Tennis needs to address match-fixing suspicion -- and quickly

Jason Schneider For ESPN Magazine

This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's Feb. 8 Super Bowl 50 Issue. Subscribe today!

AS A BASEBALL Hall of Fame voter, the recent election of Ken Griffey Jr. and Mike Piazza was a reminder that voting is an unenjoyable task. The annual attempt to turn the subjective nature of assessing achievement into a science is a skin rash, ranging in intensity but always an annoyance.

More troubling, however, is the reflex from some in the public to patronize those who take the steroid era into account, reflecting a deep cynicism, as if being offended by cheating is laughable. It is a cynicism resigned to the idea that money always wins (You'd do it too for $10 million), a cynicism that offers a free pass when looking in the mirror. Perhaps the money is too great (If you ain't cheatin', you ain't tryin'), but "accountability" and "standards" too often are treated as the words of the naive, the unhip, the old-fashioned. Hard lines in a purposely blurry world are oh-so yesterday.

Two outlets -- BuzzFeed News and the BBC -- upstaged the 2016 Australian Open, reporting that several professional tennis players have been suspected of match-fixing and that the ATP, the governing body of the men's tour that commissioned an investigation into the practice, knew and basically did nothing about it. World No. 1 player Novak Djokovic said a member of his team had been offered $200,000 to fix a match nearly 10 years ago. The BuzzFeed and BBC report focused on the shifting of odds before a match, a sign of insider trading. In 2007, top-10 player Nikolay Davydenko was investigated for match-fixing, and last year two Italians, Daniele Bracciali and Potito Starace, were banned for life by the Italian tennis federation as the result of a match-fixing inquiry; Starace was later cleared, while Bracciali's ban was reduced to a one-year suspension.

Tennis is ripe for corruption by nature (few accomplices are needed to engineer a fix, and the game is so emotional that scores naturally can get lopsided quickly), by its governing inconsistencies (the sport cannot decide if it wants vigilant PED testing or is a country club) and by the reality of its economics (the big cats get all the cream; everyone else gets to play the role of the Washington Generals to champions like Djokovic, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal). Most players say one must reach the top 50 just to break even. The 50th-ranked player today, Jiri Vesely, earned $694,000 in singles prize money in 2015, a far cry from what the 50th-best player in American team sports makes. Djokovic earned $21.6 million last year, but the world No. 100 player, Daniel Gimeno-Traver, earned $349,000 in prize money -- not a lot after taxes and after covering the expenses of flying around the world to get throttled by the likes of Federer. The WTA was not named in the recent BuzzFeed/BBC report, but women make far less than the men on tour. The women's world No. 50, Johanna Larsson, earned $331,000 in prize money in 2015. The temptation to manipulate the score of a match that is likely lost anyway is not an idle concept.

The truth is that sports in 2016 are at their grayest. World No. 2 Andy Murray decried his sport's "hypocrisy" because the ATP stop in Hamburg was once sponsored by the European online gambling company Bet-At-Home.com. Daily fantasy sports sites such as DraftKings and FanDuel clearly constitute gambling to one eye. To another they don't, and as that debate continues, leagues and their broadcast partners remain in business with them. Gambling has always surrounded the NFL, and the fear that the game is being manipulated, whether through the injury report or referees who cannot decide week-to-week, down-by-down, what exactly is or is not a catch is never far from the mind of the fan on the losing end. It was only in 2007 that NBA referee Tim Donaghy was investigated by the FBI and eventually pleaded guilty to betting on games. Nevertheless, commissioner Adam Silver openly has discussed the benefits of legalizing sports gambling.

It may be cool to act world-weary, but if the outcome doesn't feel legitimate, sports will not survive. This isn't John Cena in the wrestling ring, and all the smirks and social-media-trolling "moralists" will not change that fact. Tennis, like the other sports, is on the clock, and if its leadership feels the lack of hard evidence of match-fixing is reason to be indecisive, it needs to give baseball a call and get a history lesson about what happens when the idea of cheating hangs over its game.