NBA Gambling Gone Pete Rose Wrong: Players on the Take

(originally published May 19, 2018)

Gambling is here, but sports leagues like the NBA have to take a deep breath. Proceed with caution and prepare for consequences. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver has to consider what happened to Metta World Peace when a gambler offered to pay him large sums of money to fix a game. It’s particularly easy to do. Miss a free throw here and there. Take a Steph Curry three and miss badly. World Peace declined the gamblers request but the whole saga soured him on the prospects of gambling being legal.

Easy money via gambling is a lure addicted players or desperate players or angry players won’t be able to turn down. Regardless of how the CBA is restructured to prevent gambling cheats from infecting the game, no sports league can legislate behavior. All they can do is live with the consequences. And that is the potential problem, the elephant in the room no one wants to discuss. What happens when players cheat?

Thinking they won’t is head in the sand naive. Every industry has crooks who game the system for their benefit. However, sports is the only industry where cheating ruins the product. Because sports is a fragile contract between fans and athletes, a fixing games scandal has the potential to ruin everything.

Professional sports follow the same basic prescription that isn’t complicated: fairness and achievement under stress. Short circuiting the foundation makes it a product to be manipulated. It’s Armageddon. Fans feels lied to. The marriage is broken. Fans, like a betrayed spouse, rebel. They want out.

The NBA already has a conspiracy problem. More than any other sport, there is the perception that the league promotes players (LeBron James, Steph Curry), teams (Lakers, Bulls, Celtics), markets (big over small), conferences (Western), coaches (Brad Stevens, Steve Kerr). When Draymond Green gets a technical foul the armchair sports psychologists blame his impulse control. When James Harden gets a technical foul it’s because the refs are out to get him.  Add gambling to the mix and suddenly everyone is on the take. It explains every loss, every missed shot, every mistake. Money is changing hands under the table. Trust is siphoned off at the top.

Let’s consider James Harden for a moment. He goes to the free-throw line more than any other player, often frustrating his opponents. Pretty soon there is going to be the bookie got to somebody narrative.

The NBA is more vulnerable to gambling crime because it is the only league where one player is the difference between the lottery and the playoffs. If the Toronto Raptors had drafted Skal Labissiere instead of Pascal Siakam in the 2016 draft they might not have an NBA title. Such a narrow margin between struggling and competitive makes the league highly susceptible to negative influences and corrupt men. It doesn’t have to be the elite players targeted. In fact, the elite players won’t be targeted. They have too much to lose. But the role player who doesn’t rebound and misses shots on purpose and gets ejected effects the point spread on purpose.

You know the unwritten rule of the NBA. When time is running out you dribble the ball out. You don’t pad your stats. The game is over and respect for the opponent is legitimized by both sides. But with a point spread and money on the line, a basket with five seconds left may in effect change the dynamics of the point spread.

Once, I was in Vegas at a Sports Book. I was watching football games on the big screen. I was researching sports gamblers from the gamblers perspective of profit and loss, euphoria, and devastation. I remember a man who I will call Steven who had bet heavily on the Indianapolis Colts. Heavily meaning tens of thousands of dollars. I still remember his face with his sagging eyes attached to the screen as if his life depended on the outcome which I suppose it did; it was the unfortunate sad part. So much to gain. So much to lose.

The Colts scored ensuring a point spread win within the last two minutes. And then the Seahawks ran the ball back, a good special teams effort. A field goal with time running out didn’t change the score but altered the point spread. The Colts won the game but the Seahawks won the spread. Steven’s face collapsed. He buried his head in his hands; he began mumbling, my money, my money, my money. It was depressing but real.

Addicted sports gamblers live on a tightrope of desperation. They are beholden to men they do not know, men who hold their financial solvency in their hands.

The NBA cannot prevent gambling addiction nor can they prevent players willing to cash in by altering games they think are meaningless. The NBA will be required to rewrite rules. No mercy for first-time offenders, a lifetime ban. It’s not just players but coaches too and team personnel. Betting on NBA games by players and team officials has to be against the rules like performance-enhancing drugs are against the rules.

In a way gambling is a performance-enhancing drug. The drug is money. It affects performance.

Pete Rose, one of the greatest hitters in the storied history of Major League Baseball is shut out of the Hall of  Fame and a pariah because he bet on 52 baseball games in 1986, according to the Dowd Report. The bets were a minimum of $10,000. Whether he bet on the Reds has been debated for thirty years.

Pete Rose is evidence A to everyone who believes elite players are not vulnerable to the addictions of gambling. Addictions don’t jump over the greatest players in the sport and land on the run of the mill average. Addiction is an equal opportunity.

The marriage between social media and sports gambling intensifies the relationship between feast and famine. Sports leagues are going to have to prepare for the worst before it happens. They cannot pretend it isn’t there and doesn’t exist. Fans are the lifeblood of any sports league. Without fans, the league disappears. How do you create trust? How do you keep fans?

A sports death penalty, that’s how. A lifetime ban for the player or executive or coach or referee who is a gambling cheat. Influence legislation and make it a criminal offense, a felony. 10 years in federal prison.

Harsh. But necessary.