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Is legalized betting hurting sports?

 Photo montage of football and baseball players surrounded by gambling icons such as dice and betting chips.
Photo montage of football and baseball players surrounded by gambling icons such as dice and betting chips.

Sports betting is everywhere these days. Now the backlash is too, said The Wall Street Journal. Recent investigations involving MLB megastar Shohei Ohtani and NBA bench player Jontay Porter are part of a "building avalanche of gambling scandals" that raise questions about the integrity of our games six years after the U.S. Supreme Court opened the door for states to legalize gambling on athletic competition.

That ruling led to a "deluge of ads" for gambling websites, The New York Times said. Americans watching NBA and NHL games "are exposed to three gambling ads a minute" which has led to a 12-fold increase in revenues for commercial betting operations since 2019. But bettors aren't just wagering on the outcomes of games — they're also making so-called "prop bets" which "try to predict how an athlete will perform in a given game."

Those bets have created discomfort (and potential conflicts) for coaches and athletes: Porter's investigation involves prop bets regarding rebounds and 3-point shots. Cleveland Cavaliers coach J.B. Bickerstaff said last month he had received threats from gamblers. "They got my telephone number and were sending me crazy messages about where I live and my kids and all that stuff," he said. The Indiana Pacers' Tyrese Haliburton said he's heard from fans complaining about losing bets. The game itself doesn't seem to matter so much anymore. "To half the world, I'm just helping them make money on DraftKings or whatever," he said.

What did the commentators say?

The rise of legalized sports betting "will coax some players, coaches and others toward perdition," said the Los Angeles Times' Michael Hiltzik. How do we know? "Because it already is happening." The NFL routinely suspends players for betting, the University of Alabama last year fired its baseball coach amid a betting scandal, and several players for Iowa's major universities have been charged in an entirely different affair. The Ohtani investigation — regarding illegal bets allegedly made by his translator — is just the tip of the iceberg. But don't expect sports leagues to back away from their embrace of the new era. "There's too much money in sports betting."

"The risk to betting companies is obvious," the Las Vegas Review-Journal said in an editorial. If the industry doesn't do a better job of self-regulating, Rep. Dina Titus (D-Nev.) said to the outlet, "calls for the government to step in will only increase." It's a positive sign that "leagues are cracking down on athletes who violate policies" against gambling. Even so, the odds are rising that elected officials "will find it impossible to resist using their collective heavy hand."

Sports betting has become "the next national 'addiction' crisis," said Sheldon H. Jacobson at The Hill. Legalized gambling "has permeated the nation's sports culture." But there's too much money flowing into government coffers from the betting industry to reverse the spread. "States will not rush to curtail or slow sports gambling."

What next?

Some new regulations may be on the way. NCAA president Charlie Baker is calling for states to restrict prop bets on college athletes, ESPN said. Those bets "threaten the integrity and competition and lead to student athletes and professional athletes getting harassed." But Baker's organization is smack-dab in the middle of one of the biggest betting extravaganzas of all: An estimated "$2.7 billion will be bet this year on the men's and women's NCAA basketball tournaments."

"What's clear is that North America's big sports leagues have a bevy of gambling-related problems on their hands," said Dave Feschuk at The Toronto Star. The investigations into Ohtani and Porter are probably just the beginning: The same qualities that drive athletes to greatness — including an obsessive desire to win — make them "precisely the type that finds sports betting irresistible." Gambling is often addictive. "How is a sports league supposed to control a compulsion's potential for doing damage?"