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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.
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:
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
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.
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.
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.