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The 5 O’Clock Club: Betting on sports

The 5 o’clock club is published from time to time during the season, and aims to provide a forum for reader-driven discussion at a time of day when there isn’t much NFL news being published. Feel free to introduce topics that interest you in the comments below.


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I want to get my opinion on record right from the start: I am deeply opposed to gambling. I think it is stupid and destructive. A few years ago, I was given the opportunity to express my opinion about whether or not SB Nation should create sponsored links with any betting sites, and my vote was “No way; not at all; we shouldn’t promote gambling in any way”. Clearly, I was in a minority (I think, in fact, that I was the only one to express that opinion), and today SB Nation has an obvious business relationship with DraftKings.

In my own mind, I put gambling into 3 buckets: individual bets between friends, family, colleagues or acquaintances; private gaming/gambling businesses like casinos or online betting sites; and government-run organizations like state lotteries or para-mutual horse racing. I have listed them in descending order of ‘badness’.

Bets between friends on the golf course, at the pool table, or while watching a game in the pub are mostly harmless. They (usually) involve amounts of money that are manageable for those making the bets, and typically don’t lead to ruination of friendships or family relationships.

The second group (casinos, online betting sites and the like) has the potential to be incredibly destructive. Since these are ‘for profit’ enterprises, they are guaranteed to take money out of the pockets of customers in aggregate, and there is no real protection in place to stop individual gamblers from engaging in self-destructive behavior that can lead to personal financial ruin or the destruction of family relationships. It’s a business that I don’t think should be legal, though I thought that its legality (only) in Nevada in the old days probably provided the right balance. Most people weren’t in Nevada with the ability to place bets, and if you could get to Nevada to place the bet, you probably were likely to be determined enough or wealthy enough that it was good to have an outlet available to you.

While government-run lotteries might seem the least offensive or destructive, I think they are evil because they are run by governments and offer an insidious and almost ‘secret’ way for governments to tax those who can least afford to pay by advertising the achievement of otherwise unachievable dreams. It’s a cowardly way for a government to raise money. It promotes irrational belief in a payoff that is almost impossibly unlikely to occur for any given individual, and it adversely affects low-income households much more substantially than those with higher incomes, making it an aggressive form of regressive taxation. This alone could be the subject of a 15,000-word researched essay from me; suffice to say, I abhor the concept of governments raising public funds through the sponsorship of gambling.

The fact is, I am in the tiniest of minorities with respect to gambling, its legalization, and its sponsorship by government for the purpose of revenue-raising, and I know that. (What’s really crazy is that the tiny sliver of the population that would agree with me on this issue are people that would be separated from by by a canyon-wide chasm when it comes to other political, social, and religious beliefs.) To be clear, my abhorrence of gambling isn’t driven by personal experience. My parents weren’t gamblers, and I never suffered from a binge of out-of-control betting that cost me the mortgage money, leading to domestic strife. Quite the opposite, in fact. I just think gambling is inherently bad.

Okay, now that we’ve gotten through the world’s longest disclaimer

I know that betting is popular with lots of sports fans. The very act of having bets in place makes the games more interesting and exciting to watch. It might even be a way for friends to spice up discussion of personal and friendly rivalries by putting a few bucks on this week’s game.

Understanding that sports-betting seems to be here to stay, and that online betting has created easy engagement for even the most soft-core bettors, I wonder how concerning recent headlines have been when it comes to the integrity of the sports we bet on.

I want to talk about just two incidents that have been reported on this month.

The first incident is MLB’s banning of Tucupita Marcano, who placed 387 baseball bets totaling more than $150,000 in October 2022 and from last July through November with a legal sportsbook. He became the first active player in a century banned for life because of gambling.

As a headline, that sounds pretty damning — a professional baseball player betting on professional baseball. But my mom used to always say that ‘the devil is in the details’, and when you scratched the surface of this scandal, it seems…well…maybe not so bad.

According to many published reports based on information provided by the league, Marcano bet almost exclusively on the outcomes of games and lost all of his parlay bets involving the Pirates, winning just 4.3% of all of his MLB-related bets.

This is not a case of serious corruption involving sophisticated schemes or inside information to cheat the system. It’s also not a guy who has been compromised by organized crime, allowing it to illegally proliferate and prosper. This is a guy who liked to bet money that he could afford to lose, and who did so unsuccessfully (the betting was unsuccessful; he was apparently very successful at losing money).

When I read the details, I almost feel sorry for Marcano, who seems to have lost on nearly 96% of his flutters. The argument, though, is that sports leagues have to be suffocatingly strict and impose what would otherwise seem to be unreasonably harsh penalties in order to protect the integrity of the game because the wily ways of gamblers and the avenues available to players for cheating the system are almost boundless.

For instance, this year, we heard about the NBA’s Jontae Porter, who was banned from the league after an investigation revealed he had disclosed confidential information to bettors, limited his participation in at least one game while he was with Raptors, and bet on NBA games while playing in the G League. Here’s a fuller explanation from ESPN:

The NBA launched an investigation into Porter in late March, after sportsbooks noticed irregular betting on the over/under on the reserve center’s statistics in two Raptors games. In both games, Porter exited after playing only a few minutes.

The NBA’s investigation found that Porter revealed information about his own health to a known sports bettor ahead of a March 20 game against the Sacramento Kings. Another bettor privy to the information placed an $80,000 same-game parlay bet that featured unders on Porter’s statistics and would win $1.1 million, according to the NBA. Porter played three minutes before leaving the game with an illness. The bet, which was placed at DraftKings, was not paid.

This incident smells a lot worse than what was reported with Marcano. Here, we have a player who appears to be conspiring to affect his personal stats in a game to insure a ‘win’ on a parlay bet by another bettor, while potentially harming his team’s chances of winning the game. This seeming attempt to “game the system” was apparently detected and thwarted, but the potential for this kind of bad behavior from players, coaches, game officials, or even support staff (like interpreters, trainers or equipment managers) is constantly there when gambling is both legal and widespread, and it’s difficult or impossible for fans (or coaches or teammates) to know when it is happening.

The real danger, of course, is the integrity of the game. Sports leagues (and by extension, the gambling industry that relies on them) require that athletes legitimately strive to win at all times. It is essential that fans have absolute faith that winning is the goal of everyone involved. When it is not, then we are no longer watching sports; instead, we are watching theater.

A recent article by Front Office Sports put it perfectly:

The concern over integrity is no different than it was in 1919 after the Black Sox threw the World Series, or 15 years ago when lawyers raised it in the fight over Delaware sports betting.

“Bad behavior by athletes doesn’t kill professional sports. There’s been plenty of that,” says Steinberg. “The only thing that could [hamper the popularity of sports] is the perception by fans that they [are] watching [professional] wrestling. That it [is] somehow scripted or predetermined or there [are] actions or facts going on the public isn’t aware of.”

Poll

Do you have faith in the integrity of NFL games and their outcomes?