Sports·THE BUZZER

2 gambling scandals are now threatening pro sports, and the problems may run deeper

The betting-related scandals involving baseball star Shohei Ohtani and Raptors player Jontay Porter point to larger issues in an industry awash in gambling money.

Ohtani, Porter cases expose an industry awash in gambling money

A men's baseball player wearing a blue Los Angeles Dodgers hat looks into the distance.
Baseball superstar Shohei Ohtani said his former interpreter stole from him after reporters discovered that $4.5 million US had been wired from Ohtani's bank account to bookmakers. (Michael Owens/Getty Images)

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Yesterday in Los Angeles, Shohei Ohtani issued his first public comments since last week's explosive news that the Dodgers had fired the Japanese superstar's longtime interpreter after some investigative reporters asked why $4.5 million US had been wired from Ohtani's bank account to an illicit bookmaking operation.

The interpreter, Ippei Mizuhara, initially explained that he'd asked Ohtani to pay off his gambling debts for him. But Ohtani's lawyers denied that, claiming Ohtani was instead "the victim of a massive theft" by his friend, and Mizuhara changed his story to match. As Major League Baseball announced it was opening an investigation, fans spent the weekend wondering what the truth really was. Did the sport's biggest star actually get robbed by his pal? Or just help him out of a jam? And what about the reverse (and much darker) possibility: was Mizuhara taking a bullet for Ohtani?

According to Ohtani, it was a theft. Sitting next to a new interpreter yesterday in front of a packed room of reporters and reading in Japanese from prepared notes, Ohtani said he has never gambled on sports and did not instruct Mizuhara to wire money from his bank account to a bookie. "Ippei has been stealing money from my account and has been telling lies," Ohtani said through the new interpreter. "I never bet on baseball or any other sports or never have asked somebody to do it on my behalf." He did not take questions.

WATCH | Ohtani claims he was victim of theft by friend, interpreter Mizuhara:

Shohei Ohtani addresses gambling scandal, says he's the victim

3 months ago
Duration 2:04
L.A. Dodgers star Shohei Ohtani is addressing the gambling scandal involving his former interpreter. Ohtani says he has never bet on sports, claiming Ippei Mizuhara stole millions from his accounts to cover his gambling debts.

At about the same time Ohtani gave his statement, ESPN NBA reporter Adrian Wojnarowski tweeted that Toronto Raptors centre Jontay Porter was under investigation by the NBA due to "irregularities on prop betting involving him."

If you're not familiar, prop (short for proposition) betting involves wagering on things like whether a certain player will score over or under, say, 14.5 points in a particular game. Or get over or under 5.5 rebounds. Or 3.5 assists, etc. You get the idea.

It may surprise you that bookmakers would offer props on someone as insignificant as Porter, a fringe NBA player who's averaging about four points, three rebounds and a couple of assists in 14 minutes per game this season for the struggling Raptors. But player props are popular with novice gamblers, making them a big profit centre for sports-betting apps like DraftKings, FanDuel and the like that cater to such (mostly money-losing) bettors.

According to ESPN's reporting, two Porter games — on Jan. 26 vs. the L.A. Clippers and March 20 vs. Sacramento — raised red flags. In both instances, bookmakers noticed a sharp increase in action on the "unders" for various Porter props. And those unders paid out after Porter left both games early for medical reasons. He cited an eye injury after playing just four minutes against the Clippers with zero points, three rebounds and one assist, and an illness after only three minutes against Sacramento with no points, no assists and two rebounds.

ESPN reported that a sportsbook industry source said multiple betting accounts tried to bet large amounts on Porter unders for the Clippers game — "upward of $10,000 and $20,000," though bettors are typically limited to a thousand bucks or two on such bets. Porter's salary with the Raptors this season is $415,000. But it's a two-way contract, meaning he makes less if he's demoted to a minor-league team.

The Porter controversy lacks the staggering dollar figures of Ohtani's, but it's arguably much worse. In Ohtani's case, it's plausible that his interpreter indeed simply stole from him and Ohtani has never placed a bet (or asked someone to place a bet for him) with an illegal bookie. And no evidence has emerged tying Ohtani to betting on baseball. But there seems to be pretty compelling circumstantial evidence that Porter may have manipulated his stats in those two games in question. If that turns out to be the truth, it cuts to the very core of the NBA's integrity — even to the essence of pro sports itself. If fans don't believe that games are on the level, the whole thing falls apart.

