Published: June 1, 2024

NYTIMES: OPINION Sports Gambling Is a Ticking Time Bomb

Sports Gambling Is a Ticking Time Bomb May 31, 2024

Some of the biggest scandals in sports history have revolved around players and gambling. Pete Rose is barred for life from baseball, in an agreement stemming from admissions of gambling. The Black Sox scandal, about a thrown World Series, is perhaps the most notorious sports debacle of all time.

Yet in a rush to embrace the potential profits provided by new forms of legalized sports gambling, the professional sports leagues have put players, and the people close to them, under untenable pressure. I have represented professional athletes for 50 years and I have never seen a situation that’s more perilous to them and the integrity of sports.

These aren’t just hypothetical concerns: Jontay Porter, a center for the Toronto Raptors, was recently barred for life from the N.B.A. after a league investigation found that he’d shared confidential information with a bettor, resulting in large wagers on his performance. As the new baseball season was starting, federal prosecutors said the interpreter for the star pitcher Shohei Ohtani had stolen millions from Mr. Ohtani to pay off gambling debts to an illegal sports bookie. Major League Baseball is investigating Mr. Ohtani’s former teammate David Fletcher over allegations that he placed bets with the same bookie.

Pro sports depends on authenticity and credibility. Fans must believe that the games are fair and that each athlete is making the maximum effort to win. Any suggestion that the contests might be fixed or tainted will destroy the industry.

The appearance of integrity has always been central to the success of sports. When I started as an agent a half-century ago, the major leagues all considered it so crucial to maintain distance between the worlds of gambling and athletics that they agreed that Las Vegas — then the only place where sports gambling was legal — should not have professional franchises.

Everything changed when, on May 14, 2018, in the case of Murphy v. N.C.A.A., the Supreme Court struck down a decades-old federal law that effectively banned sports betting outside Nevada. Within weeks, New Jersey had established legitimate sports betting at its casinos and racetracks. Thirty-seven states quickly followed suit.

Now casinos and betting companies are advertising in stadiums and arenas, many sports venues permit gambling outlets either inside or next door and two owners of N.F.L. teams, Robert Kraft and Jerry Jones, bought a small piece of the gambling site DraftKings. Las Vegas is now home to an N.F.L. team, the Raiders — and was the host of the Super Bowl this year.

Leagues and franchises are so embedded with gambling companies, and so enamored of the revenue these ties produce, that it’s unthinkable to reverse course. But there are crucial steps to be taken.

Leagues must install stricter guidelines and stronger oversight to protect players. They must work to closely monitor betting abnormalities (as in the case of Mr. Porter) then act quickly when such abnormalities occur. And they should negotiate with companies like FanDuel and DraftKings to discourage the lucrative but dangerous prop bets on the performance of an individual player — bets that are an obvious target for manipulation.

Let me be clear: I am not against all sports betting. Millions of people do it for enjoyment and potential profit and, let’s face it, humans started gambling long before organized sports existed.

But sports gambling has spread so quickly that pro leagues have had little time to reason through the consequences, especially for players. At a distance, the motives of someone like Mr. Porter are puzzling; this is a player who ruined his career despite having made millions of dollars legitimately while playing in the N.B.A. But pro athletics and the lure of gambling have always been intertwined.

Players have already spoken out about the verbal abuse they endure from fans angry about bets gone wrong, at times hurled at them even as a game is in progress. The Porter case points toward a much darker form of pressure: the temptation to use inside information to make wagers on a player’s performance.

I understand this kind of pressure firsthand. As an agent for professional athletes, I spent one Saturday night before a critical game sitting in a hotel room with Steve Young, then the quarterback of the San Francisco 49ers. I knew something that few people at that moment did: A defensive player had knocked Steve over during practice and he would not play in the game the next day.

Were I a betting man, I could have used that information to place potentially lucrative wagers on the game. I didn’t, because when you work with, or around, professional athletes, you are obligated to uphold the integrity of your players. But today, placing such a wager would be as easy as pulling out one’s smartphone. Or telling an acquaintance to pull out his.

There’s traditionally been an impregnable wall between professional sports and the world of gambling, but that wall is not just crumbling, it’s evaporating. Leagues must start by acknowledging that athletes are human. They have failings. They make missteps. The N.B.A., M.L.B. and other leagues have facilitated a situation that makes it all too easy for players to falter. If more of those players do, they will bring down the edifice of professional sports.

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