For the past several decades, professional and amateur sports leagues in the United States have told Americans and policymakers that the biggest potential threat to the integrity of their competitions is sports betting.
That rhetoric from the leagues has only ramped up in the past year and a half since the fall of the federal sports betting ban and the proliferation of legal gambling options.
I am here to tell you that sports betting is not, in fact, the biggest threat to the integrity of the games. That’s not to dismiss gambling on sports as a substantial threat, but it’s also not routinely affecting game outcomes.
Officiating is a problem
What is affecting game integrity and outcomes regularly? Bad officiating, and decisions made by the leagues themselves. There have been some particularly egregious examples just in the past few days:
- In a Major League Baseball playoff game between the Yankees and the Astros, an umpire called a phantom foul tip on what should have been a strikeout. The same umpire then proceeded to call a ball as a strike in what appears to have been a makeup call for the prior missed call. No one was happy.
- In a Monday Night Football game between Green Bay and Detroit, two late penalties that almost everyone disagreed with helped to affect the outcome.
- Everyone also appears to agree that the baseballs have been changed — or unjuiced — for the playoffs, which is obviously a huge problem for game integrity and for the integrity of betting on the games as well.
And those are just a few of the most recent and examples. The NFL game was so bad that people on Twitter were widely joking — or wondering — if the referees fixed the outcome. (This was almost certainly not the case, but it still led to conspiracy theories.)
Refs bet the Packers. Change my mind
— Big Cat (@BarstoolBigCat) October 15, 2019
Here is what sports leagues have said about betting
All of these shenanigans come with the backdrop of sports betting — not officiating — is portrayed as the biggest issue for integrity.
Other than the Tim Donaghy scandal in the NBA, none of the other major US pro sports have knowingly been materially affected by gambling from an integrity standpoint in recent years. (It’s important to note that sports betting already went on widely in Nevada and via offshore illegal sportsbooks in the US before the 2018 Supreme Court decision.)
Here is a refresher on some of what we have heard from people connected to pro sports in the past in terms of “integrity” and sports betting.
- NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell: “As it was for my predecessors, there is no greater priority for me as the Commissioner of the National Football League than protecting the integrity of our sport. Our fans, our players and our coaches deserve to know that we are doing everything possible to ensure no improper influences affect how the game is played on the field. This week’s ruling by the Supreme Court has no effect on that unwavering commitment.”
- MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred: “We will never delegate responsibility for those integrity issues to state regulators, whatever their expertise in the gambling area may be. We have our own expertise and no one is more motivated than the commissioner’s office of baseball to make sure that there is no threat to the integrity of our sport.”
- Former MLB Commissioner Bud Selig: “[G]ambling on a sport, on any sport but on this sport is what you want to talk to me about, is I think the deadliest of all things that can happen. It’s evil; it creates doubt and destroys your sport.”
Officials don’t have to be perfect, but …
Meanwhile, we get none of the same rhetoric about officiating from the leagues. Certainly, no one expects officials to be 100% perfect. But I think we do expect more than lip service to obvious problems when they crop up.
To brush aside officiating as an integrity problem while fear-mongering about gambling is problematic for the leagues, from where I sit.
If the “integrity of the game” were really paramount to the leagues, I think we’d have far more transparency and acknowledgment of problems with officiating, including these latest examples. We do at least get some of this from the NBA’s “last two-minute report” and other officiating reporting, but it’s more presented as a footnote to games as opposed to some major threat to underlying game integrity.
Officiating is apparently not a problem
But what we are getting is some collective shoulder-shrugging from people who matter.
Here’s Dallas Cowboys’ owner Jerry Jones after the MNF game, for example:
Jerry Jones isn’t bothered that more are talking about officiating in last night’s Packers-Lions game than the play on the field: “The calls were the subject of most of the talk after the ball game. And they’re the talk this morning. As long as they’re talking, keep it going.”
— Jon Machota (@jonmachota) October 15, 2019
That’s a wild take when your commissioner is invoking “the integrity of the game” at just about every possible opportunity.
In any event, sports betting is not the biggest problem facing leagues, despite what they’d like you to believe. It’s bad officiating that affects games almost each and every day, and the wagers on those games.
We should see more hand-wringing about that than we should about gambling.