Sports Betting Scandal Solutions Begin with Common Sense

The next steps are to reinforce and refine the systems already in place. Legal gambling’s lowest moment is an opportunity to do just that.

Mar 29, 2024 • 12:15 ET • 4 min read
Shohei Ohtani Los Angeles Dodgers MLB
Photo By - USA TODAY Sports

The perception of US sports gambling suffered its worst month since the expansion of legal single-game betting nearly six years ago. The solution starts with reinforcing common-sense regulation and behavior that has existed in gambling and American sports for a century-and-a-half.

MLB superstar Shohei Ohtani, NBA fringe player Jontay Porter, NCAA President Charlie Baker, and ESPN host Reece Davis headlined a month that has led the media to a national reconning around legal gambling. This news comes after increasing reports of abusive digital and in-person behavior from sports bettors, and a reckoning around the gambling language used by the media outlets covering these coemptions.

An industry that has accepted more than $350 billion in wagers and disseminated countless advertisements encouraging sports fans to gamble more faced the tightest scrutiny of its relatively short existence. Legal sports betting expansion has become seemingly inescapable for the millions of sports fans, the majority of whom have never gambled.

It also created the strongest tool to prohibit illegal activity — and the infrastructure that brought to light these scandals as well as help prevent them in the future.

Realities of a bad week for legal gambling

Ohtani’s scandal surrounding wagers from former interpreter Ippei Mizuhara has left more questions than answers. If the world’s (and possibly history’s) most talented baseball player was gambling on games, American sports faces its worst moment since the Black Sox more than 100 years ago.

Of all the cataclysmic possibilities, the odds Ohtani wagered with a regulated sportsbook are among the longest. Pro athletes such as the NFL’s Calvin Ridley have wagered on their league’s games with regulated books, but the idea a singular talent such as Ohtani would be so foolish seems impossible. Plus, Ridley wagered a few thousand dollars; Mizuhara, or someone he was betting on behalf of, wagered millions.

Ridley, as well as a handful of other pro sports athletes busted for gambling violations in recent years, were only caught because they wagered with legal sportsbooks. The black market doesn’t report its clients.

Borderline NBA players like Porter pose a potentially greater threat. Ohtani (seemingly) wouldn’t risk $1 billion in player earnings and endorsements to place a few million in bets. An NBA player making “only” $415,000 would presumably be more tempted to miss shots or leave games early in exchange for winnings from bettors.

This again reaffirms the benefits of a regulated market. As we’ve seen in similar scandals with lower-profile, lower-grossing earners such as the Boston College Men’s Basketball team in the 1970s, the black market isn’t placing bets with FanDuel. It was only because of the suspicious activity around individual player prop bets for one of the league’s lowest-profile players that this potentially nefarious action was caught.

By this logic, it strengthens Baker’s revived argument for a college-level player prop ban. Obstensibly amateur NCAA athletes could be more likely to miss a shot or drop a pass than a pro counterpart making millions.

It also removes one of the only gambling protection tools that has proven effective elsewhere. As Massachusetts governor, Baker did not support college prop betting or even bets on in-state college teams. He did sign the bill letting legal sportsbooks in the commonwealth.

These moves came as a marquee sports broadcasting name in Davis called a college prop bet a “risk-free” investment during an ESPN sportsbook-branded program.

When national lawmakers are re-upping federal gambling regulations and even gamblers are fatigued by March Madness-related sportsbook ads, this swirling negativity is leading prominent national figures in a wide range of fields to further question the explosion of legal gambling.

That reflection is good, maybe necessary. It should encourage stakeholders in the gambling industry and media to reevaluate their safeguards and reinforce their efforts to implement them.

A dramatic shift, such as a partial or total prop ban, blanket ad restrictions, or some sort of legal sports betting ban entirely, is impractical if not impossible. The legal sports betting toothpaste has left the tube. Major bans will either fall short politically or lead bettors back to the black market, which takes away the most important resource available to catch nefarious gambling.

Finding a way out of the mess

Sports betting, like it or not, has helped drive American sports for more than a century and will continue to do so until organized athletic competitions cease to exist. The idea of a legal — and widespread — way to do so has raised difficult questions; regulators and the sportsbooks themselves can bolster the justification for their existence by cracking down on these suspicious activities.

Betting limits, the scourge of the small, vocal, and very online portion of winning bettors, should be tightened around individual props. There is no reason an end-of-the-bench player should be receiving bets on his attempted 3-pointers in amounts large enough it could lead him to potentially exit a game. Bets on college players should never be large enough to tempt them in the same way.

The bigger, more difficult issue, is proper bettors and fan behavior, something that sadly won’t likely ever be solved. Legislation floating in several statehouses increasing penalties for abusive interactions is one partial resolution.

Existing laws and basic ethics prohibit athletes from wagering on games in the league they participate in. Media members covering gambling should be careful with their betting “tips.” Bettors shouldn’t abuse the players they wager on. Sportsbooks shouldn’t take bets that defy logic.

The next steps are to reinforce and refine the systems already in place. Legal gambling’s lowest moment is an opportunity to do just that.

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