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Jontay Porter, Sports Betting, & the Integrity of the Game

The NBA’s continued integration of sports betting has presented new challenges, and the banning of Jontay Porter could be just the beginning

A mere month ago, most basketball fans had never heard of Jontay Porter. Today, he is perhaps the last person that the NBA wants you to know. Porter was a role player for the Toronto Raptors, appearing in 26 games this season averaging 4.4 points, 3.2 rebounds, and 2.3 assists per game. Now, he will never play in another NBA game, after being banned for life by the league for violating the league’s gambling policy by disclosing confidential information to bettors and limiting his participation in games to win bets.

In the wake of Porter’s ban, NBA commissioner Adam Silver has called what transpired a “cardinal sin” in the NBA. The league is concerned about its integrity in the wake of this scandal, particularly now that the NBA and other American leagues have fully embraced promoting gambling. The banning of Porter feels like the NBA is making an example of a fringe player that may not have been on a roster at the start of next season. But his actions indicate a deeper issue with the culture of sports when it comes to legalized gambling, and he will not be the last player to test the limits of the gambling policy in professional sports.

The Integrity of the Game

In the wake of the Jontay Porter suspension, the term integrity has been used a lot by the NBA. There’s a good reason for that. The NBA, and every American sports league for that matter, are deeply invested in the perception of their sports purity. They would like to avoid the notion that there are nefarious activities happening behind the scenes that would compromise the outcome of games.

Their fear is well founded. Basketball especially has been the subject of various bans for point shaving scandals in the 1950s and 1960s in addition to the now infamous 2007 betting scandal involving former referee Tim Donaghy. These two moments in basketball history have painted the sport as potentially tainted in the eyes of multiple generations of fans. There are often conclusions that are drawn when certain outcomes occur that the “league wanted this matchup” or the implication that the results of a game or playoff series are predetermined, much like the plot line from a professional wrestling match in the WWE or AEW.

The point of suspending Porter and the resignation of Tim Donaghy in the wake of their respective scandals was to send a message to the league and fans alike, that the league was serious about being tough on gambling. Some, like Noa Dalzell from Celtics Blog, have argued that the outrage for gambling rings hollow when the league has been so weak in policing its players in cases of domestic violence among others. And she has a point in a sense of inconsistency of severity.

The cynical and cold part of me understands, however, that Porter was likely made an example of because he was likely an injury or bad stretch away from being out of the NBA as a two-way contract player. It then became easier to send a message through being harsh on him as opposed to a more established player. It is also true that while a player having a domestic violence charge against them can be looked at by the league as a bad apple situation (even though it is much more widespread than anyone is willing to concede in the league offices) while betting on games throws the entire legitimacy of the NBA apparatus. It is particularly damning in this case, when you consider just how embedded gambling is in the NBA today.

Gambling Money

If you have watched an NBA game this season, it is very likely that you have seen advertisements and promotions for DraftKings and FanDuel Sportsbooks. This is because both companies are the official sports betting partners of the NBA. This has meant more prominent displays of the point spreads and over/under totals before games start. It has also meant segment breaks to live bet while the game is going on. We have also seen announcers doing ad reads for these sportsbooks, and for many it feels like an oversaturation of betting promotions in sports.

Recently, the NBA has announced an option for subscribers of its League Pass service to infuse live betting and add deeper integration of the sport and its betting partners. Sports betting is going nowhere in the context of the NBA and other sports leagues. The sports betting industry posted record revenue totals, with $11 billion generated in 2023. The reason for this success comes down to one important aspect: ease of access.

In the past, betting on games involved being in a city like Las Vegas to place bets at a sportsbook, having a bookie, or using offshore betting websites. All these options were not feasible to the average person that just wanted to bet on their favorite basketball or football team. The advent of the smartphone and minimized vilification on gambling has allowed us to be able to place bets in a couple of taps without needing to go anywhere or speak to anyone. Sports betting is now fully legal in 38 states, meaning the access for Americans to bet on games has never been simpler than it is today.

Now when we look at this from the perspective of a player it is easy to see the slippery slope that occurs. Athletes all have smartphones, and they all have access to download a sports betting app and place wagers if they are within a state that has legalized sports betting. The NBA has prohibited its players from betting on the league (the NFL has done the same with its players), but the access and loopholes around the process has led to temptation and players entering a gray area over what is allowed and what isn’t. All of this has resulted in a culture of gambling that fans and players alike are now navigating.

Fans of Sports, Enthusiasts of Money

A while ago I was having a conversation with a friend who frequently bets on sports. I was on the phone with him and he randomly yelled in excitement. When I asked him what happened, he told me that the Russian hockey team that he bet on just won him some money. I remember being puzzled at why he would wager money on something he knew nothing about and had no intention of watching. But he did, and the joy that he expressed over the phone is why America has fallen in love with sports betting.

By 2028, the online gambling industry is projected to grow to a market size of $33 billion. One of the side effects of the integration of gambling with the leagues is that many who do not gamble have started to feel that its ubiquity in the coverage feels like a selling your soul moment. Those that do gamble have become enamored with the opportunity to win money through player props, point spreads, and parlays. This fascination has led to toxic behavior by fans in stadiums and online, where they harass players for not performing and causing them to lose their bets.

It begs the question, are most people sports fans or do they just love gambling? What makes Jontay Porter’s actions so bad is that he was trying to make additional money on himself in the worst way possible (by betting on his lack of performance), leaving games to win the bets, and then betting on his team to lose games. For anyone that values integrity in sports, his actions spit in the face of the spirit of those values. Other players have been caught and penalized for gambling, and it seems like the general advice by the leagues has been to bet on sports, just don’t bet on the sport you play.

That last part is the most important one because players betting on the league is almost akin to insider trading. They have knowledge and relationships to players and coaches across the league that would present an advantage when wagering (in theory). Additionally, players betting on games within their league feels a little too transactional and takes some of the joy out of sports. Many fans will decry the hypocrisy of leagues accepting money from sportsbooks when it seems that there are so many negative aspects to it. But the key to remember will always be that betting creates interest in a game and will only drive more viewership, which means the partnerships will remain.

With that being said, the NBA and other sports leagues are facing a perception issue where the public views the entrance of betting and all the advertising it entails to the sports world as a deal with the devil. Leagues moving forward will need to enable guard rails around players betting in addition to more vigilant policing of when players place wagers. The NFL’s policy of banning any gambling at team facilities seems like a good policy that other leagues can adapt and use as well. As sports fans we know that we are passionate about a game that is played by millionaires and financed by billionaires. The rapid integration of gambling reminds us all too well of this reality and we run the risk of losing the magic of sports, and players betting against themselves is the quickest way to disintegrate the love that we have for these silly games. 

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