Last year’s NBA Finals caught the attention of casual fans and bettors alike when injury news surfaced following the Cleveland Cavaliers loss to the Golden State Warriors. We learned later that LeBron James’ hand was more injured than the Cavaliers and the NBA were reporting via the league’s injury report.
The NBA’s Dan Spillane stated that he did not envision the league providing detailed information on hundreds of injuries across the league.
Of course, what Spillane and others who maintain this position are doing is encouraging a black market within sports betting for the trafficking in injury information by team employees or bystanders who overhear these lucrative nuggets of information.
Basketball not alone on injury reports
Professional golf is also seemingly engaged in an internal struggle over what information to reveal about injuries. The news comes after Jason Day pulled out of the Arnold Palmer Invitational, but was subsequently photographed taking in all that the Disney theme parks had to offer in Orlando.
Kevin Kisner of the PGA Tour’s Player Advisory Council, stated that injury information is not anyone else’s business. The PGA Tour, of course, has come out in support of an integrity fee and the mandated use of official data, but has remained quiet on the availability of detailed injury reports.
The value of inside information
As Dan Moldea documented in his book, Interference: How Organized Crime Influences Professional Football, “inside information is key for organized-crime figures,” obtaining access to injury information when it happens.
An example could be learning of an injury that occurred Monday during practice that is not subsequently revealed publicly until later, allowing corrupters to get action down at more favorable lines.
Moldea quotes G. Robert Blakey, formerly of the Justice Department, who stated:
“The Mafia wants an honest game because they know they have the contacts within the NFL teams to determine how to bet as accurately as possible. That’s the only edge they need. Providing inside information happens every week of the season. And that’s what goes to the heart of the integrity of the NFL.”
A closer look at NFL injury reports
The NFL’s release of the injury report was designed to put everyone on a level playing field and eliminate (or at least lessen) the market for inside information.
The launch of the injury report came decades ago after Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Bobby Layne was photographed with an injured passing arm in the week prior to a game against Washington, resulting in a major change in the betting line.
Commissioner Pete Rozelle instituted a formal policy that teams had to file injury reports twice weekly during the season and mark injured players within one of four categories:
This policy replaced a several-decades old policy of injury reporting at less-frequent intervals.
According to Moldea’s interview with an unnamed NFL executive:
“It’s just a matter of making sure that the gamblers and the bookmakers don’t have a monopoly on this kind of information. We publish injury reports so that it becomes common knowledge, taking the edge away from professional gamblers.”
The NFL’s modern injury report
The NFL’s injury report has evolved and contains three distinct sections: participation in practice; status for the next game; and in-game injuries.
In 2016, the NFL removed the probable designation. The NFL attributed this to a high percentage of those labeled probable actually playing.
This has created a grey area with banged-up players now possibly being pushed to a questionable label, and creating an increased market for more detail about injuries.
NBA modernizes on injury reports
After the LeBron hand debacle during the 2018 Finals, the NBA moved to add some additional clarity, releasing new rules for injury reporting before the 2018-2019 season.
NBA teams must report information concerning player injuries, illnesses and rest for all NBA games.
By 5 p.m. local time on the day before a game (other than the second day of a back-to-back), teams must designate a participation status and identify a specific injury, illness or potential instance of a healthy player resting for any player whose participation in the game may be affected by such injury, illness or rest.
For the second game of a back-to-back, teams must report the above information by 1 p.m. local time on the day of the game.
The league then issues reports at 1:30 p.m., 5:30 p.m., and 8:30 p.m.
NHL’s puzzling vagueness on injuries
The NHL has been historically criticized for the vagueness with which it delivers injury information.
Typically referencing half the body, with either ‘upper body‘ or ‘lower body‘ denotations, or even simply labeling an injury as undisclosed.
The party line has been that revealing an exact location of an injury would enable opponents to target the injured player’s vulnerability. Of course, this also leaves anyone who uses that information with minimal detail on how the injury might change the player’s style of play.
The policy stems from 2008 meeting of general managers, who doubled down on the policy allowing for vagueness of player injuries. The policy also came nearly a decade before legal sports betting spread outside of Nevada, and despite the NHL making up a small portion of sportsbooks revenue in Nevada, there is still a market for NHL injury information.
The NHL’s seeming embrace of legal sports betting while holding an antiquated injury report policy does not equate to favorable outcomes for integrity. By concealing the specifics of injury information, the NHL is creating value in the information and creating a marketplace for those in possession of the information.
Major League Baseball’s injured list
Baseball employs the injured list (formerly known as the disabled list), which lists players out for a minimum of seven days.
But there is little information beyond that released by players or coaches regarding players who may be not be at full strength, with the lineup release typically serving as the first indication of who is good to go.
Major League Baseball has elected to delay the release of this information, creating a window of opportunity for those possessing knowledge of injuries to profit.
Sunlight is the best disinfectant?
The great irony of the debate over releasing starting lineups and injury information is that this is one aspect that the leagues could commodify.
This is non-public information that the leagues hold, and they are well within their rights to distribute the information how they please, including for profit.
But commodifying injury information for chosen providers would destroy any argument that the sports leagues value any sense of integrity, as selling injury information would be naked rent-seeking.
If leagues want to protect the integrity of the games and the betting market, injury reports should be detailed, timely, and accurate. If not, the leagues are asking for unauthorized trafficking in non-public information.