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Pro sports have a gambling problem. How did we get here, and how bad is it?

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

Pro sports has a gambling problem. The NBA banned backup Jontay Porter for life for gambling on NBA games. Shohei Ohtani, the biggest name in baseball, had to explain how his interpreter stole and gambled $180 million of Ohtani's money. Two huge gambling scandals, and Jason Gay says they likely won't be the last. Gay is a sports columnist for The Wall Street Journal, and he joins us now. Welcome to the program.

JASON GAY: I appreciate that. Thank you.

RASCOE: So you're saying that global embarrassment for Ohtani and a lifetime ban for Porter won't serve as a wake-up call. Why do you say that?

GAY: I mean, it's very hard to watch television these days, especially sports television, and not be inundated with advertisements for legalized apps which make gambling easier than ever from our fingertips, from our living room while we're watching games. And, you know, that behavior that the public is being asked to participate in - well, athletes are no different from that. Most leagues have rules about betting on their own sports. However, in many instances, they are free to bet on others. So the opportunity is there. The technology is there. And just given the odds, you know, it's one bet I'm willing to make.

RASCOE: OK. For people who don't know a lot about the gambling apps, you can make a lot of bets, right?

GAY: That's right. So for example, if you're picking a winner in a specific game, you know, that's one bet. However, there's a whole other world of what's known as proposition bets or prop bets, and these are bets that can be based on individual performances. X player will score this amount, this many rebounds. You can almost think of anything under the sun, and it's an availability.

You know, in the case of Jontay Porter, you mentioned that he got the lifetime ban from the NBA for betting on NBA games. That's true. In addition to that, though, the NBA declared that he had provided inside information about himself to people who were placing bets. So he was actually participating in a scheme in order for somebody else to profit off of his performance in a game or, in his case, lack of performance in the game because he actually took himself out of a game in order to sort of achieve this statistical low amount in order for the person to win or the people to win.

RASCOE: So for decades, pro and college sports kept gambling at arm's length, I mean, at least publicly. What made them change their minds and kind of embrace sports betting in some instances?

GAY: It's always easy to give the one-word answer, money, right? You know, that's the primary driver here. But a lot of things were colliding all at once - the Supreme Court decision striking down the national prohibition on it, allowing states to vote on it for themselves. That certainly paved the way. Leagues have talked about the idea that legalization and putting these bets in public, under sunshine, sort of creates a transparency that would actually tamp down the amount of shenanigans. You know, that is potentially an upside here, but it's not without considerable downside. And you're already seeing the kind of reconsideration, whether it's the NCAA and Adam Silver himself this week in penalizing Porter talked about some reconsideration, perhaps, of the way that these applications apply to NBA action.

RASCOE: Well, I mean, so do you think, though, that we're past the point of no return when it comes to gambling overall? But there may be changes in how it's done, especially because, you know, people want to know these games aren't rigged and that they are real, you know, athletic endeavors and not, you know, somehow being manipulated.

GAY: Well, that's 100% accurate. That integrity is the absolute baseline expectation for all sports. The moment that people feel that what they're seeing is not really accurate or has been somehow manipulated, you're talking about losing an audience permanently, if not for generations. The competing issue, though, is that all sports are looking for alternative streams of revenue.

Legalizing betting, getting into business with gaming - it's a revenue stream that is also a hedge against the volatility that exists around these sports. It's a way to make sure that money is coming in because they know that there's a certain population of people who are always going to be betting that they can realize. And prior to that, they weren't able to realize one penny of it.

RASCOE: That's Jason Gay of The Wall Street Journal. Thank you so much for joining us.

GAY: I appreciate it. Goodbye.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.