The Big Sports-Gambling Scandal Might Have Already Happened

Photo: John J. Kim/Chicago Tribune/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

In 2015, the now-zombified website Deadspin (which I co-founded, though I was long gone by then) published photos of Nicole Holder, a woman who had been beaten and choked by Dallas Cowboys star Greg Hardy. The NFL response to this horrific attack? It suspended Hardy for a grand total of four games. Four games.

Last week, the NFL announced that Lions wide receiver Jameson Williams and three of his teammates would be suspended for six games — that’s two more than four — after “violating the league’s gambling policy.” What rule had Williams broken? He legitimately did not know.

“I was sick, I was hurt,” he said. “I didn’t know things like this was coming.” He said he did not know which rule he had violated, and, in fact, that he didn’t remember making a bet at all. The league doesn’t allow him to appeal the suspension, so he’ll miss a good chunk of next season. Oh, and the other three players involved were summarily released by the Lions.

So what had Williams actually done? According to the NFL, he made a bet using his phone at the team facility. He didn’t bet on his own team, and he didn’t even bet on the NFL. He just made a bet — which is perfectly legal in the state of Michigan — while on team grounds. That’s what was against the rules. That was six games, right there. And Williams had no idea. As detailed by the Athletic’s Kalyn Kahler piece in an excellent piece, he’s hardly alone on that front. “I don’t even know what the rule is, or when the rule changed or the fine print on what you can or can’t gamble on,” one ten-year veteran told Kahler. The suspended players are “sacrificial lambs,” another said. Another asked Kahler if she could explain the rules to him.

Why would any player think there’s a problem with placing a bet, anyway? They’re inundated with gambling ads like the rest of us are. They see the FanDuel and MGM banners all over their stadiums. They see leagues setting up formal partnerships with betting companies. They see NFL owners like Robert Kraft and Jerry Jones investing in DraftKings. And they know that owners recently voted to allow physical sportsbooks inside stadiums for this next season. (This is already a reality in NBA arenas; when I attended the Big Ten men’s basketball tournament at Chicago’s United Center earlier this year, more people were milling around the FanDuel Sportsbook lounge than were sitting in the stands.)

After the Supreme Court allowed states to make sports betting legal, leagues like the NFL had to balance their need to protect competitive integrity with their desire to bring in that sweet, sweet gambling cash. It should perhaps not be surprising that they have mostly decided to just go for the money. But remember, the leagues still need us to believe these games are truly on the up-and-up. That’s how we end up with rules like the ones that tripped up Williams. It’s absurd, but also fitting for this league, that Jameson Williams gets a six-game suspension while owners like Kraft and Jones can allow sportsbooks inside their stadiums, with fans betting on the games they’re ostensibly there to watch, and with some of the proceeds flowing right to Kraft and Jones. The rules are for the players, not the men actually profiting from this madness.

The inherent contradiction here — gambling is a danger to sports, so players will be severely punished for doing it, but it is also something we desperately want everyone else to do all the time, a few feet from the field — is by its very nature impossible to square, for players, leagues, or fans. So it should be perhaps little wonder that gambling scandals are already popping up all around sports. Scandals that look to have a little more teeth than Williams’s.

At the University of Iowa, dozens of players across multiple sports are currently under investigation for “violation of NCAA betting rules,” with 15 more at nearby Iowa State University under investigation as part of the same probe. (What’s going on in Iowa, by the way? Has anyone asked Ron DeSantis about that?) MLS player Max Alves was suspended last month for allegedly being paid $12,000 to draw a yellow card in an MLS game, which he did a mere 90 seconds after being brought into the game.

In the most notorious example, Alabama fired baseball coach Brad Bohannon after he allegedly called a friend of his to make a bet against his own team, using information only he had access to. (Alabama’s best pitcher was a late scratch, replaced by a little-used bench player; Alabama did end up losing the game.) This is as ugly as sports gambling gets — a coach knows he’s probably going to lose, and rather than trying to do something about it, he makes an easy buck. If this becomes the norm, or at least semi-common, it’s the sort of thing that will undermine any confidence fans have that the sports they’re watching are on the level. It’s as existential a threat as sports can possibly face: What if none of this is real? 

Defenders of gambling say that there are protections in place to catch violators like Bohannon, that the fact he was caught is proof the system works. Bohannon’s friend made a huge bet against Alabama within seconds of getting the inside information (he placed that bet at Great American Ballpark in Cincinnati, where the Reds play), and this large wager triggered the necessary alarms. But this feels like a cheating spouse getting caught in the act and insisting that, no, really, it was just this one time. Remember, too, that the “police” who catch people like Bohannon are not in fact police at all; they are instead firms like U.S. Integrity, a Las Vegas–based firm hired by sportsbooks (and their partners, the leagues) to monitor betting markets. These aren’t exactly disinterested third parties without skin in the game, like a federal oversight agency is supposed to be. Their job is to protect the sportsbooks — more specifically, the sportsbooks’ money. It’s in their (and the league’s) interest to make it seem like Bohannon and his ilk are rogue actors, the rare exceptions. But pretending every single violator — or even most of them — are being caught and swiftly punished strains credulity. There are surely many, many more Bohannons, and Iowans, and Max Alveses out there.

And there will only be more. Why wouldn’t there be? Why wouldn’t athletes want a piece of the gambling money that’s flowing all around them? Why should the owners and leagues be the only ones to profit off this? I suspect this sentiment is far, far more widespread than any of us know.

I have long argued that this gambling boom is going to run into a massive, Black Sox–esque scandal at some point. I am beginning to wonder if it already has.

The Big Sports-Gambling Scandal Might Have Already Happened