While sports gambling has always existed in US society, the practice was largely illegal outside of Nevada in the continental United States. While many sportsbooks would register and operate outside of the US while targeting US citizens, the reality is that only the most committed gamblers would partake in the practice.

In 1992, the United States Congress passed the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act (PASPA), which effectively prohibited the legalization of sports betting in the country, with some minor exceptions.

This was the status quo until 2018 when the United States Supreme Court ruled that the ban on sports betting conflicted with the Tenth Amendment. Since this decision, gambling has been legalized in 38 states.

While sports betting has become big business in the US – it was estimated that over $20 billion had been wagered in the two years following the Supreme Court’s decision – the impact socially has taken longer to become evident. But some troubling signs are starting to appear.

In the past month, Baseball has been rocked by a scandal involving Japanese star Shohei Ohtani, in which it is alleged that his friend and former interpreter stole from him to place and cover sports bets.

Ohtani has denied all involvement and said he has never bet on sports. With the new Major League Baseball (MLB) season underway, this is not the type of coverage that MLB needs but there can be no denying that sports leagues are complicit in this.

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MLB has deals with FanDuel, DraftKings, and BetMGM as official sports betting partners. The conflict is evident – on the one hand, sports leagues want no part of any associated scandal, on the other they partner with betting firms as a means of driving fan engagement.

According to the GlobalData Sport Sponsorship Sector Report – Gambling & Betting Americas, in May 2023 there were 278 active deals between sports leagues and teams in the Americas worth over $3.3 billion.

Basketball represents the most lucrative market for gambling and betting sector spend, with 22.8% of annual spending in the region dedicated towards this at an estimated annual spend of $211.2 million, and the sport is now dealing with a real scandal.

Toronto Raptors center Jontay Porter, a two-way contract player who has only just made it to the league after a series of injuries curtailed a promising career, is under investigation for a series of prop bets being placed against his stats.

Prop bets are player-specific, so if a player achieves a certain number of rebounds or scores a certain amount of three-pointers, those bets come in regardless of the score in the game itself.

DraftKings, an official betting partner of the NBA, flagged several irregularities, namely that large sums, five figures in some cases, were being placed against Porter’s stats in certain games, with bettors ‘taking the under’ in betting parlance, in essence saying that Porter would not achieve a minimum number.

Porter left two games in which he played after a short time, citing injury, guaranteeing that he wouldn’t hit the milestones and a winning bet. While it is one thing to bet on LeBron James or Steph Curry hitting 30 points, it is another to bet on a largely anonymous player and the high volume of bets on Porter has set off the alarms.

Porter, brother of Michael Porter Jnr. of the Denver Nuggets, is now suspended pending the investigation. While it is unknown who placed the bets, the worst-case scenario is that Porter bet on himself, which damages the integrity of the sport.

Porter and Ohtani are not the first examples of betting causing issues in US sports, with baseball no stranger to scandal. In 1919, nine members of the Chicago White Sox were accused of throwing the World Series at the behest of a gambling syndicate, while baseball legend Pete Rose became infamous for betting on baseball games and even on his own team to lose.

Basketball is no stranger to scandal either, with referee Tim Donaghy under investigation by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) for betting on games he was officiating, something he later admitted and served a prison sentence for.

Betting scandals are not merely restricted to these two sports however, with NFL player Calvin Ridley suspended for a full season in 2022 for betting on NFL games. While these scandals relate to the integrity of the game and can call into question the results, a far darker side may be emerging.

By promoting sports betting through various partnerships, US sports leagues suggest to fans that gambling and betting on sports games is a fun pastime. While most fans may place the odd wager, some will bet nightly and potentially run up ruinous debts. The impact on players and coaches is already being felt.

Cleveland Cavaliers coach J.B. Bickerstaff said recently: “They got my telephone number and were sending me crazy messages about where I live and my kids and all that stuff … 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 is something I believe has gone too far.”

Meanwhile, Indiana Pacers guard Tyrese Haliburton highlighted the issue recently by saying: “To half the world, I’m just helping them make money on DraftKings or whatever.”

Other NBA players such as Jayson Tatum and Cole Anthony have expressed similar concerns.

While players have said the verbal abuse they get on court has changed to include comments about gambling, and how their performances have affected bets placed, this has so far remained at a verbal level. What many will fear is if this escalates to something beyond verbal abuse.

With money at stake, the challenge to remain level-headed in the face of losses will be great, and leagues and teams must take their fair share of accountability.

With in-game bets now running live on some broadcasts, the US’ gambling addiction is likely to get worse before it gets better, hopefully without any dramatic consequences.