The NBA Just Banned a Player for Life. It Had No Choice.

Sports leagues make a lot of money off of people betting on their games. It is now almost impossible to watch an entire American sporting event and not be reminded of the leagues’ multimillion-dollar partnerships with DraftKings, FanDuel, and other sportsbook operators. It’s a cash grab, yes. But from the leagues’ perspective, it’s also a payment in exchange for tolerating certain risks. Sports leagues profit from betting but they are also terrified of it. Three things spook them in particular.

First, the disclosure of privileged information to bettors. That’s the sports betting version of insider trading—early or private knowledge of injuries or player absences, for instance, that might give sports gamblers an edge. It distorts markets and creates all kinds of bad exposure for leagues, teams, and the betting operators who pay them. Second, the manipulation of in-game outcomes. Point-shaving! Trying to make sure a game ends with fewer than its projected points total (in betting parlance, hits an under), or that a team does not cover a spread. Or, nowadays, player-specific outcomes, because it is so easy to bet on how many rebounds or touchdowns someone will get. Third, the outright throwing of a game. Everything else is a gateway drug that could lead here. The single easiest way to threaten a league’s multibillion-dollar business is for people to doubt that they’re watching a game left to chance. People buy tickets and tune in on TV at an appointed time because the outcome is not predetermined. If that goes, everything could go.

Jontay Porter, the now-former Toronto Raptors power forward, committed the first two sins and got into an uncomfortable flirtation with the third. The NBA gave the 24-year-old a lifetime ban on Wednesday after investigating unusual betting activity around Porter’s performance and Raptors games. It’s a major betting scandal, the biggest involving a player in the United States since states began to legalize sports betting en masse in 2018. If the Black Sox were a 10 on the scandal scale, Porter is probably a 6 or 7.

The league found that Porter shared his own injury information with someone he knew was an NBA bettor. That is no bueno, but it gets much worse: The league also found that Porter pulled himself out of a game after three minutes, claiming an illness, in order to make sure a prop bet on his stats, ostensibly an “under,” paid out. (The $80,000 bet threw up a flag somewhere and wasn’t paid out.) Finally, the league found that Porter placed at least 13 bets on NBA games using another person’s online betting account. He netted nearly $22,000 in winnings on those bets.* Three of his wagers were multigame parlays in which Porter bet on the Raptors to lose. He did not play in any of those games, the league said. That’s still egregious. Someone on the Raptors’ payroll, with proximity to players on the court, had a financial incentive for the team to lose. It’s a minor blessing for the NBA that those parlays—bets that require multiple outcomes to occur to pay out—were losers for Porter, but the league’s statement does not say whether the Raptors lost on those days. (A parlay fails if any one pick in its group of bets doesn’t win.)

Given the league’s new partnerships with gambling companies, it will be tempting to treat Porter’s lifetime ban as either an overreaction or a show of hypocrisy on the NBA’s part. But the league’s investigatory findings meant that this was the only reasonable step. It does not matter that it was Porter’s first offense, and it does not matter that the NBA swims in sportsbook cash.

The Porter case fits into a convenient, not-altogether-wrong worldview that pro sports leagues and their gaming partners like to push. The leagues and the gaming industry point out that people are going to bet on sports anyway, and the safest, fairest thing is for those bets to be regulated. To that point, the NBA’s announcement of the ban is designed to point out that if Porter were collaborating with underground bettors and bookies, his activity would have gone undetected. The bets on the night Porter pulled himself from a game “were brought to the NBA’s attention by licensed sports betting operators and an organization that monitors legal betting markets,” the league said. The dragnet worked as designed.

There is an underlying tension. As sportsbooks load the world up with advertising and leagues and their broadcast partners amplify them in exchange for sponsorship dollars, the effort creates new bettors. After all, that is the entire point of a marketing campaign and promotional incentives (like FanDuel’s “No Sweat First Bet”). It is a customer acquisition game. So we no longer merely have a world in which people will bet on sports, but one where more people will. A bigger pool of bettors means a bigger pool of potential crooks. In a subtle but real way, the NBA courted the Porter scandal. We’ll never know if the bettor or bettors mixed up with Porter would’ve done the same thing  in 2014.

None of that matters in assessing Porter’s punishment. He broke just about every conceivable NBA and ethical rule around sports betting. His behavior was so far past any cultural betting norm that it’s unfathomable that he could not have known it was a problem. What Porter did is exactly what sports leagues feared when they fought tooth-and-nail against sports betting legalization for decades, until the Supreme Court made the risks inevitable and presented a profit-making opportunity. There’s not a good excuse for an NFL player to sit on his couch and place a few bets from his phone without thinking through it in detail, but one could imagine how a sports-betting marketing blitz and lack of rules education could lead to it. Porter’s actions were untenable in any sport 100 years ago. They stand outside of the industry’s recent developments. Exposure to a lot of DraftKings commercials does not encourage point-shaving.

The long, pre-legalization history of betting scandals also makes clear that a lifetime ban fits the crime. Major League Baseball banned its hit king, Pete Rose, for betting on baseball broadly, and his Cincinnati Reds specifically, while serving as the team’s player-manager. The league never found evidence that Rose bet against the Reds, and he maintained he only bet on the team to win. The league also never surfaced evidence that Rose had shared inside information with bettors. MLB still nuked Rose from the sport forever. Porter’s acts were in several respects worse than Rose’s. Even if Porter were a much more marketable and well-established player, I think he’d be getting the same punishment.

None of that means that we should not all monitor how the NBA or any other league disciplines players for sports betting breaches. Few organizations are more deserving of scrutiny than business juggernauts that take ungodly sums of money from the same platforms where league-threatening scandals occur. In plenty of these stories, it’s worth taking the leagues to task for their efforts to have their cake and eat it, too. Porter is different. Sports betting scandals may be more likely in an era of eight-team parlays pecked out on iPhones on a random weekday, but this would be a betting horror story at any time in sports history.