholm; but his point was a good one. I had wandered around some of the most expensive neighborhoods in the city, where homes go for millions of euros, and yet I had seen only modest Volvos parked outside unassuming buildings, and pedestrians wearing store-bought outfits. All the trappings of wealth we worship in South Africa were completely absent. There were no SUVs, no Beemers, no blinged-out lounge lizards or hipsters in designer labels. There were no marble pillars or Greco-Roman facades, no pools or tennis courts. However much their bank accounts might have differed, the people on the street all looked the same. And not surprisingly, Sweden barely registers on global rankings of economic crime and inequality.

    Discussing ‘Jealous of the Joneses’ in The Atlantic in 2014, journalist Joe Pinsker pointed out that some of the findings seemed to refute long-held beliefs about the causes of crime. For example, the data showed that while murder and assault spiked along with conspicuous consumption, theft and vandalism barely budget. This seems to fly in the face of what we’re taught as children: that thieves nick shiny things and overlook dull ones. Certainly, most people would assume that a Lamborghini parked on a dodgy street would be far more likely to get stolen than a Picanto.

    For Pinsker, however, these anomalies were less interesting than the spike in the murder rate, and how this discovery might contribute to something called ‘strain theory’. I don’t want to trample on the toes of any sociologists or criminologists by trying to define a complex field of study myself so I’ll simply quote Pinsker. Strain theory, he writes, ‘suggests that when poorer people perceive inequality, they feel less of a commitment to social norms and in turn come to view crime as more acceptable’.

    Which brings me, at last to the cricket. Because right now, cricket has a crime problem.

    Sports are regulated with rules or laws, but they are held together by their own internal moral codes. Rules can be bent. Laws can be fudged. But breach the spirit of the game and you become a pariah. Perhaps the clearest example of this is found in cricket, in the contest between a batsman and truly fast bowler: if you knock a batsman’s teeth out with a 145kph bouncer you will be hailed as a potent match-winner, but knock a batsman’s teeth out with a 135kph beamer and you’re a cheating bully.

    These ethical quirks can seem laughably arbitrary, but sports can’t exist without them. Remove the moral code from boxing and it becomes common assault. Without its Puritanical ethics, golf would be a strange hobby involve hitting dozens of balls into water and sand until you got bored and placed a new ball three inches from the hole. Some moral codes prevent thuggery and violence; others guards against devious skullduggery. But strip away all their complexity and eccentricity and you’ll find one universal Golden Rule.

    Thou shalt not contrive the outcome.

    The morality of sports fans can be surprisingly elastic, especially if their team is in trouble. They can justify lifting the seam, punching the kidneys, taking ultra-aggressive racing lines. They can forgive foul-mouthed temper tantrums, head-butts, ear-bites, knees to the crotch, middle fingers jabbed at the umpire or referee. They can even persuade themselves that drugging isn’t really cheating because everyone is doing it. But conspire to create a contrived result and their judgement is as unyielding as an Old Testament god raining hellfire down on the damned.

    Every prospective cheater on the planet understands that he or she is playing an incredibly dangerous game. Hefty bans are becoming more commonplace. Sponsors, increasingly responsive to the whims and demands of the Twitterati, are readier than ever to drop tainted ‘brand ambassadors’. Journalists are writing about corrupt sports, and politicians are talking about them. Sporting institutions that were once beyond reproach in the public imagination are now bywords for sleaze. From the Olympics to Fifa, more and more organisations and events are being written off as partially or entirely corrupt.

    With that kind of heat being brought to bear on sport, you’d think that only the criminally insane or the terminally stupid would try to fix results these days. And yet scan the names of cricketers who have either been banned or are being investigated and you’ll find very few monsters or morons. (There is one exception – the co-accused in a very famous match-fixing trial – but I’ll leave you to work out which moron I’m referring to, to save this magazine from a defamation case …)

    No, the cricketers who are cheating right now – and it’s safe to assume there are quite a few more shocks to come – are doing it despite having grown up knowing it is the sport’s greatest crime. Hansie Cronje blamed the devil. Gulam Bodi, recently banned for 20 years, tried exactly the same line, confessing to Luke Alfred in the Mail & Guardian that ‘sometimes the devil just gets hold of you’. But even as Cronje and Bodi chose this particularly spineless excuse, casting themselves as victims of an imaginary villain, they were nevertheless revealing that they understood the extent of their crime against sport: by invoking the devil, they were calling their actions diabolical.

