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Wednesday, October 27, 2021

Leagues are all-in on sports gambling — is that really a good idea?

Sure, it’s a lot of money at stake, but what’s lurking beneath the surface?
Illustration: AP

On Monday, the NFL announced that it was partnering with four sports-betting outlets in addition to the three sports gambling related partnerships already on the… books.

Now, in addition to wondering why printed type has gotten so darn small (Ed. note: That’s a typography joke — Rich O.), I’m old enough to remember when major sports leagues were adamant that sports betting was a cancer on the integrity of athletics. I-bet-on-baseball Pete Rose is still in baseball purgatory for doing something that Major League Baseball — brought-to-you-by-Bally’s! — still hasn’t forgiven him for. And no love lost for Rose, but he’s essentially a small-time pot dealer in jail watching the cannabis industry go public.

Times change, and in the United States we are making a certain peace with our vices, or at least monetizing the hell out of them. Capital is the new religion, and it would be a sacrilege not to explore all potential revenue streams.

Spare a thought for the old guard: officials with principles. As recently as June, former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue told Jarrett Bell at USA Today he was worried about gambling, framing it in the context of the point-shaving scandals in college football in the mid-1900s.

“I worry about that. It’s interesting to me,” Tagliabue said. “The thing that always made me too hesitant to draw too many conclusions was that there were a lot of scandals [over the years], but they were always in basketball, where the idea is that if you get to one or two players, you can affect the outcome.”

But really, in the era of analytics and digital currency, is Tagliabue thinking big enough? His references are to the old New York City college scandals, when bets were made under the table in smoke-filled back rooms. Today, sports gambling executives charter private jets to New York City, and walk into the NFL’s Fifth Avenue offices in Armani suits.

“We are pleased to announce this select group as Approved Sportsbook Operators,” said Nana-Yaw Asamoah, Vice President of Business Development for the NFL in the press release. “Along with our three Official Sports Betting Partners, this group of operators will help the League to engage fans in responsible and innovative ways this season as the sports betting landscape continues to evolve.”

It is head-spinning, really, to see how quickly the integrity calculators have turned to embrace their official gaming partners and the new world order. The Supreme Court opened the door for states to regulate sports betting in 2018, and already 22 states have walked through — some skipped.

But betting is being fed to fans in just about every context, whether it is a broadcaster giving you the line on a game, or a sports book’s odds for the Heisman Trophy winner. This is a way of priming an American audience, which before 2018 may have dabbled in NCAA basketball pools or Super Bowl squares at a local watering hole, to bet beyond the low-stakes friendly game.

These professional sports partnerships are about that as well. Sports fans have all become the potential betting market. There’s no use lamenting it anymore. Leagues are all in. The Raiders moved to Las Vegas. You might as well rail against the sun rising in the morning.

But there needs to be an additional layer of security for the fans.

Without oversight, and I don’t mean the casino foxes watching the henhouse, we might long for a time when the biggest scandal involved an NBA referee and a few questionable calls. In 2007, NBA official Tim Donaghy resigned after a scandal that included making bets on games he was officiating, and could influence the outcome of.

And right now in the United States, we have a class of athlete who is precluded from benefiting from this pivot to revenue-generation. The NCAA has allowed the broadcast money to flow to coaches and institutions, but not to the college players who make up the team. There will be individuals who might be susceptible to an offer of untraceable currency.

A few what ifs: What if a locker room staffer is approached by a betting operation to get the early scoop on team injuries? What if a casino hires a big-time “scoops” reporter to provide information to them first? What if coaches at any level bet on games they can influence?

How might these scenarios change the way we experience sports?

To think those things can’t happen, or that there are rules preventing it, is short-sighted. If there’s one thing that the steroid era taught us, it’s that rules can be broken, and that there are always loopholes. A lot of Russians won at the Tokyo Olympics, even though Russia was supposed to be banned as a team for breaking anti-doping rules.

So here’s to all the gaming partnerships. Let’s just hope there are people looking just as hard at the potential for malfeasance. Because we can see the inevitability of the revenue chase, and also hope we can retain the credibility of professional and college sports.

Because we would miss it when it’s gone.


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