2024: The Year of Sports Betting Scandals?

Mar 28, 2024

If there’s one overall theme that’s been the main topic of conversation across the U.S. sports landscape so far in 2024, it has unfortunately been the ugly underbelly of sports betting. After years of largely positive headlines around the rapid growth of legalized sports betting in America following the repeal of PASPA in 2018, lately the discourse has done an about-face as scandals, controversies and head-shaking headlines have shone a spotlight on the dark side of sports gambling. The MLB’s biggest star, an NBA player and college athletics as a whole have all been featured, though in very different ways. 

At the same time, figures from Gambling Addiction call centers in recently legalized Florida have highlighted a concurrent rise in Problem Gambling. The Sunshine State saw a 138% increase in calls and texts between December and January, the first period since the state’s sole sportsbook Hard Rock Bet went live. 

Is this just a statistical aberration with so many negative sports betting stories coming in such a short span? Or is it a sign of things to come, as the sports gambling bubble bursts and some of the worst fears around it are realized?

MLB superstar Shohei Ohtani at center of sports betting scandal

In terms of global appeal, Major League Baseball has arguably never seen a bigger star than Shohei Ohtani of the Los Angeles Dodgers. But the two-way phenom is now embroiled in a gambling controversy involving his since-fired interpreter Ippei Mizuhara, an illegal sports betting operation in Southern California being investigated by federal authorities, and changing stories that have led to more questions and suspicions than answers. 

Mizuhara had been Ohtani’s interpreter since Ohtani brought his highly sought-after talents to America in 2017. They also became close friends, as Mizuhara followed Ohtani from the LA Angels to the Dodgers this offseason. However, their relationship is no more, as Ohtani has allegedly become a victim of Mizuhara’s “massive theft.” Per ESPN’s in-depth reporting and interviews with Mizuhara, the interpreter began gambling with an illegitimate bookmaker (sports betting has not been legalized in California), Mathew Bowyer, who has been under investigation by federal authorities. Mizuhara claims he bet and lost millions, but only wagered on soccer and some other sports, never baseball. 

By 2023, Mizuhara reportedly was deep in gambling debt. Reports indicate he owed at least $4.5 million to Bowyer, but he couldn’t pay off the debt. Mizuhara said, "I'm terrible [at gambling]. Never going to do it again. Never won any money.” Investigators found that multiple payments were made from Shohei Ohtani’s account to Bowyer. Mizuhara initially claimed that Ohtani paid off his debts but was not happy about it. 

However, Ohtani’s camp later denied the claims of Mizuhara, who then changed course and stated that Ohtani never knew about the gambling. In his first appearance since the story broke, Ohtani spoke through a new interpreter on Monday and reiterated the updated claims, saying, “I am very sad and shocked that someone who I trusted has done this… I never bet on baseball or any sports or never have asked somebody to do it on my behalf… I have never gone through a bookmaker to bet on sports… Ippei has been stealing money from my accounts and has been telling lies.”

NBA’s worst nightmare: Sports betting investigation threatens integrity

Also on Monday, ESPN reported that Toronto Raptors forward Jontay Porter is under investigation by the NBA after betting irregularities around Porter prop bets were flagged. The instances involve (at minimum) games on January 26 and March 20, when there was increased betting interest on the “under” for Porter props. 

In that first game, Porter played just four minutes before leaving due to what the team said was an aggravation of an eye injury, as the under cashed on all of his props. The following day, a DraftKings daily report stated that the under on Porter's 3-pointers was the top winner for bettors the previous day.

On March 20 against the Kings, Porter played just three minutes before leaving with what the Raptors reported was an illness. Again the “unders” hit, and DraftKings reported them as the biggest winning bets for players on their platform. At least one other U.S. sports betting operator flagged the unusual betting interest in Jontay Porter props, and multiple betting accounts had reportedly attempted to bet large amounts on them. 

Unlike the Ohtani scandal, which has multiple layers and complications, this Porter investigation appears - given what’s been reported so far - to be more clear cut. And unfortunately for the NBA, that could mean their worst fears around sports betting being realized. If an active NBA player was involved in a scheme to use his on-court performance for the benefit of sports bettors (whether that was himself or associates), that would mean that the integrity of the sport was compromised. 

And unlike his more famous brother Michael Porter Jr. of the Nuggets, Jontay Porter is not a superstar making many millions each season in the NBA; he is on a two-way contract with Toronto earning $415,000 this season.

