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Bungs, Taps and sporting crime

The BBC has once again exposed the shocking criminality of English soccer. First, they have secretly filmed interviews with player agents stating that they have paid money to specific managers (head coaches) of a club purchasing a player. Referred to in England as a "bung", the payment ensures the support of the manager in getting the club to pay up. Second, they have evidence that Chelsea's director of youth football approached a 15-year old player who was already signed to another club (i.e. tampering, which is called "tapping-up" in England). This was all shown on a TV show last night, and this morning the government minister responsible for sport paraded his outrage on the radio, talking about the need for tighter regulation and changes to the law.

So, as ever, we must ask (a) what crime has been committed? and (b) who is the victim? The "crimes" are in fact breaches of the rules of the the national association, the FA. Let's consider each one:

Bungs: It is possible the clubs concerned could sue their employees if they are found to have accepted bribes, and even a criminal charge of conspiracy could be attempted, but that seems relatively unlikely. The club owners do not seem as agitated as the regulators and would-be regulators, possibly because they do not perceive themselves to have suffered much harm. The club is much more concerned with getting the best players, and any manager who is not delivering on the field will be fired. If taking bungs means winning, the club owners don't care.

Tapping-up: In this regard, the club that loses a player is quite clearly the loser when it comes to tapping up, and will demand sanctions, not against the individual, but against the club. The sanction might involve financial penalties and compensation for the victim. This points to the fact that the "crime" here is essentially the crime of undermining a cartel. Clubs agree to respect a kind of property right in a player, and failure to respect this right is against the sporting laws. But should it be considered contrary to the law of the land? If Harvard would like to discuss offering me an academic post (OK, but we can all dream, can't we?) should it be illegal to do so unless they first talk to Imperial College?

For all the moral posturing, it is not hard to see the agenda at work here. First, players in soccer have only had agents since the late 1970s- many in the business hark back to the good old days when you could tell a player his wage and he would say "thank you". Controlling the activities of agents is a means to controlling wages. Second, agents are convenient scapegoats in a business that has a fair few other problems. Third, the regulation lobby in soccer is immensely strong and is opposed to the operation of the market in sports (particularly if it means American owners, restructuring of competition, dominance of big clubs, etc). For them these events prove that soccer cannot be left to the market and therefore requires detailed regulatory intervention in the public interest.

It is quite likely that there will be significant attempts to bring European football under closer state control in the coming years, probably through some kind of legally based licensing and subsidy scheme. Maybe this would be a good thing or maybe it wouldn't. But history shows that such things tend to happen in reaction in public scandals of one form or another, by-passing the rational debate that is surely required.