Sports·Opinion

Betting scandals becoming new normal with sports leagues in bed with gambling industry

We seem headed toward a full-scale normalization of sports betting and its negative consequences, each gambling scandal a little less scandalous than the preceding one, before we give up and charge it all to the game, writes Morgan Campbell.

Only the heavy-hitting sportsbook sponsors can help contain the mess

An NBA player takes a shot.
The Jontay Porter affair drew the scrutiny of investigators because a lot of people bet when common sense said they shouldn't, and won when the odds said they wouldn't. When the house hits on an unexpected win, it's business. When you do it, it's probable cause. (Phelan M. Ebenhack/The Associated Press)

If you've watched enough commercials during Raptors telecasts, you've probably heard the song my four-year-old daughter calls "Money in The Toilet."

That's not her comment on the quality of the ad jingle. Vocally, the singer is no Fantasia, who delivered a show-stopping rendition of the Star-Spangled Banner during the 2019 NBA Finals in Toronto. It's not even fair to compare her. But she does her job, which is to get us thinking about wagering with Bet Rivers.

Every time the ad appears on my TV, I change the channel. When my daughter asks why I don't like the song, I explain to her that my cash belongs in the bank, and the song encourages us to flush our money down the toilet.

Except that's not fully true, as far as gambling is concerned. Sometimes betting is like putting your money in a photocopier, turning one bill into a bunch of them.

It certainly worked that way on Jan. 26 for people who perused the over/under on NBA journeyman and current Toronto Raptor Jontay Porter (5.5 points, 4.5 rebounds, 1.5 assists and 0.5 three-pointers) and took the under. Apparently a lot of people made that exact bet, then cashed in when Porter left the game with an eye injury after logging just four minutes, missing all his statistical targets.

March 20, same thing. A surge of money backing Porter to underperform. Porter leaves the game early. Bettors get paid. A lot. Enough to trigger the interest of experts at the NBA which on Monday launched an investigation into "betting irregularities" linked to Porter's performance.

Yes, the NBA was ensnared in a bona fide betting scandal, which unfolded less than a week after news broke that baseball superstar Shohei Ohtani either covered $4.5 million US in losses for his gambling-addicted interpreter, Ippei Mizuhara, or had that money siphoned from his account by that same interpreter, who was deep in debt to a Southern California bookie.

And that development followed revelations by Indiana Pacers standout Tyrese Halliburton, and Cleveland Cavaliers coach J.B. Bickerstaff, that they routinely endure insults, harassment and physical threats from disgruntled sports bettors.

Course correction unlikely

That's a lot of bad gambling news to digest, and I wish I could tell you it's leading us toward a reckoning that will force fans, players, leagues and media to reconsider our relationship with the betting industry. If we can't return to the church-and-state style separation of the past, maybe we can set up some guardrails on advertising — a Marketplace investigation found that sports telecasts feature 2.8 gambling-related ad messages per minute — or the sheer variety of bets available.

The over/under on the length of the national anthem at the Super Bowl?

Sure. For fun. If Fantasia's singing, I'll bet the over and hope she sings for an hour. She's an absolute marvel.

But the over/under on Jontay Porter? Doing Anything? 

Why?

Money, meet toilet.

WATCH l NBA investigating Raptors' Porter in alleged gambling plot:

NBA investigates Toronto Raptors' Jontay Porter in alleged gambling plot

3 months ago
Duration 2:36
The NBA is investigating Toronto Raptors player Jontay Porter for his alleged role in a gambling plot in a pair of games he briefly played in this season before suddenly leaving.

At some point, we'll all smarten up, right?

Isn't the NCAA currently working on outlawing prop bets on college sports? Yes, but the NCAA also benefits from widespread gambling, legal and otherwise, on its men's and women's basketball tournaments, while its member institutions partner with deep-pocketed casinos, who pay royalties when students download gambling apps.

So that course correction?

Probably not coming.

Instead, we seem headed toward a full-scale normalization of sports betting and its negative consequences, each gambling scandal a little less scandalous than the preceding one, before we give up and charge it all to the game.

