Does gambling impact the integrity of sports?

Feb 20, 2024

One of the largest concerns regarding the widespread growth of legalized sports betting is the potential for damaging the integrity of games. When the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act was struck down in 2018, it opened the door for states to legalize sports gambling. However, several professional sports leagues were previously not on board with the change, particularly the NFL and NHL. Here’s a brief history of the concerns and scandals that sports gambling has seen across the sports landscape in the United States.

Integrity Concerns

NFL

Roger Goodell was never a supporter of sports gambling becoming a part of football. He was always worried that it could damage the integrity of the game, and before Super Bowl 58, Goodell was quoted saying, “It's our No. 1 objective: Gambling and outside of gambling, the integrity of our game is critical” (Yahoo). Goodell has been forced to adapt to the changing world that involves sports betting in the NFL, but before PASPA was struck down, he was very critical of the idea.

Back in 2012, Goodell was asked what threats could impact the integrity of football. Without hesitation, the Commissioner answered, “Gambling would be No. 1 on my list” (ESPN). Fast forward a few years to 2016, and Goodell was quoted saying, “We remain very much opposed to gambling on sports.... We want to make sure we're doing what's right for the game” (LSR). Just two years later, PASPA would be struck down and Goodell would have to pivot his stance to accepting sports gambling in the NFL.

NHL

The NHL has also been against sports gambling, as evidenced by NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman’s staunch stance against it before 2018. In 2012, Bettman made a statement that the atmosphere the league was hoping to create at NHL games was “inconsistent with sports betting” (Washington Post). Compared to Goodell and the NFL, Bettman was more worried that sports gambling could impact the fans and the way they enjoy the game. 

Once PASPA was overruled in 2018, Bettman changed his stance: “Times have changed. The concerns we had at 10,000 feet had nothing to do with the integrity of the game. It had to do with atmospherics and the like, and the practical element as to how this was all going to work” (Washington Post). Bettman and the NHL embraced sports betting into the game soon after, forming partnerships with sportsbooks and bringing in millions in advertising from gaming operators.

MLB

Major League Baseball had a number of sports betting scandals well before online sportsbooks became a reality. With that in mind, Commissioner Rob Manfred and the MLB regularly pushed against the idea of legalized sports gambling, at least until the idea that it could become legal around the country became a real possibility. Right before PASPA was struck down, Manfred said, “We are reexamining our stance on gambling. It’s a conversation that’s ongoing with the owners” (Yahoo Finance).

The day that PASPA was overruled, Manfred made a statement, saying, “Our most important priority is protecting the integrity of our games” (MLB). But that hasn’t stopped Manfred and the MLB from partnering with sportsbooks and accepting sports gambling into the game.

College Sports

The legalization of sports gambling has caused a lot of concerns in college sports. One of the fastest-growing demographics of sports bettors is young males. However, the NCAA is very clear in its rules, “Athletes, coaches, and staff are prohibited from betting on amateur, collegiate, and professional sports in which the NCAA conducts a championship” (Sports Illustrated). Still, that hasn’t stopped some college athletes from trying to earn some extra money in nefarious ways.

In 2023, the NCAA admitted that infraction cases centering around sports betting were spiking. The NCAA does everything it can to manage the integrity of the game, but college athletes and coaches continue to get drawn to breaking the rules, usually in hopes of earning some extra money.

NBA

Adam Silver was far ahead of his time. Back when Goodell, Bettman and Manfred opposed sports gambling in their respective sports, Silver was in support of legalizing it. In 2014, Silver wrote an Op-Ed for the New York Times titled, "Legalize and Regulate Sports Betting”. It started by saying, "Betting on professional sports is currently illegal in most of the United States outside of Nevada. I believe we need a different approach” (ESPN). Silver became the first acting commissioner of any professional sports league in the United States to support the legalization of sports betting.

Silver and the NBA have always had their concerns about the integrity of the game with sports betting becoming legalized, but Silver consistently believed there could be more positives and benefits to regulated sports gambling, bringing what was already a popular activity out of the shadows and into the spotlight where it could be more easily monitored.

History of Gambling Scandals in Sports

MLB

For a century, baseball has had a black eye when it came to sports betting in the sport. One of the first instances of a sports betting scandal enveloped the MLB in 1919. A group of players on the Chicago White Sox partnered with sports gamblers and threw the World Series to earn extra money. Those players earned the nickname “the Black Sox” and became one of the most infamous scandals in baseball history. The players were later acquitted in court but banned from baseball for life.

