Umpire in Brownlow betting scandal ‘in limbo’ 10 months on from arrest
By David Estcourt
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In the months after AFL umpire Michael Pell’s home was raided at 6am over allegations he was part of a Brownlow Medal betting syndicate, and the integrity and sanctity of the voting process came under scrutiny, Mick Molloy conceived a skit.
It was broadcast on Seven’s The Front Bar, one football’s highest rated shows, with AFL boss Gillon McLachlan manning the beer tap and laughing along.
Umpire Michael Pell officiates during the round one AFL match between Hawthorn and North Melbourne at the MCG on March 20.Credit: Social media
The skit depicted parody CCTV footage of a man placing a bet, approaching the machine by running in the same disciplined style that umpires do at a game.
It was March 2023, about four months after Pell was arrested and released without charge, and the AFL’s integrity unit and Victoria Police had laid no charges. Pell stood accused and widely maligned by the sporting press.
But despite this, McLachlan, looking uncomfortable, muddled through the skit, laughing occasionally, Pell’s guilt seeming a foregone conclusion.
“The last 10 months have been an extremely difficult and trying time for Mr Pell and his family,” said Jordana Fayman, Pell’s lawyer.
“While the police investigation is ongoing, he remains in a state of limbo. He awaits it coming to a conclusion as expeditiously as possible.”
Colleagues will be reminded of Pell’s arrest on Monday night when the annual Brownlow Medal tally broadcast plays out on Channel 7, and a player is inducted into the annuls of AFL history.
A screenshot from The Front Bar skit. The character is running in the same disciplined fashion that umpires do on television.Credit: Channel 7
But the spectre of his arrest, and the strong response to it by law enforcement and sporting institutions, stands in contrast to the fact that the 32-year-old umpire has not been charged over any involvement in one of the AFL’s biggest betting scandals, almost a year since police raided his home. Police confirmed he is still under investigation.
Since he was arrested, Pell’s life has fallen apart. He has been rejected from jobs, assaulted on the field when playing for a local football team in July, and was made a pariah among people in the sporting industry. All this time, the threat of charges has hung over his head.
The bust reverberated throughout the sporting industry. He was chased down by reporters while he was going to a football match and sledged by crowds at his local club. He took himself off social media, changed jobs and went low profile.
Sporting administrators, speaking on condition of anonymity because Victoria Police’s sporting integrity intelligence unit’s investigation is ongoing, set up in 2013 to monitor integrity issues across sport and racing, expressed concern about the gap between a highly publicised arrest and any charges being laid.
Pell had spent his entire life on the field. A respected regional footballer in his own right, he had been promoted to umpiring AFL games at the beginning of the 2022 season.
On November 14, 2022, four men, including Pell, were arrested over suspicious Brownlow betting that was flagged to the AFL by one of its betting partners, PointsBet. Pell had officiated or was the field umpire in 16 matches in 2022, and police attention was squarely on his role. This led to an investigation in which multiple agencies discovered irregularities in betting on who would poll the maximum three votes in some games during the AFL season.
The allegation is that Pell had leaked Brownlow Medal votes from specific matches of the 2022 season. The men under police investigation allegedly laid bets on more than 10 games in which Pell umpired and helped cast votes for the Brownlow Medal.
Over the last few years, the Brownlow has become one of the most important events on the punting calendar. Betters can punt on every single game, on every single round, in a single night.
The AFL said at the time there was no suggestion of match or spot-fixing and that the alleged breach did not influence the result.
There is a history of it among players. North Melbourne’s Jaidyn Stephenson laid bets on games he was involved in while at Collingwood in 2019, and former Magpies Nick Maxwell and Heath Shaw told friends Maxwell was playing forward in a game in 2011, giving him a greater chance to kick a goal. They all received significant suspensions when discovered.
