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Bad Beats

The Vegas-ization of Everything Is Strangling Professional Sports

The gradual erosion of society’s barriers to gambling has pushed us to the brink of perpetual big-league betting scandals.

Jontay Porter of the Toronto Raptors fights for a rebound during a match with the Oklahoma City Thunder in Toronto, Canada.
Zou Zheng/Getty Images
Jontay Porter of the Toronto Raptors fights for a rebound during a match with the Oklahoma City Thunder in Toronto.

Almost every professional athlete hopes to be famous one day—to shatter records and break streaks; to enshrine themselves in their sport’s history. On Wednesday, Jontay Porter achieved fame in perhaps the most ignominious way he could: He became the first athlete in the North American major leagues to receive a lifetime ban for gambling since Major League Baseball excommunicated Pete Rose, a player-manager for the Cincinnati Reds, in 1989.

Porter, a benchwarmer on the NBA’s Toronto Raptors, received the ban for what the league described as a series of bets on NBA games this spring that he placed through intermediaries. “There is nothing more important than protecting the integrity of NBA competition for our fans, our teams, and everyone associated with our sport, which is why Jontay Porter’s blatant violations of our gaming rules are being met with severe punishment,” NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said in a statement.

“While legal sports betting creates transparency that helps identify suspicious or abnormal activity, this matter also raises important issues about the sufficiency of the regulatory framework currently in place, including the types of bets offered on our games and players,” Silver continued. “Working closely with all relevant stakeholders across the industry, we will continue to work diligently to safeguard our league and our game.”

It is unclear what Silver meant by an insufficient “regulatory framework” in this context. The framework actually seemed to work pretty well in this instance. The legal sportsbooks that Porter and his associates used quickly identified the bets as suspicious and alerted the league about them. The real problem, to put it bluntly, is that almost anyone can place bets almost anywhere just by pressing a few buttons on their phone.

Until recently, gambling in general, and sports betting in particular, existed in a world bounded by natural barriers. For one thing, it wasn’t legal in most states. Gamblers who wanted to make high-dollar bets often had to travel in person to legal sportsbooks to place them, or else rely on underground sportsbooks to get their fix. This wouldn’t be enough to stop people with addiction issues, of course, but it would deter almost everyone else—or at least remind them of the risks involved.

The leagues’ most effective deterrent against gambling scandals was to avoid it altogether. In some ways, Las Vegas is an ideal city for a professional sports team. It’s a large media market in its own right. Its reputation as an entertainment and leisure hot spot would help guarantee higher ticket sales, since traveling fans would be more likely to visit there to see their team play than comparable cities. And the team’s stadium or arena would also be more likely to host concerts and other events for offseason revenue than those of other cities of similar size.

But the four major leagues refused to put a team in Vegas for years because of fears that it would lead to a scandal. The temptation for local players to gamble, they reasoned, would be too great—as would the reputational risks for the leagues themselves. In 1999, then–NBA Commissioner David Stern reportedly told the city’s newly elected mayor that “over my dead body will Las Vegas ever get a team with legalized sports betting there.” A few years later, the NFL refused to run ads from the Las Vegas tourism commission during the Super Bowl.

Paul Tagliabue, the NFL’s commissioner at the time, admitted in 2021 that he would have tried to block the Oakland Raiders from moving to Las Vegas if he still oversaw the league. (The Raiders relocated there after the 2019 season.) “I still worry about some young guy ... and someone says to him, ‘Take the money,’” he told The Las Vegas Review-Journal.

The NCAA, by its very nature, couldn’t avoid having teams located in Nevada. But the association refused to schedule any significant basketball tournament games in Vegas until last year. One can’t blame them: College basketball used to be infamous for point-shaving scandals—a perfect mix of unpaid student-athletes, high public interest, low scrutiny, and a sport where just one player can significantly affect a game’s outcome. Henry Hill, who helped orchestrate Boston College’s widely publicized point-shaving scheme in the late 1970s, later became the inspiration for Ray Liotta’s character in Goodfellas.

Now Las Vegas is home to two teams from the big four leagues. The National Hockey League’s Vegas Golden Knights set up shop in 2016 and have since won two Stanley Cups. The NFL’s Las Vegas Raiders moved into a gleaming new stadium on the Strip in 2020. (The beleaguered Oakland Athletics may relocate there later this decade if all goes well; they’ll be playing in Sacramento until then.) There are always rumors that the NBA might put a team there too, with LeBron James interested in ownership.

So what changed? Las Vegas didn’t, but the rest of the country did. The Supreme Court opened the doors by striking down a federal law that had banned sports betting in all but a few states, in the 2018 case Murphy v. NCAA. Dozens of states legalized sports betting in the years that followed. After that ruling, the difference between Vegas and the rest of the country faded, and the cordon sanitaire that had kept the leagues out of the city no longer had a practical purpose.