Arguably the second-biggest scandal in baseball involved only one man - Pete Rose. Rose is known as one of the greatest baseball players in history, and with speed and personality he became a fan favorite. However, in 1989, Rose was accused of betting on games. He at first denied allegations but was still handed a lifetime ban from baseball. Nearly 20 years later, Rose published an autobiography and admitted to gambling on the Reds while he was a player and a manager. 

NFL

Unlike baseball, we don’t need to go too far back in the NFL history books to find betting scandals in football. In 2021, Falcons receiver Calvin Ridley was suspended for the entire 2022 season for gambling on the NFL. Ridley bet thousand of dollars on three parlays, and one parlay did include his team to win. Ridley broke the silence on the addiction rumors by posting, “I bet 1500 total I don’t have a gambling problem” (Sports Illustrated). Ridley has since returned to the NFL, but not with the Falcons.

Since Ridley’s scandal, there have been several other incidents of players violating the gambling rules. Ridley’s scandal wasn’t enough to scare off other players from attempting to secretly bet on the NFL or break other rules regarding placing non-NFL bets from within NFL facilities.

College Sports

There have been hundreds of sports betting-related infractions in college sports since 2018 (ESPN). One of the most recent scandals was 41 players between the University of Iowa and Iowa State University caught illegally betting on sports. At the forefront of the investigation was Iowa State quarterback Hunter Dekkers, who had allegedly placed over 300 wagers involving college sports. About 26 of those wagers were on Iowa State-related games (per KCCI). Iowa kicker Aaron Blom was also involved, as he placed numerous wagers under his mother’s identity, including on Iowa games.

One of the most recent head-turning scandals in college sports didn’t even involve a player. University of Alabama baseball head coach Brad Bohannon was fired after being caught trying to gamble on a game in which he was involved. Bohannon knew that his starting pitcher was unable to start about an hour before the game against LSU, but instead of letting the media know (which would naturally make LSU a heavier favorite), Bohannon texted an accomplice to attempt and place a $100,000 wager on LSU to win the game (FOX News). His accomplice was caught and Bohannon was later fired.

Golf

Phil Mickelson shocked the golfing world when he admitted to gambling more than $1 billion in his life. He also allegedly wanted to wager $400,000 on the Ryder Cup that he was playing in during 2014, but Mickelson has denied that. In 2023, he posted, “I never bet on the Ryder Cup. While it is well known that I always enjoy a friendly wager on the course, I would never undermine the integrity of the game” (The Guardian). However, his “friendly” wagers became a problem. 

Mickelson has admitted to having a gambling addiction. A gambling addiction can cause financial or mental problems, and for Mickelson the addiction impacted his family: “The money wasn’t ever the issue since our financial security has never been threatened, but I was so distracted I wasn’t able to be present with the ones I love and caused a lot of harm” (The Guardian). Mickelson has since sought help and claims to have quit sports gambling.

Athletes and Gambling Addiction

Phil Mickelson isn’t the only famous athlete who has likely dealt with gambling addiction. In just the last few decades, several high-status athletes have come under scrutiny for their gambling habits. Those athletes include John Daly, Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley, Wayne Rooney, Floyd Mayweather and others. Although most of these athletes haven’t formally admitted to a gambling addiction, some of their habits and betting patterns indicate a potential addiction to betting on sports.

Gambling Addiction Help and Treatment

Resources are readily available if you, a friend or family member is displaying signs of a gambling addiction. Birches Health provides a 24/7 care team while also offering effective and private treatment for those in need. Telehealth treatment sessions can fit your schedule, and you don’t even need to leave your home. 

If you believe you or someone else could benefit from the Birches Health offerings, please call (833) 483-3838 or email hello@bircheshealth.com

References:

Roger Goodell addresses integrity of NFL games ahead of Super Bowl in gambling hotbed of Las Vegas

NFL's evolving stance on sports betting and Las Vegas

NFL's Goodell: 'We Remain Very Much Opposed To Gambling On Sports'

The NHL’s Gary Bettman was a sports gambling skeptic. Now he’s a convert. - The Washington Post

MLB commissioner: 'We are re-examining our stance on gambling'

MLB issues statement on sports gambling ruling

Young people are gambling more, NCAA athletes included - Sports Illustrated

The impact of Adam Silver's sports betting op-ed five years later - ESPN

What Was the 1919 'Black Sox' Baseball Scandal? | HISTORY

Calvin Ridley placed several parlay bets, picked Falcons to win - Sports Illustrated

Letter shows NCAA has found 175 sports-betting violations since 2018 - ESPN

List of Iowa, Iowa State student-athletes charged in sports wagering investigation

New details emerge in Alabama baseball gambling scandal involving ex-coach: report | Fox News

Phil Mickelson says he is ‘in recovery’ after claim he gambled more than $1bn

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