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The secret ingredient to Piegate? Lack of a compliance program

Bill Coffin | February 27, 2017

If you don’t follow English football, then you might have missed one of the more unusual ethics scandals to roil the sporting world recently: Piegate.

First, a little background. In England, there are five different tiers of professional and semi-professional football (soccer) leagues. The top, the Premier League, is comprised of global powerhouse teams, like Manchester United. The bottom, the National League, is comprised of tiny teams whose players typically hold a day job other than their position on the team. Once a year, the FA Cup is a national tournament in which all pro and semipro teams compete, creating the possibility that a Tier 5 team might match up with a Tier 1 team in a single-elimination match. Sometimes, the underdog prevails in a true David vs. Goliath upset. They don’t call this the Kingkiller Tournament for nothing.

In February, the FA Cup hit its fifth round, and Arsenal—one of the top teams in the Premier League—matched up with lowly Sutton United, which is one of the worst teams of the National League. Somehow, Sutton had progressed much farther than it ever expected, and the further it went, the more people cheered for these scrappy underdogs. Along the way, Wayne Shaw, Sutton’s second-string, 300+-lb. keeper (nicknamed the “roly poly goalie”), became the unofficial representative for the team, and a social media sensation. Shaw seemed to enjoy his 15 minutes of fame, which led to disaster for him and his team.

During the Arsenal match, Sutton was losing 2-1, and had subbed out all of its players, which meant Shaw had zero chance to play. Known as a guy of robust appetites, he appeared on the sideline with a soda and a meat pie, and chowed down. The gastric spectacle was caught on camera, much to many viewers’ amusement. However, it turned out that Sun Bet, the betting wing of the Sun newspaper, had 8:1 odds on Shaw being seen on the sidelines eating a pie during the game. Shaw later confessed that he knew of the bet and figured he’d play along to have a bit of fun.

The FA Cup and the U.K. Gambling Commission did not find it funny. The FA Cup expressly forbids any players from taking part in any wagers on games, and Shaw directly broke that rule with his pie-eating stunt. Moreover. the Gambling Commission prohibits the use of inside information to alter the outcome of a wager, a rule which Shaw also broke by knowingly taking action to skew the result of the bet on his eating habits. Adding insult to injury, Shaw was asked to resign from Sutton United, due to the regulatory issues he created, and because his behavior reflected poorly upon the professionalism of the team. This, from a club whose manager vapes on the sidelines, despite there being rules against that, too.

Ultimately, this became a bittersweet ending for what should have been a triumph for Sutton United. The money it earned simply for getting that far in the tournament will transform the team, which is currently only worth a mere $2.1 million (compared to Arsenal’s worth of $2.15 billion). But instead it must clear a regulatory cloud that, in all honestly, will likely disperse with Shaw’s dismissal. But the FA Cup and the Gambling Commission was clear: the rules are there for a reason, they are to be taken seriously by all levels, and they will be enforced at all levels. For much of last year, the news of FIFA’s own internal corruption dominated sporting news, and while Piegate is hardly on the same level of wrongdoing, it still matters. Every professional should understand their compliance expectations, whether they compete at the highest or lowest levels. And even if Shaw had felt he was stuck in a situation where he was changing the outcome of the bet on him no matter what he did, he still could have done the ethical thing by disclosing what he knew to his manager and trying to exit the situation as best as he could. He chose not to do that. Instead, he had a bit of fun with the rules, and as anybody in compliance can tell you, that’s often where the real trouble begins.

Perhaps the biggest takeaway from all of this is that no organization is too small to benefit from a strong compliance program. Shaw was already known for playing fast and loose with the rules, having been fired from the club a few years ago for charging into the stands and head-butting a fan who cracked wise about his weight. Shaw’s antics in the media before the big Arsenal game were already worrying the management, who could have taken him aside and cooled him off before he did something he and his team would regret. But the real missed opportunity was that Sutton United was actually sponsored for this one game by Sun Bets itself, so the team was already playing very close to fire. That could have been an ideal time for a compliance refresher to everyone on the team to understand what they could and could not do when it came to wagers or any other novel opportunities that might arise from their sudden exposure to a national audience. Sutton United appeared to do none of these things, most likely because it’s such a small and threadbare organization, such things never crossed its mind. But if somebody at the team had been thinking of these things, it could have avoided all of this hubbub, and Wayne Shaw could still be holding a job he clearly loved. Alas, now he’s nobody’s roly poly goalie any longer. He may never be again, and it didn’t have to be that way.