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Pro sports feels harsh spotlight of gambling scandals, now visible in legal market

Well-paid athletes shouldn’t be likely to run into trouble with gambling, right?

Tell that to Shohei Ohtani, the MLB superstar with a $700-million US contract, whose former interpreter stands accused of illicitly taking over $16 million US from the ballplayer’s bank account — allegedly to pay off his own gambling debts. U.S. authorities say Ohtani didn’t know about the activities.

The NHL’s Shane Pinto, meanwhile, saw his hockey season and his $775,000 US salary cut in half, due to a gambling-related suspension for the Ottawa Senators forward, though there was no evidence found that he’d bet on NHL games.

There’s also Jontay Porter, until recently a Toronto Raptors player, who reportedly banked more than $2 million US in earnings during a short pro career that has come to a crashing halt. He’s now banned for life from the league, after an investigation determined that he had bet on NBA games and limited his time on the court — on at least one occasion — for betting purposes.

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Raptor Jontay Porter banned for life from NBA over betting violation

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Toronto Raptors player Jontay Porter has been banned for life from the NBA after violating the league’s gambling rules. Investigators found Porter shared his health status and limited his playing time for betting purposes, and also placed bets on at least 13 NBA games using another individual’s online account.

With top-tier pro leagues dealing with a mounting series of gambling-related scandals, it raises the question of what, if anything, can be done to limit future episodes of this nature.

Jeremy Luke, president and CEO of the Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport (CCES), isn’t surprised at what has occurred. And he expects to see more of the same, unless sports organizations and authorities take steps to educate players about gambling-related risks and to ensure relevant policies are in place to prevent competitive manipulation and match-fixing.

“Until we do that, I think this could be the tip of the iceberg,” said Luke, who believes Canada has been slow to see the full risks that gambling can pose for athletes, at various levels of competition.

Big money, big growth

Sports gambling wasn’t broadly legal in much of Canada or the United States until relatively recently. The industry has grown rapidly in the wake of these changes.

The U.S. Supreme Court opened the door for individual states to permit sports betting in 2018. Nearly 40 states now allow it.

Canada legalized single-event sports betting in August 2021, and, the following spring, Ontario was the first to launch a regulated sports betting program.

Gambling-related advertising is seen in the background as Toronto Blue Jays reliever Génesis Cabrera throws a pitch at the Rogers Centre.
Gambling-related advertising is seen in the background as Toronto Blue Jays reliever Génesis Cabrera throws a pitch at the Rogers Centre on Wednesday. (Nick Turchiaro/USA TODAY Sports)

Ontario bettors are now placing billions of dollars in wagers on an annual basis — though the full-court press on the promotional front for sports betting has led to pushback from sports fans and politicians alike.

Brian Masse, a New Democrat MP from southwestern Ontario who advocated for the legalization of sports betting, believes the advertising needs to be further tamped down, despite a tightening of regulations that has occurred.

“I find it absurd that they have commercials on about gambling during the actual game,” said Masse, whose Windsor West riding is home to a casino.

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Masse says the move to bring sports betting into a legal arena has potentially made scandals more visible to the public, as a part of a general culture shift.

Michael Naraine, an associate sports management professor at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ont., agrees: “These are the types of things that were obviously going to come to the forefront with a legal, regulated marketplace.”

Research and education

But Naraine sees a need for the Ontario government to do more — in particular, to allocate needed funding for research about sports gambling and education, too. 

Maple Leafs centre Auston Matthews (left) is seen celebrating a goal he scored, alongside teammate Jake McCabe (right), during a April 1, 2024 game against the Florida Panthers in Toronto.
An ad for a sports betting service is seen on the boards at Scotiabank Arena, behind Maple Leafs centre Auston Matthews (left), as he celebrates scoring a goal during an April 1 game against the Florida Panthers. (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press)

Jack Fazzari, a spokesperson for Ontario’s attorney general, told CBC News that the provincial government recently invested $9 million in the Responsible Internet Gambling Fund “to improve outreach and education campaigns on gambling.”

Naraine said it’s not just athletes who need to understand the risks associated with sports gambling, but also consumers — including minors who will eventually be part of the next generation of gamblers.

Athletes, however, need specific guidance on what is definitely considered out of bounds.

Jim Brown, a sport-integrity executive at technology firm Sportradar, said via email that athletes need “continued, targeted education” covering “sports-betting rules and regulations, their personal responsibilities, and how to guard against match-fixing approaches.”

Brown said data from the global sport world shows that “higher salaries for athletes act as a deterrent for match-fixing,” though that doesn’t mean high-level athletes are “immune” to it.

And while deep-pocketed leagues have the capacity to educate players and to put preventative measures in place, he said these resources may be “lacking or non-existent” below the top levels of sport. 

Stronger policy

The CCES’s Luke concurs that having a legal market has allowed for some guardrails, but the major money that sports gambling attracts and the promotional hype driving participation contribute to its risks.

This week, the CCES issued its first draft of a new program to prevent competition manipulation. The sports-integrity watchdog also wants Canada to sign the Council of Europe Convention on the Manipulation of Sports Competitions — known as the Macolin Convention

More than 30 European nations, as well as Australia and Monaco, have signed on to the treaty that aims to clamp down on match-fixing, and work to prevent it from occurring, via co-operation between authorities, sports leagues and gambling operators.

“Competition manipulation is a major threat to the integrity of sport worldwide. There is a direct link between sport betting and competition manipulation,” Sports Minister Carla Qualtrough told CBC News in an emailed statement.

“The highest principle of sport is fair competition — a standard that needs to be maintained at all times.”

Qualtrough said Ottawa is “engaging on the international stage to address the threat of competition manipulation, and we hope to have more to share on that in the near future.”

The minister also said the government is committed to working with the provinces, territories and stakeholders “to address the prevalence and promotion of illegal sport betting in Canada.”

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