There were other cultural changes along the way, as well. The growth of paid fantasy sports made the leagues soften their hard-line stances even before the Supreme Court stepped in. In a post-Murphy world, the league’s embrace of the sports-betting “partners” also had a practical purpose: In exchange for funneling fans toward them, the sportsbooks would also help the leagues identify players and officials who tried to cash in.

Before this, major sports-betting scandals in recent decades typically occurred outside legal channels. The two biggest betting scandals in the years between Rose and Porter were discovered almost by accident. In 2007, federal prosecutors charged NBA referee Tim Donaghy with conspiracy and wire fraud for betting on games that he officiated with the help of illegal bookies. Prosecutors only learned about Donaghy’s bets while investigating the bookmaker as part of an unrelated organized-crime inquiry.

Earlier this month, federal prosecutors also charged former MLB interpreter Ippei Mizuhara with bank fraud for allegedly stealing millions of dollars from Los Angeles Dodgers superstar Shohei Ohtani to place bets with an illegal bookmaker in Orange County. (California is one of a handful of remaining states that still bans sports betting.) According to the Los Angeles Times, investigators uncovered Mizuhara’s thefts by investigating the bookmaker himself. Mizuhara did not bet on baseball games; in text messages to the bookie, he said Ohtani had no knowledge of the bets or wire transfers and described his actions as “stealing.”

If anything, the most troubling thing about the Porter saga is how clumsy he was in executing his gambit. According to the NBA, Porter told an unidentified associate about his “health status” while knowing that his associate was an active bettor on NBA games. That associate then proceeded to place an $80,000 bet on how long he would play in a March 20 game. Had the sports-betting company he used not flagged the bet as suspicious, it would have paid out almost $1.1 million.

To understand how big of a mistake this bet was, one must consider Porter’s brief career. He is not a household name. Porter went undrafted in 2019 and played brief stints with the Memphis Grizzlies, the Denver Nuggets, and the Detroit Pistons. But he spent most of his time playing for the NBA’s developmental leagues prior to being signed by the Raptors in January, and even then it was on a lower-paying two-way contract that meant he could be reassigned to those leagues at a whim.

No matter whether Porter was a talented athlete, he was certainly an unlucky one. In 2018, he tore both his medial collateral ligament and his anterior cruciate ligament during a scrimmage as a college athlete. He then re-tore his ACL the next year shortly before the draft. A SportsNet profile on Porter noted how he constantly wrestled with knee pain during his first NBA season; Porter told the news outlet that his knee felt like it was “crumbling” while he played. One can’t help but wonder if he could almost hear a ticking clock around him, knowing that he would likely miss out on the millions of dollars in lifetime earnings that other NBA athletes can make.

Prop bets like the one he placed are generally common in modern sports betting, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see high-dollar bets on whether LeBron James will have a triple-double in the playoffs or whether Steph Curry will make a certain number of three-pointers in the All-Star Game. But it is hard to imagine a more suspicious bet than wagering $80,000 on the playing time of one of the league’s least-known players, especially one with a well-publicized history of debilitating injuries, on a random March game. A little more circumspection might have allowed him to fly under the radar.

In an even more damning detail, Porter also placed some bets himself through an associate’s betting account, including multi-leg parlays where he bet on the Raptors to lose. That may well have been the fatal blow in the NBA’s eyes. On the spectrum of gambling-related offenses by athletes, there is no greater one than betting against one’s own team. It is corrupt and dishonorable. It is tantamount to defrauding the fans who pay to watch the games; it is a fundamental betrayal of the imagined community of which every sports team’s supporters are part. It is unforgivable.

For that reason, gambling scandals are a serious threat to any professional sports league. In baseball’s early days, betting on the outcomes of games was commonplace among fans and even some players. While this usually took the form of betting on oneself to win, it also took more insidious forms. Allegations of bribery and match fixing in games culminated in the 1919 White Sox scandal, where the team allegedly threw the World Series. Professional baseball restructured itself after the scandal and installed a federal judge as its first commissioner to restore public confidence.

Even setting aside the moral and ethical issues, there is little financial incentive for the best athletes in sports to gamble these days. Big contracts and big endorsements pay too well to justify the risk. But the big four leagues are also filled with less talented players whose financial future is much different. They see their co-workers sign multimillion contracts, they know that the career of a professional athlete is often a short and painful one, and they realize that their chances to make serious money are fleeting at best.

Those players don’t even need to go to Vegas or some mob-connected bookie anymore to cash in on their chances. They may only have to be a little bit smarter than the last guy who got caught. For Porter, payday was only a few clicks away. He may have been the first to make this calculus in a post-Murphy world. He certainly won’t be the last.