On betting’s biggest day, a new scandal puts the sports world on edge

As millions of Americans raced to fill out brackets and place wagers on teenage basketball players Thursday, another scandal amplified calls for the country’s booming sports-betting industry to be restrained - and reformed.

The Los Angeles Dodgers fired Shohei Ohtani’s interpreter Wednesday night, after the translator told ESPN that Ohtani paid off the interpreter’s offshore gambling debts and as Ohtani’s lawyer told another story, accusing the translator of stealing roughly $4.5 million.

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While fans sorted through the ramifications and Ohtani played on in the Dodgers’ season-opening series in Seoul, experts and amateurs alike joined office pools and placed wagers on the first round of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, the country’s closest thing to an official sports betting holiday.

Players, leagues and fans have been reckoning with the still-unfolding effects of sports gambling since a Supreme Court ruling handed the question of legalization to states in 2018. Each constituency may be arriving at the realization those impacts have mushroomed beyond anyone’s control.

“The amount of money is so enormous that it is almost impossible to attack the problem,” former MLB commissioner Fay Vincent said in a phone interview Thursday. “Theoretically, there’s nothing wrong with an adult who has control of his brain and control of his financial situation betting on sports. The problem is, the sport itself gets so caught up in the amount of money that I don’t know how a professional sport or the NCAA or anybody - how do you draw up a code of conduct for an individual? What’s the line? When do we start admitting this is a really big problem?”

Long verboten, sports wagering has been adopted, endorsed and monetized by virtually every U.S. sports league and team. Advertising for gambling operators is omnipresent on broadcasts. Sportsbooks operate in and around stadiums, including Capital One Arena and Nationals Park in the District, and fans at home and inside arenas can bet on an astonishing array of in-game events on their phones. Washington Wizards and Capitals owner Ted Leonsis once said that sports gambling “saved” professional sports coming out of the pandemic.

The result: A generation of new fans who appear to be increasingly engaging with sports through the lens of their favorite betting app. Though impossible to track figures before widespread legalization, Americans legally wagered $119.84 billion on sports in 2023, according to the American Gaming Association, up more than 27 percent from 2022.

“And most of them are going to lose,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) said Thursday. “That’s the way the world works. The house wins, the bettors lose. And that’s why it is [so] hugely profitable for business gambling companies that are going to be promoting and pitching and exploiting March Madness, and they’re going to be doing it a lot of the times at the expense of people who are problem gamblers.”

The close connection between Ohtani and an interpreter who admitted a gambling addiction - even if he vowed he never bet on baseball - provided the most high-profile betting controversy in a month packed with them.

The Temple men’s basketball team advanced to its conference championship last week while a watchdog group investigated suspicious betting patterns that convinced some bookmakers to remove Owls games from their betting menu.

A former employee in the Jacksonville Jaguars’ accounting department was sentenced this month to 78 months in prison for siphoning $22 million from the franchise to fund his gambling addiction.

Earlier this month, the NBA fined Minnesota Timberwolves center Rudy Gobert $100,000 for intimating referees had made calls in adherence with a point spread. The league felt backlash Tuesday after it added a function to its League Pass package that enabled viewers to see live point spreads and place bets directly with FanDuel or DraftKings.

On the same day, Indiana Pacers star Tyrese Haliburton told reporters he had seen a sports psychologist in part to deal with pressure he receives from gamblers over social media. “To half the world, I’m just helping them make money on DraftKings or whatever,” Haliburton said. “I’m the prop, you know what I mean?”

In response to Haliburton’s comments, Cleveland Cavaliers Coach J.B. Bickerstaff said Wednesday that gamblers contacted and threatened him last year, which he reported to the NBA.

“They got my telephone number and were sending me crazy messages about where I live and my kids and all that stuff,” Bickerstaff said. “So it is a dangerous game and a fine line that we’re walking for sure.”

“There’s no doubt about it that it’s crossed the line,” Bickerstaff added. “The amount of times where 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 that we can cover the spread, it’s ridiculous.”

Not all of those episodes fall neatly under the umbrella of legalized gambling. Ohtani’s interpreter, Ippei Mizuhara, bet through the kind of offshore sportsbook that existed long before the federal ban on sports wagering fell. (California is not among the 38 states that have some form of legalized sports-betting.)

For fans, though, the gambling scandals meld together to create the perception of potential impropriety. Expanded gambling has also changed the relationship between fan and sport, possibly corroding a connection once based on geographic or familial rooting ties, admiration for athletic feats or any number of factors than a wager.

“It harms the game, because the game has become a financial exercise for many of the people,” said Vincent, who played a significant role in upholding Pete Rose’s ban for betting on baseball. “When the spread becomes important, it becomes hard to police whether [certain end-of-game plays are] being done honestly or dishonestly. What we have is a challenge, and there’s no government oversight.”

While no one on Capitol Hill has publicly suggested revisiting a nationwide ban, there has recently been some movement toward regulation.

Rep. Paul Tonko (D-N.Y.) introduced a bill last year that sought to ban all online and TV advertising related to sports gambling, modeled after the Public Health Cigarette Smoking Act, a 1970 federal law that banned tobacco advertisements. That bill hasn’t moved out of subcommittee, and this week Tonko announced plans for an updated, more aggressive version.

Tonko’s proposed legislation would also take aim at gambling operators’ promotional offers that entice bettors; bar customers from making deposits with credit cards or from making more than five deposits in a 24-hour period; and prohibit companies from using artificial intelligence to track customers.

In January, Blumenthal introduced a bill that treats problem gambling as a public health matter. Among other things, his bill seeks to direct the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to divert money to states to address problem gambling. A corresponding House bill was introduced by Rep. Andrea Salinas (D-Ore.).

Blumenthal this week wrote letters to eight leading sports gambling companies, urging them to do more for treatment and problem gambling. The federal government provides nothing for gambling addiction, he noted, even as billions go toward the treatment for drugs, alcohol and tobacco. Blumenthal says his bill would funnel $50 million to $100 million to states to treat problem gambling.

“You put the most addictive behavior on the most addictive device,” said Derek Webb, head of the Campaign for Fairer Gambling. “What could go wrong?”

The NFL, America’s largest sporting power, just concluded a season that saw it grapple with policies and penalties for player gambling on sports. It placed the Super Bowl in Las Vegas. It has licensed its content for ESPN to create a football-specific betting show, and it works with sports betting companies to provide online betting games.

But the league, whose massive television rights deal makes it immune from the financial pressure felt by MLB and NBA teams as the cable rights-fee model teeters, is careful not to saturate its main telecasts with gambling content.

“Our philosophy is, every gambler is an NFL fan, but not every NFL fan is a gambler,” NFL Chief Media and Business Officer Brian Rolapp said Thursday during a Washington Post Live event. “What you don’t see in our broadcast is an inundation of betting lines and spreads.” Rolapp added that the integrity of games remains “sacrosanct” for the league.

Scarred by the 1919 Black Sox scandal that threatened professional baseball’s existence, sports leagues for decades fought to keep sports betting illegal out of fear fans would question the legitimacy of the games. Nearly 50 years ago, Commissioners Pete Rozelle and Bowie Kuhn testified before Congress and pleaded to prevent legal sports betting. Their words now seem like a prophetic warning.

“No one does, or could, dispute the absolute necessity of keeping our game free not only from scandal but, even more so, from suspicion of scandal,” said the NFL’s Rozelle.

“Where there is heavy gambling,” the MLB’s Kuhn added in the same hearing, “the suspicion of dishonesty will inevitably follow.”

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Rick Maese and Ben Strauss contributed to this report.

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