Most NBA fans know, by now, that Cleveland Cavaliers star LeBron James injured his hand after Game 1 of the NBA Finals.
The Golden State Warriors, of course, went on to sweep the series in four games, something they might have done if James had been 100 percent healthy or not. He gutted it out in the final three games, and apparently few people knew about his injury.
But the situation brings up a whole host of questions for the NBA, which has directly inserted itself into the discussion of how sports betting should be regulated in the US.
The NBA wants to have lots of say on sports betting…
We know this much about the NBA: It isn’t going away on the issue of legal sports betting in the US until it gets its way on how it will be regulated. The league — and its lobbying partner Major League Baseball — wants, at core:
- Integrity fees/royalties
- Control of data sources for offering and resolving wagers
- Control of types of bets taken
- Coordination with regulators on integrity matters
There’s more to it than that, and the devil is in the details, but that’s what the NBA wants from a bird’s-eye view.
If the NBA gets all of this in sports betting laws, one could argue it puts a lot more of the onus on the league for what goes on on the court vis a vis sports betting.
Which takes us to the LeBron situation in the NBA Finals.
Injury reporting and sports betting
Let’s start here: I am not accusing James, the Cavs, the NBA or anyone connected to the situation of doing anything nefarious. This is an exercise in hypotheticals and what responsibilities leagues have in the future when it comes to sports betting, whether they are getting a cut or a say, or not.
Injury reporting by teams — already an issue that creates shenanigans in many US sports in the current environment — will come front and center in the future. And that’s especially true if leagues are as heavily involved with sports betting as they are intimating they want to be.
The NBA tells us that sports betting operators have a huge obligation to the leagues to help them ensure that they aren’t casting doubt on the integrity of their games. But shouldn’t the same hold true in the opposite direction? Shouldn’t the leagues try to be as transparent as possible when it comes to information that could affect the outcomes of sports bets?
Let’s go down the rabbit hole…
The LeBron injury is a great example. James got hurt, and wanted to keep it secret for obvious competitive reasons that had nothing to do with sports betting. He was going to play in the series anyway, and he didn’t want to let on that he was hurt if he could avoid it. That’s totally understandable.
But there was obviously a decently large circle of people who knew about the injury, although we don’t how wide that circle went. But it appears James went so far as to wear a soft cast between games and had two MRI’s, according to ESPN’s Brian Windhorst.
We also don’t know how much the injury affected James, but it’s fair to think it had at least a slightly negative effect on him and the Cavs, even if his underlying statistics were good.
All of this raises this question: Can the NBA guarantee that no one placed a bet on the Warriors or a prop bet involving James because they had information about his injury? I think that’s a question worth asking in today’s environment, and I highly doubt the NBA can answer that question beyond a shadow of a doubt.
So what is the NBA (or any league’s) responsibility here?
If the NBA wants to portend doom and gloom will ensue without its very visible and vocal presence in the legal sports betting industry, the league owes us more than silence or lip service on issues such as this.
In the future, can the leagues support players hiding injuries that are sustained before a game is played and wagered on? The leagues and their franchises almost certainly have to have near 100 percent transparency when it comes to injury reporting, otherwise sports gambling outcomes are suddenly up for a lot more scrutiny.
- Will the NBA require more accurate injury reporting?
- If the league does, will there be penalties for teams that violate the rules, and will they be strict enough that teams will follow them?
- If teams hide or downplay injuries, can the NBA guarantee that wagers aren’t being placed by people with inside information?
These are questions the NBA could largely avoid or brush aside in the past, as they have largely been passive actors in the sports betting space. But if they assume an active role, any and all criticism would be warranted. And injury reporting could only be the tip of the iceberg.
LeBron’s hand injury affected the games on the court, but it also affected wagering on those games, unbeknownst to pretty much anyone who had money riding on the outcomes of Games 2 through 4.
Are the NBA and other pro leagues ready for the level of scrutiny that comes with their preferred policy positions when it comes to sports gambling? I am not so sure.