State of Play is a column that focuses on the trending stories in the casino and gambling space with sharp and clever insight from senior staff writer Steve Friess. Over his 25-year career, Friess has contributed to publications such as Newsweek, Time, New York Times and more.
I read a fascinating piece in the latest issue of Sports Illustrated by Jon Wertheim a few days ago that I haven’t been able to get out of my head.
It turns out, we’ve been looking at the question of integrity in sports betting all wrong. Well, most of us, anyway. Especially in the media.
You see, every time there’s news of players getting punished for betting either on games they shouldn’t or in locations where they shouldn’t, most of us default to debating whether the situation could inspire a conspiracy to throw or alter the outcome of a game itself.
And yet Wertheim, in profiling the work of U.S. Integrity, a Nevada-based firm that monitors and probes betting irregularities for clients who are various leagues teams, and casinos, lays bare the fallacy of that concern. He writes:
“Overall, there is scant evidence that athletes are undermining competition or consorting with dark forces. [FSU sports management professor Ryan] Rodenberg suggests that salaries in professional sports are such that, leaving morals aside, athletes would be acting irrationally if they were to risk their jobs to make a few extra bucks. (He adds that, at the college level, NIL functions similarly, providing athletes with income as well as incentive to avoid reputational damage.)”
Whoa! That’s a bit of a twist!
Information can come from anywhere
I’ve written before my confusion over many of the betting rules, especially in regard to NFL players. They’re allowed to bet on other sports and even college football. But they’re not allowed to place those bets from any “team facility.” That includes stadiums, locker rooms, hotels and transportation during away games.
The league insists this is to maintain the integrity of the game, to avoid corrupting influences that might somehow persuade dozens of millionaire athletes to risk everything to win or lose bigger or smaller, among other things.
But that’s not really what they’re worried about, is it? They know how impractical, illogical and insane it would be in this day and age for even a small group of corrupt players to do this. When I asked the question of how a New York Jet placing a bet on the Cowboys-Raiders game would impact that outcome of that game, I was asking the wrong question.
The fear really is that the New York Jet might have inside information about that game that gives him an unfair advantage against the sportsbook.
But that’s not typically what happens, either. Writes Wertheim:
“The majority of incidents involving suspicious betting and corrupt behavior have come from those who are ‘athlete-adjacent’ — referees, umpires, officials, figures possessing insider information or the ability to influence results.”
That is, the information that could queer a betting line can come from absolutely anywhere — the pilot of a team plane who knows the flight is delayed, an employee of the laundry service who sees a star player being fussed over by doctors or a friend who knows the details of a pitcher’s distracting domestic problems.
Jameson Williams betting on a baseball game from the Ford Field locker room is the least of anyone’s concerns.
OK, it’s about both, but more about the bets
Yes, the concerns could be both for the line and the outcomes. But it’s not the players they’re actually worried about — at least not in team sports. (There’s an interesting reference in the SI piece to concerns about betting on low-level pro tennis events, of all things, and that makes some sense given that a player can control his or her own play, the event is little-watched and he or she probably doesn’t make much money.)
But, also, it’s about protecting the casino as much as protecting the sanctity of the game.
Consider U.S. Integrity’s most famous case to date.
In April, a bettor tried to place a $100,000 bet on an LSU-Alabama baseball game at a BetMGM window in Cincinnati. It was weird because it was a low-volume game — FanDuel had zero bets on it, in fact — and it raised flags. Later, security footage showed the bettor at the window holding a phone that displayed text messages from Alabama baseball coach Brad Bohannon.
The inference was that the coach, later fired, could make decisions that increase the likelihood of covering a point spread or influence the game’s outcome. (It actually seems easier for a coach to cause a loss by withholding talent, not disputing calls or some other shenanigans, especially in little-watched, often untelevised sports events.)
The sophisticated bettors are the problem
That’s a pretty egregious, obvious, almost too-neat case. The alleged crooks, at least as the story is presented by authorities, were exceptionally stupid and obvious.
And in its simplicity, it shows the extent of the problem. The NFL wants to use their high-profile punishments of players to show how serious they are about these problems. They want to strike fear in the hearts of these men, all of whom have been Black, to keep others in line.
In the process, they’re making us all look the wrong direction. The corruption isn’t to what’s happening on the field or court or course. It’s to what’s happening to the betting line itself.
U.S. Integrity CEO Matthew Holt puts it thus:
“My fear is that we’re only catching the easy ones. And there’s been a lot of easy ones lately. But I don’t think we’re catching as many sophisticated ones as we should.”
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