    So if cricketers are conspiring to rig individual over or entire match results, and they’re not idiots or sociopaths, and they know their careers will end in ignominy and probably bankruptcy if they are caught, why are they still doing it?

    I suspect the reason is to be found in the work of Hicks and Hicks, and in strain theory.

    Scan the list of cricketers who have been banned from the game in the past few years, and you’ll see they all have one thing in common: T20 cricket. The shortest form of the game seems to be producing the bulk of the corruption in the sport. And that’s because the shortest format is also the richest.

    Prestige T20 competitions like the Indian Premier League and the Big Bash League have uncovered a vastly rich seam of pure gold, and now the rush is staring in earnest. The prime stands are already occupied by the world’s best, but the fortune-hunters have caught the fever: an army of cricketing panhandlers and prospectors is racing to stake a claim anywhere that looks even faintly promising.

    B-grade youngsters; creaky, fortysomething former greats; businessmen-turned-administrators: all are tossing their worldly belongings in the wagon and heading out to seek their fortune in the new frontier of T20, following wild tales of a place where you can make millions just by slogging some medium-pacers into empty concrete stands: Bangladesh, Dubai, the Caribbean, it doesn’t matter. And following this desperate stampede are the inevitable parasites: the conmen, the hustlers, the pimps and the debt collectors, buying loyalty, selling out the game.

    As in all gold rushes, a few have made enormous fortunes; but, as in all gold rushes, most scratch a living on the periphery, sustained by nothing but hope and envy. For them, the lure of T20 riches is a cruel addiction, a holy grail floating just out of their reach, made unbearably bitter by watching their peers become unbelievably rich.

    Imagine being a 34-year-old seamer with a good slower ball, a neat out-swinger and the ability to hit bad balls a long way. Five years ago you had a short run in the national ODI team, but you always felt you weren’t part of the inner clique and somehow it seemed the only time you were called up to bowl was when an Australian was rampaging at the other end. You had one good mate in the team – you and he went to the academy together, opened the bowling for the same province, shared plenty of drinks – but when you were dropped, you stopped seeing so much of each other.

    That’s changed. Now you see him all the time: on TV. He’s just been bought by a Big Bash team for R2-million. You’re struggling to pay your rent. And it’s burning you alive because he’s only five percent better than you, and yet he’s earning 500% more than you. 

    T20 has brought money to cricket – more money than anyone thought possible. It will fund Tests for a while, and that is a good thing. But riches have also brought inequality, and, as bidding wars and players’ price tags become media events, a new culture of conspicuous consumption.

    Inequality, conspicuous consumption: the strain is starting to tell. Or maybe that’s just strain theory, getting to work on the minds of players who feel overlooked.

    They have followed cricket’s moral code since they were little children. They know match-fixing or spot-fixing are frowned upon. But are they really crimes? And what good is that moral code if it’s allowing such gross inequality to take root? Is it really so surprising that they might, in Pinsker’s words, begin to feel ‘less of a commitment to social norms’ and to start to ‘view crime as more acceptable’?

    Cricket cannot remain naive. It can’t keep pretending that T20 is an entirely benevolent. It can’t reassure itself that corruption is an aberration or an accident that just sort of happens for no particular reason when nobody is looking. Cricket must do what the rest of our society must do. It must understand inequality, and the dark power conspicuous consumption holds over men’s minds.

    And even as it grows richer, it must remember that its only value lies in its authenticity. Spectacle along isn’t enough: the spectacle must be believed to be true. If enough fans starting doubting, no amount of money in the world is going to save cricket from going bankrupt.

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