WATCH l Sports betting has gone full throttle, but has it gone too far?:

Sports betting has gone full throttle, but has it gone too far?

1 year ago
Duration 8:50
Since 2021, when federal legislation loosened up the rules around sports betting, Ontario has gone full throttle, creating what many have called a Wild West gambling environment. CBC’s Jamie Strashin explores how single-game betting has changed the game for some fans and why addiction experts are worried.

It's a lot like doping. Ben Johnson's positive test in 1988 was a seismic event that shook all of high-level sport. A positive PED test in the NFL today is more of a stiff breeze. You feel it for a minute, and then you move on. Now athletes can get doctors for drugs that are otherwise banned, and if a player tests positive, the NFL no longer even publishes the substance in question. Toradol? Adderall? Dianabol? Doesn't matter. He'll be back in week six.

Gambling already seems headed that way.

When Fred VanVleet played in Toronto, "Bet On Yourself" was an inspirational mantra.

Now it's something Jontay Porter may have been doing, pending the results of the league investigation. Ten years and 15 betting scandals from now, it might trigger a mild suspension, and become a legitimate reason for a DNP.

"Our backup point guard? Yeah, he's going to miss a week. His point shaving flared up, but he's getting it treated. He'll be ready for the west coast road trip though."

A mess we helped create

We do have to credit MLB, which is probing the Ohtani affair, and the NFL, which suspends a handful of gamblers each season, and the NBA, which is trying to unravel the Porter prop bet shenanigans. And we also should spot the irony. Our collective gambling habits help create this mess, and only the kinds of heavy-hitting sportsbooks that sponsor leagues can … not quite clean it up … but help contain it.

For example, if Mizuhara had run up his seven-figure debt at FanDuel, MLB's betting partner, we would already know whether he had wagered on baseball. He'd have left digital fingerprints.

Two men answer questions at a podium.
Ohtani, right, and Mizuhara speak at a news conference in Seoul on March 16. (Lee Jin-man/The Associated Press)

As for Porter, who, officially, remains out of the lineup for "personal reasons."

Anybody betting on whether a guy on a two-way contract, who trades cryptocurrency in his spare time, will hit a three-point shot either deserves to lose their money, or needs help for a life-altering gambling addiction. Those are the only two options.

And if you're a sports book taking prop bets on Jontay Porter, and you lose a pile of money because bettors may have tricked the system for a night, you'll have to look elsewhere for sympathy. You won't get it from me. Offer stupid games, pay out stupid prizes.

Funded by bad gambling

The bigger point is the same one I've been making: our losses fund this whole enterprise. Want to know why Caesars can pay Michigan State $30 every time a student downloaded their app and placed their first bet? Or why NBA League Pass now enables people to track odds in real time during broadcasts, and to connect directly to the league's betting partners through the app? It's because most of us gamble poorly, especially when we play by the rules.

The Jontay Porter affair drew the scrutiny of investigators because a lot of people bet when common sense said they shouldn't, and won when the odds said they wouldn't. When the house hits on an unexpected win, it's business. When you do it, it's probable cause.

Keep winning by the book and your favourite sports book might cap your wagers, just to save themselves money. Win with insider information and you're likely to wind up caught in the kind "betting irregularity" that occasionally gets players suspended. If that happens, we know the system is working as designed.

So stop worrying. Scandal averted.

Enjoy the game, bet responsibly, and lose often enough to keep the party going.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Morgan Campbell

Senior Contributor

Morgan Campbell joins CBC Sports as our first Senior Contributor after 18 standout years at the Toronto Star. In 2004 he won the National Newspaper Award for "Long Shots," a serial narrative about a high school basketball team from Scarborough. Later created, hosted and co-produced "Sportonomics," a weekly video series examining the business of Sport. And he spent his last two years at the Star authoring the Sports Prism initiative, a weekly feature covering the intersection of sports, race, business, politics and culture. Morgan is also a TedX lecturer, and a frequent contributor to several CBC platforms, including the extremely popular and sorely-missed Sports Culture Panel on CBC Radio Q. His work has been featured in the New York Times, the Literary Review of Canada, and the Best Canadian Sports Writing anthology.

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