Just objectively speaking, the funniest moment of the 2022 MLB season was when San Francisco Giants outfielder Joc Pederson said, in relaying a relevant backstory to reporters: “He kind of came up and said, ‘You remember from last year?’ and I said, ‘Fantasy football?‘ and he said ‘Yeah.’”
The “he” in question is Cincinnati Reds outfielder Tommy Pham. The context is that Pham literally slapped Pederson across the face on the field before a game Friday night, in plain view of other players and, apparently, at least one camera. During an ensuing rain delay, Pham was scratched from the lineup and reports began to emerge tracing the animosity to a shared fantasy football league.
After the game, Pederson confirmed that bizarre report and proceeded to offer more detail than any athlete has willingly divulged. In a group chat for a fantasy football league populated by MLB players, Pham had accused Pederson of cheating by “stashing” an injured player on his bench. Screenshots of the rules were exchanged. There’s been no contact outside the group chat since. On Saturday, Pham did not dispute the version of events in which he physically accosted another player over a fantasy football dispute, but added that Pederson had also disparaged the San Diego Padres, for whom Pham played at the time. MLB issued a three-game suspension and a fine for "inappropriate conduct,” which Pham accepted without appeal. Pederson, committed to giving the people even more of what they didn’t know they wanted, fleshed out the story further, reading from the text exchange and showing reporters the exact meme used to mock the Padres’ last-season struggles.
And seriously — even though I’m about to reveal myself as a humorless scold — I can’t recommend those postgame Pederson videos enough for pure entertainment value.
The entire scandal is inarguably ridiculous. But — but — in Pham’s utter lack of denial was an explanation that’s hard to ignore.
“We had too much money on the line, so I look at it like there's a code,” he said. “You're f—ing with my money, then you're going to say some disrespectful s—; there's a code to this."
Money is not funny. Maybe it is in the context of fantastically wealthy professional athletes bickering about old fantasy football beef; but unfortunately it is not outrageous to imagine financially motivated violence. That’s the plot of plenty of movies and also much of human history.
And that’s the thing about sports gambling — it’s all fun and games until someone stands to lose too much money. It may have been largely recreational to Pederson. But to Pham – who called himself “a big dog in Vegas” and “a high roller at many casinos” — the economics, and ego, of successful betting was clearly part of it.
Last summer, Sports Illustrated dedicated an issue of the magazine to the many ramifications of legalized sports betting. One piece in particular considered the new kind of vitriol players could be exposed to once their actions start to impact fan’s finances.
“When you have money involved, there’s always going to be anger,” Green Bay Packers receiver Marquez Valdes-Scantling said. “Imagine losing $5,000 and having the access to throw something at me.”
He was reacting to the digital hate mail received in response to how his on-field performance affects the fantasy landscape. The rest of the piece details concerns about player safety amidst the booming business of sports betting in the wake of the 2018 Supreme Court decision to reverse a federal ban on state-sanctioned gambling. Experts recommend digital sportsbooks invest in anti-gambling addiction organizations, like they do in countries where the practice has long been legal — and that leagues invest in increased security.
The relationship between betting and baseball seems destined to go in only one direction now that teams and leagues can legally affiliate themselves with a multibillion-dollar-per-month industry. Along with incessant in-game commercials and eyebrow-raising endorsements, there has been plenty of hand-wringing about the integrity of the game and some nonsensical accusations of hypocrisy by Pete Rose. That discussion of betting on baseball evokes references to Rose and the Black Sox makes sense, but there doesn’t have to be a cheating scandal for gambling on games to get ugly. The money that’s definitionally on the line does plenty to heighten the stakes. And someone always loses.
Admittedly, the Pederson-Pham kerfuffle is an imperfect illustration of this particular unsavory side of sports betting. Fantasy sports were legal even before the 2018 ruling, Pham is not a disgruntled fan, and his frustration was not directed at Pederson’s own athletic performance. And besides it’s not necessary to rely on a reach: A year ago, a prolific young gambler was sentenced to 36 months of probation for sending threats to hundreds of athletes and their family members. Several Tampa Bay Rays players received messages that included "I will sever your neck open you pathetic [expletive]" and "I will kill your entire family.”
The Pham slap seems inherently silly because it stemmed from a game, a buffoonish overreaction to the kind of pastime you only take too seriously as some sort of comedic bit. Except this whole business is a game, of course. It’s the money that makes it serious, losing a lot makes people mad no matter the method. The “fantasy” football player — and the injured one he replaced — that Pham and Pederson clashed over is a real athlete, just like they are.
“Violence isn’t the answer,” as Pederson said, and harassing players is always wrong. But it’s not hard to see what’s coming as audiences are encouraged to intertwine more and more of their finite funds with sports outcomes. In-game betting figures to monetize each at-bat, allowing small, otherwise inconsequential, aspects of a game to carry life-altering stakes for anonymous observers. It’s a fraught crucible.
It’s fine to laugh at the patently absurd manifestation as it plays out like a real-time oral history. But consider how, absent any context, “We had too much money on the line” looks a lot more ominous.