My mate Otis is that rare beast – a successful football punter. For decades he has made a living in the biggest of all betting markets, American football, with his exceptional aptitude for insider trading. With contacts around the United States he specialises in finding out who is injured and will not be playing and who is playing but should not be. Armed with his information Otis sets about trimming up the betting market before the general public becomes aware and gets a nice little earn on his turnover.

Many of my bookmaker colleagues used to detest Otis and his ilk. They could not stand the idea of a punter actually winning but I quickly learned that letting him have a bet at what I knew would be the wrong price was good business. It was just another way of paying for information. The art was to limit the wager to a size that enabled our book to recoup the Otis loss, and earn a bit more, by adjusting the prices offered to other punters.

The last thing we wanted was not to know – for Otis to stop punting. Which, I am sure, is why some bookmakers are reluctant to tell the Australian Football League about their dealings with players and officials. Letting someone on the inside have a bet is as valuable to a bookmaker as an early warning about a takeover is to a stockbroker. Inside information is the only sure fire way of beating any market.

Sporting bodies, like stock exchanges, like to pretend that it isn’t so. They all have rules designed to ensure that everyone buying a share or having a pick in the office footy tipping contest has access to the same information. When some one is silly enough to use their own name for some insider trading and gets found out, the institution reacts with righteous indignation and imposes a penalty to teach the villain a lesson.

So it is this week with the AFL threatening dire consequences for four footballers who have broken the rules that prohibit betting on matches. They will be made an example of by an administration trying to pretend that its sport is beyond reproach. It will be a very half hearted effort because the only way to end insider trading is to insist on all information relevant to a team’s chances being made available to everyone.

The National Football League in the United States reached that conclusion back in from the 1940s, when the NFL commissioner, Bert Bell, was dealing with the aftermath of the 1946 championship game between the New York Giants and Chicago Bears. As chronicled in Michael MacCambridge’s book America’s Game, there were concerns at the time that two New York players, Merle Hapes and Frank Filchock, had been approached by gamblers and that the game could be part of a fix. Bell ended up suspending both players and reached the conclusion that professional football could not survive unless it was based on absolute honesty. Starting in the 1947 season, Bell required all teams to publish a list of all injured players.

The principal purpose of the injury report is to ensure there are no hidden injuries, or clubs hiding that players might not be available, and then that player ends up not being able to play and nobody knew about it.

Not that it always works out in practice. Coaches being coaches occasionally try to mislead their opponents with injury reports which leaves room for an Otis to redress the balance. But it is clearly a better system than that in the AFL where the truth is rarely told to the public and the room for insider trading is immense.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey