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    After Shohei Ohtani and Jontay Porter, can sports and legal gambling coexist?


    What’s happening

    It has been only six years since the Supreme Court opened the door for sports betting to become legal throughout most of the United States, but gambling has already become an inescapable part of the sports experience.

    The sports world recently got an abrupt reminder of the risks that come along with gambling when it was revealed that Major League Baseball’s biggest star, Japanese slugger and pitcher Shohei Ohtani, was entangled in a multi-million dollar betting scandal allegedly involving his interpreter. Ohtani insists that his interpreter, Ippei Mizuhara, stole millions of dollars from him to pay off a bookmaker and that he had no involvement in the payments. Mizuhara faces a federal charge of bank fraud after allegedly stealing $16 million from Ohtani to fund his gambling habit.

    Ohtani is certainly the biggest name, but he is far from the only athlete to become enmeshed in gambling-related troubles. On Wednesday, the NBA issued a lifetime ban to Jontay Porter, a sparsely-used forward for the Toronto Raptors, who was found to have conspired with bettors to cash in on wagers predicting he would perform poorly in certain games and used an associate’s account to gamble on games.

    There have also been gambling-related incidents involving several college sports and other professional leagues, including the NFL.

    Gambling has always been a part of sports, and so have gambling-related scandals. But the abrupt shift to legalized sports betting, which has now spread to 38 states and Washington, D.C., has changed things dramatically. After decades of keeping gambling at an arm’s distance, major sports leagues, as well as the broadcasters and various businesses that surround them, have embraced it as a major new source of revenue.

    A record $120 billion was legally gambled on sports in the U.S. in 2023, a $26 billion increase over the previous year, according to the American Gaming Association. Gambling has also become infused into just about every aspect of the sports viewing experience, through sponsorships, frequent commercials, wager-focused sideline reports and even betting apps integrated directly into broadcasts.

    Why there’s debate

    Much of the conversation around legal sports betting has centered on the risks it may pose to the public as a whole, specifically that it may increase the prevalence of gambling addiction. But the recent scandals involving athletes have added new fuel to a parallel debate over whether gambling poses a danger to sports themselves.

    To many critics, something like the Ohtani scandal was all but inevitable the moment sports leagues decided to cash in on legalized gambling. In their eyes, even the perception that athletes, coaches or referees might be “on the take” poses an existential threat to sports because it undercuts fans’ belief in the purity of the competition. Some also feel that, on a less dramatic level, the relentless presence of gambling content during broadcasts has sucked a lot of the fun out of the sports-watching experience.

    But gambling’s defenders argue that all these recent betting incidents are actually a sign that the systems that are in place to protect the integrity of sports are working well, otherwise they never would have been discovered in the first place. Others point out that sports survived plenty of gambling scandals back when it was illegal and make the case that legalization gives leagues and lawmakers the chance to create formal guardrails that could never exist in the illicit market.

    What’s next

    At the moment, sports betting is still banned in 12 states, though at least five of the remaining holdouts are currently considering legislation to legalize it.

    Perspectives

    Gambling threatens to spoil the main reason people love sports

    “That’s the thing about gambling and sports. You don’t have to be sure that players are placing bets to wonder if everything is on the up and up. Just suspicion is enough to erode the integrity of the game. Which, of course, is why sports put so much effort into putting walls between the games and the athletes and the bookies. At least, until recently.” — Bryan Walsh, Vox

    Sports has a long history of proving the doomsayers wrong

    “I remember when this happened with fantasy [sports] 20 years ago when people were like, ‘fantasy’s going to ruin the game. People care more about their fantasy teams than real teams.’ And we had to go through that whole stretch. Guess what, it’s just a different muscle when you’re following sports. I think we’re going to get there with the gambling thing.” — Bill Simmons, The Bill Simmons Podcast

    Sports and gambling can coexist, but a lot more caution is needed

    “It’s past time these leagues recognize the reach of their gambling partnerships and the effect on players. This has the potential to not only compromise games and end careers, but ruin lives. Sports gambling’s gravitational pull requires a greater understanding and education by the leagues. They are trying to thread a needle, promoting gambling at every turn, while not recognizing the temptation pulling at players.” — Troy Renck, Denver Post

    We know about recent scandals only because the guardrails are working

    “While these kinds of match-fixing or prop-fixing suggestions have the potential to be highly damaging for leagues and books, there are systems to try and catch them. And those systems are seeing at least some success.” — Andrew Bucholtz, Awful Announcing

    Leagues are going to have to be willing to make hard decisions to protect themselves

    “In this new world — where seemingly everyone is betting and we are often doing it from the comfort of our couches, on our phones — do fans have the stomach for a lengthy gambling investigation into their favorite player? More importantly, does baseball?” — Keith O’Brien, CNN

    The Ohtani situation is an opportunity to show everyone else how to get it right

    “MLB can provide a blueprint on how to handle this. Because there already have been multiple betting scandals in various sports in recent years. And it is not going to stop. … Vigilance and transparency are vital.” — Joel Sherman, New York Post

    Constant reminders of gambling suck the fun out of being a sports fan

    “When every game gets presented as a point spread, and when every shot becomes merely an input in a degenerate’s parlay math, the game feels cheapened. For someone who wants to watch the best athletes in the world compete against one another, it can be alienating to listen to the announcer read stilted ad copy about the upcoming slate of same-game parlays.” — Jay Caspian Kang, New Yorker

    Much tougher rules are needed to keep gambling in check

    “Sometimes guardrails exist not to stop a particular activity from happening but to temper it, to keep it under some control and maintain moderation, to make sure a useful and appropriate stigma is attached to its abuse. Seems like sports ought to think about rebuilding a few of those guardrails.” — Mike Sielski, Philadelphia Inquirer

    A truly apocalyptic gambling scandal may very well be on the horizon

    “Sports leagues have been in bed with sportsbooks for years now, and they’re burrowing deeper under the blankets by the day. … You can dodge potentially hazardous asteroids for only so many centuries before one of them moves from close call to collision course.” — Ben Lindbergh, the Ringer



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