A basketball player runs.
Toronto Raptors centre Jontay Porter is reportedly under investigation for betting on games. The team offered no comment on the report on Monday. (David Zalubowski/The Associated Press)

The Ohtani and Porter scandals are the two biggest stories in North American sports right now, and for good reason. But they're also making us forget a bunch of other troubling gambling-related items that made headlines just this month.

On March 10, the NBA fined Minnesota Timberwolves centre Rudy Gobert $100,000 US for mocking a referee's technical-foul call on him by doing that "money" gesture where you rub your thumb and two fingers together, implying that ref Scott Foster was paid off. Later, Gobert said he believes the recent proliferation of sports betting is having an impact on the outcome of games. "I think it's hurting our game," Gobert said. "I know the betting and all that is becoming bigger and bigger, but it shouldn't feel that way."

Last week, Tyrese Haliburton, one of the NBA's rising young stars, vented to reporters about the dehumanizing effect that gambling can have on players. "To half the world, I'm just helping them make money on DraftKings or whatever," the Indiana Pacers guard said. "I'm the prop, you know what I mean? That's what my social media mostly consists of."

The following night, Cleveland Cavaliers coach J.B. Bickerstaff revealed that he's been threatened by gamblers. "They got my telephone number and were sending me crazy messages about where I live and my kids and all that stuff," Bickerstaff said.

The Cavs' home arena now contains a sportsbook. And, of course, fans in most U.S. states as well as Ontario can legally place bets on the gambling apps right on their phones. Bickerstaff lamented how that's changed the way people watch games and treat players and coaches. "It's crossed the line," Bickerstaff said. "The amount of times where I'm standing up there and we may have a 10-point lead and the spread is 11 and people are yelling at me to leave the guys in so that we can cover the spread, it's ridiculous."

WATCH | Ohtani's interpreter fired following theft, gambling allegations:

Shohei Ohtani's interpreter fired after alleged illegal gambling, theft from superstar

3 months ago
Duration 2:01
Shohei Ohtani's long-time friend and interpreter Ippei Mizuhara has been fired by the Los Angeles Dodgers after allegations of illegal gambling totalling several million dollars. Initial reports said the MLB superstar paid off that debt, but there are now accusations the money was stolen.

Gambling controversies aren't limited to the NBA and MLB. Several NFL players have been suspended recently for betting on the league's games — including star receiver Calvin Ridley, who sat out a full year. In October, the NHL banned Ottawa Senators forward Shane Pinto for 41 games for unspecified "activities relating to sports wagering," though the league was sure to include that it "found no evidence" he bet on the NHL.

I want to avoid moralizing too much here, especially because I've been betting on sports since I was a kid, but all of these stories speak to a certain rot in the whole sports-industrial complex.

The widespread legalization of sports betting in North America, combined with incredibly easy access to it via smartphones, opened the floodgates for leagues to accept oceans of sponsorship money (or "partnerships," in the parlance of our times) from online betting companies. These outfits are desperate to attract new customers in an extremely competitive industry, and most leagues and teams will sell them anything — including ads right on the court, ice or boards; on players' jerseys and helmets; and of course on the glorified billboard that is the Jumbotron.

Much of the sports media is no better. In some ways, gambling ad money is keeping the struggling industry afloat. Which is why you can hardly watch a game anymore without being bombarded with ads for betting apps, sponsored gambling lines in the ticker at the bottom of the screen and strained betting "content" during studio segments. It's much the same on sports radio shows, websites and podcasts. Gambling cash seems to rule everything around us.

But at what long-term cost? Leaving aside the moral element for a second, all these gambling ads and "information" are clearly turning off some longtime fans. Maybe the leagues have decided it's worth it to alienate these loyal customers for now, but at what point do they lose the connection for good?

Meanwhile, the rise of sports betting and its increased acceptance in mainstream society has surely created more problem gamblers. And it would be naive to think athletes, coaches, referees and the people around them are immune. So it's not a question of if there's another Ohtani- or Porter-like scandal coming, but when.

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