You could be forgiven for thinking that the real victims in the ongoing doping scandal initiated by the Australian Crime Commission investigation into sport were the sports betting companies and their punters. Astoundingly, the initial coverage of the investigation into the Cronulla Sharks started with reports like these: “Bookmakers suspend betting on NRL clash” and  “Betting suspended on Sharks’ season opener“.

Apparently the mainstream media are more worried about the betting implications of the scandal and the ability for punters to cheat the bookies than, say, the health of the players.

The insidious penetration of betting into sports can only harm the integrity of those sports, the welfare of players and enjoyment of fans. Betting distorts the viewing experience in a mercenary way — companies play on the gullibility of sports fans, already blinded by their loyalty, to “flutter”. It exploits the mistaken belief by so many fans that they “know” more than the betting companies or other punters. Combine these with the normalising exposure to gambling children receive just by watching a game, and we have the key social ill in sport — gambling, not doping.

Let’s not forget, it is not just sports that are vulnerable to insider trading and the effects of scandal — federal election date betting was also suspended. The normalisation of sport and exotic betting is only re-enforced through coverage that accepts it as newsworthy.

The simplistic answer is to regulate, enforce and further punish people who attempt to rort sport. And, of course, this is the answer presented by politicians. The sport governing bodies and broadcasters are complicit in their support because of the largess on offer — gambling is the new tobacco sponsorship of sport. The real answer is to ban sport betting and vigorously enforce transparency for those capable of rorting the systems of sport for gains off the field.

When it comes to the Sharks players, most disturbingly there are few actual facts. The Australian Crime Commission report was void of evidence — leading to many calls for the culprits to be punished and the rest freed from the stench of drug use — with the same happening again. We know that up to 14 players have been implicated, but we don’t know what the substances are or who gave them to the players (though allegations have been made).

It seems that the players have been offered the standard Australian Sports Anti-Doping Authority “roll-over” deal: squawk and admit doping for reduced sentences — in this case six months, not two years. To give ASADA its due, it is not allowed to identify the athletes until the process is complete.

However, the key piece of information we are still not aware of is this: what were the substances, and were they on the World Anti-Doping banned list? At the moment the only information is that it was some combination of supplements. It is not clear at all that the players did anything wrong. If players did take a banned substance (aside: why did the testing not catch it in 2011?), they are at fault due to the draconian strict liability provisions in the World Anti-Doping Code. The real stupidity of the new-fangled supplement obsession is that there is no evidence that any of them actually work.

Ultimately sport enjoyment is about the illusion of a level playing field and that our team might win. We fans want to believe that on the paddock, all the players and coaches strive to win as we urge them on. Betting corrupts this fundamental tenant of sport by giving players, coaches, managers and even fans a reason to try to lose — because there is a bet on it.

* Dr James Connor is a senior lecturer at the University of NSW’s school of business in Canberra. He currently has two research projects funded by the World Anti-Doping Agency via its social science research program.