AFL CEO Gillon McLachlan in May 2023.Credit: Luis Enrique Ascui
PointsBet notified the AFL of the suspicious betting, initially prompting the AFL’s integrity unit to look at other bets on the Brownlow by those suspected of making use of insider information about which players had received votes in which games, valuable information for people willing to use it.
Once Victoria Police became involved and took on the investigation, the AFL stepped back.
In the midst of being maligned, Pell was set up with Tim Costello, the Australian Baptist minister and former World Vision Australia chief executive who is now a gambling reform advocate.
Costello said he was struck by the double standards of the AFL in its treatment of Pell, and how it seemed players were often protected and supported, but Pell was hung out to dry.
“If you look at how AFL players who have indiscretions have been treated … and you look at how Michael Pell, an umpire, has been treated, it’s very unfair,” he told The Age.
“I saw a young man who, I think, had been hung out to dry by the AFL and journalists who had a free punching bag to punch without presumption of innocence.
“I think this was the AFL again being judge and juror, and showing some rank hypocrisy.”
Many inside the AFL would prefer the investigation had been completed by now, but its progress has been out of AFL House’s control since the day the arrests became public.
All the AFL were left to do was convince the gambling regulator there was little chance of such alleged behaviour happening again.
A source in the umpiring fraternity said their community had been in shock, and the lack of specific information available about what happened left many uncertain how to react.
In a statement, Victoria Police said: “It is critically important that a thorough and methodical investigation takes place to ensure the most appropriate outcome is achieved for all parties.”
Despite there being no charges, and no court findings, Victoria’s gambling regulator felt compelled to intervene.
In August, the regulator’s chair, Fran Thorn, announced that AFL had agreed to introduce a $250 payout limit for round-by-round betting on the Brownlow to reduce the incentive to game the system in the manner police alleged Pell had.
Ex-AFL umpire Michael Pell plays for the Hadfield Hawks.Credit: Social media
The Victorian Gambling and Casino Control Commission weighed a ban on round-by-round voting but ultimately sided with the AFL that it wasn’t necessary, a relief to the AFL, who has established the Brownlow as one of its premier betting events.
However, an error in the regulator’s email to the press told a different story.
The VGCCC sent out a media release to sports reporters the month before the Brownlow alerting them to the change in policy, which, they said, was prompted by charges being laid against Pell.
A day later, the VGCCC issued a correction, admitting that Pell had not been charged, but rather, remained under investigation.
The legal challenge
The challenge in bringing any charge is that police must prove it beyond reasonable doubt.
“That means that the standard required of the evidence to be provided to make out a case is very high,” said Catherine Ordway, an associate professor at the University of Canberraand the institution’s integrity research lead.
She said the wording of the Victorian law means the person needs to have corrupted the outcome of a sporting contest, which places a high bar on investigators.
“It’s quite difficult to demonstrate that the outcome of, for example, the Brownlow Medal, was corrupted as a result of anybody sharing kind of insider information. I think that’s the key challenge,” she said.
Ordway also questioned why betting is a part of the Brownlow ceremony at all. For betting products where gambling outcomes are tied to a handful of people voting a particular way, and where bets can be laid after the fact, the corruption risk is higher.
“I don’t know and understand why we would even allow gambling operators to offer the product of betting on a best and fairest award like a Brownlow Medal. That makes no sense to me whatsoever,” she said.
”I also think it undermines the honour and prestige around an award like that. This is the best and fairest award, why do we have gambling from an ethical point of view on an award like that?“
Back in The Front Bar in March, McLachlan laughed uncomfortably with Molloy.
“At the sentencing, you know what would be a good idea? If you turned up to announce the sentencing like you do at the Brownlow,” Molloy joked.
“A. Johnson, three years,” Molloy parodied in McLachlan’s trademark authoritative, sober manner that will be on display at Monday night’s Brownlow ceremony, an event that has won a reputation for taking a tortuously long time.
The AFL declined to comment.
With Peter Ryan.
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