Other NBA Sports Betting Stories

Cavaliers coach J.B. Bickerstaff receives threats

Last week, Cleveland Cavaliers coach J.B. Bickerstaff spoke about his personal experience with the impact of legalized sports betting, saying he believes it has gone too far. "There's no doubt about it that it's crossed the line," Bickerstaff said. "The amount of times I'm standing up there and we may have a 10-point lead and the spread is 11 and people are yelling at me to leave the guys in so we can cover the spread, it's ridiculous.” He added, “I personally have had my own instances with some of the sports gamblers, where they got my telephone number, were sending me crazy messages about where I live, and my kids and all that stuff.”

Pacers star Tyrese Haliburton: “I’m a prop.”

Indiana Pacers superstar Tyrese Haliburton also addressed the hot topic of sports betting last week, specifically pointing out how many fans only care about how much money he can make them betting.

“To half the world, I'm just helping them make money on DraftKings or whatever," Haliburton said. "I'm a prop. That's what my social media mostly consists of.”

Celtics’ Jayson Tatum feels bad for bettors who lose money from his props 

NBA All-Star Jayson Tatum of the Boston Celtics spoke during shootaround this week about sports betting among fans. “I guess I do feel bad when I don't hit people's parlays. I don't want them to lose money," Tatum told reporters. "Fans yell s--- all the time, 'shoot one more 3, get one more rebound, get 25 before the half is over.’”

He also hears positive fan reaction when he plays well, explaining, “I guess when you hit people's parlays and do good [for their parlays], they'll tell me, but they'll also talk s--- if I'm on the court and didn't get them 29 at half or whatever I was supposed to do.”

College Sports concerns with Sports Betting

Coaches voice worries

Illinois men's basketball coach Brad Underwood spoke in February about his concerns around betting and the lack of injury reports in college athletics. “If [a student] sees player A, and he's your leading scorer, and he's walking around campus in a boot – or a teammate tells his dad, 'Hey, I don't think Johnny's playing today because he hit his head in practice,' [that's a problem]." 

Underwood also discussed prop bets, which were recently banned in Ohio for college sports, saying, “There will be a day in a time when, conceivably, you could have two guys not jump for the jump ball because there's a prop bet on it," he added. "I think anything that challenges the integrity of competition stinks." 

Underwood also said that sports bettors have targeted his players for blowing covers. "We've had guys that have gotten very, very nasty text messages and so on, because they missed a layup that didn't cover an over and under, or whatever it was.” he added, “You can't ever jeopardize the integrity of competition. And if we ever lose that, then that our sport is done.

This week, Clemson basketball coach Brad Brownell added some perspective of his own, detailing, “People are extremely aggressive these days… We get phone calls in our office sometimes. When things, obviously, don't go a bettor's way, we get some nasty calls.”

NCAA pushes for prop ban

New NCAA president Charlie Baker addressed college prop betting this week, stating, “The NCAA is drawing the line on sports betting to protect student-athletes and to protect the integrity of the game – issues across the country these last several days show there is more work to be done… This week we will be contacting officials across the country in states that allow these bets and ask them to join Ohio, Vermont, Maryland and many others and remove college prop bets from all betting markets.”

Baker previously told CBS News in November, “I think prop betting in some respects is one of the parts I worry about the most.” 

Help and resources for Gambling Addiction 

As these scandals and issues have garnered major attention in recent weeks, gambling addiction rates across the United States have been rising. Thankfully, there are specialized care resources and treatment options available. 

Birches Health is a modern healthcare provider that offers flexible, confidential treatment that is usually covered by insurance or government funding. Their intake process is easy, and you or a loved one will receive a personalized treatment plan quickly. Birches’ team of specially trained clinicians have decades of experience treating gambling addiction and are ready to help get you on the path to recovery. 

If you or someone you know may benefit from Birches Health, please call (833) 483-3838 or email hello@bircheshealth.com to connect with a care specialist. 

Sources:

Dodgers fire Shohei Ohtani's interpreter amid allegation of 'massive theft' - ESPN

Ohtani says he never bet on sports, 'shocked' interpreter stole money - ESPN 

Sources: NBA eyes Raptors' Jontay Porter for betting issues - ESPN

J.B. Bickerstaff threatened by gamblers: Cavaliers coach says sports betting in the NBA has 'crossed the line' - CBSSports.com

Celtics' Jayson Tatum feels for losing sports bettors - ESPN

Brad Underwood Tells OutKick Sports Betting Is Hurting College Basketball

Clemson's Brad Brownell on growth of sports betting: 'We get some nasty calls' at our office

NCAA president Charlie Baker wants ban on prop bets in college sports - The Athletic

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