Shohei Ohtani and Jontay Porter have both been discussed in gambling scandal coverage. Shohei Ohtani (L) and Jontay Porter have both been discussed in gambling scandal coverage. (Photos from Jayne Kamin-Oncea and Isaiah J. Downing/USA Today Sports.)

There’s an understandable desire in the media world to reference seemingly similar events in coverage of any particular topic. That often makes sense; some events have a relatively direct linkage to others, such as an NFL team cutting a high-cap-hit player to sign another player to an extension, or an MLB team striking a deal with a free agent similar to the terms other free agents have found. But a peril here is getting too broad, and assuming all NFL or MLB stories are linked. And we seem to be seeing some of that with a lot of broad-interest media and sports media coverage of current developments in sports gambling.

It’s absolutely fair to bring up different sports betting scandals and debates in wider conversations about where sports betting is at in 2024. But in that coverage, it’s crucial to recognize that there are major differences in what’s being discussed in each of those cases, just as there are notable differences between NFL stories on league-wide partnerships, quarterbacks, offensive linemen, and kickers. Discussing everything under a “gambling” header can make some sense, but within that, there are major differences with a number of recent betting stories that should be recognized. Let’s break some of that down.

Is the bet on the sport in question?

This is perhaps the thing that’s getting missed the most with the discussion around illegal bets allegedly placed by Ippei Mizuhara, Shohei Ohtani’s former interpreter. To date, Mizuhara has denied ever betting on baseball. Ohtani has denied ever betting at all but also specified he did not bet on baseball.

Even emphatic statements are not necessarily 100 percent truthful, of course. And Mizuhara’s own story here changed dramatically in the last week. But if there were no bets on baseball here, this would have been acceptable conduct under MLB gambling regulations (if the bets had been made through a legal platform rather than with an illegal bookie, something we’ll get to).

While it isn’t completely inconceivable that an MLB figure might somehow have some insider information on another sport through friendships with other athletes or team figures, that seems far less likely than them having extra information on something in their sport. That’s why those prohibitions on betting on your own sport (seen widely across sports, and well-known long before the current expansion of legal sports betting, as seen with the cases of Paul Hornung, Alex Karras, and Pete Rose) exist. However, this still happens; another case last April saw three NFL players suspended for the entire season for placing bets on league games, and one last June saw three more suspended for the season for the same thing.

Is potential match-fixing or bet-fixing involved?

There have been quite a few notable same-sport scandals recently, including the current investigation into Jontay Porter of the NBA’s Toronto Raptors and last year’s developments around then-Alabama baseball coach Brad Bohannon. And while none of these to date have included even mentions of an athlete close to Ohtani’s level, they’re perhaps more notable when it comes to the potential impact on bettors (in the Alabama case, an associate of Bohannon’s tried to place a massive bet using insider information on a starting pitcher, which would have swung the line). But what’s arguably even worse than insider information is someone in sports deliberately swinging a bet. That’s at least under discussion around the Porter case, with him leaving games earlier than expected, and unders on his prop bets hitting as a result.

The central conceit of betting on sports is that players, coaches, and executives aren’t involved with making particular bets payout or not (beyond the normal expectations of them doing their best to perform their duties). When there are even suggestions anything beyond that has occurred, it’s a major scandal, as happened with MLB’s “Black Sox” in 1919. (A lot of what specifically went on there remains up for debate, but several players did admit involvement in the fix.)

And this is why the Porter situation has the potential to be a massive deal, despite his marginal impact on games, and why discussions around the coverage (or lack thereof) it’s getting have some merit. Ohtani likely has more than 100 times as much name recognition as Porter, but the current allegations in the Porter case are much more concerning for competitive integrity than anything levied in the Ohtani case to date (but that could change, as we’ll get to).

It should also be noted that many of the biggest betting scandals involving actual fixed outcomes have taken place in obscure leagues with obscure players. Of course, allegations of that sort have happened on the big stages as well, though, including with Tim Donaghy in the NBA. But much of the most suspicious betting behavior has come around leagues with much less of a national microscope. And even with higher-watched leagues, it’s notable to see something like the Porter case involving a figure who’s relatively off the radar of many. (This ties into why NCAA president Charlie Baker is now pushing to ban prop bets on individual college athletes.)

However, one thing that should be discussed with both Porter and Bohannon is that books caught at least some of the attempted bets. In the Bohannon case, that came at least partly thanks to extreme clumsiness from bettor Bert Neff, who reportedly outright told sportsbook staff he had inside information. In the Porter case, some books flagged unusual betting activity on props involving him and didn’t take some of those bets.

The NBA and teams also have in-house personnel monitoring betting and work with third-party integrity monitors, and all of that may have led to the current investigation into Porter. So while these kinds of match-fixing or prop-fixing suggestions have the potential to be highly damaging for leagues and books, there are systems to try and catch them. And those systems are seeing at least some success.

Are the bets with legal sportsbooks?

This is perhaps where the biggest issue with the general “gambling scandal” discussion has come up. The Ohtani case is wildly different than anything else in current “sports gambling” news because it does not involve legal betting; it took place in a state that has not yet legalized sports betting (either in-person or online), and involves someone running an illegal book, and came to attention because of a federal investigation into that bookie. But even beyond the very obvious “not legal” here, media coverage should keep in mind the notable distinctions between legalized and regulated gambling (by operators authorized in particular states) and betting with offshore sites.

A bizarre part of the Ohtani case is that much of what’s come up so far would not be breaking either MLB rules or state or federal laws if it took place in a different state with an authorized book. There’s no law to prevent an MLB interpreter, or even an MLB player, from making a legal bet in a state where sports betting is permitted. And while leagues can go above and beyond the law in their own policies (the NFL does, issuing six-game suspensions for players placing legal bets on other sports from team facilities), MLB bans players and team personnel from placing bets with illegal or offshore bookmakers but allows them to place bets on other sports with legal books.

Of course, that doesn’t mean the Ohtani case is only notable because of the lack of sports gambling legalization in California. A significant part of the story involves bookmaker Mathew Bowyer allegedly extending a massive line of credit to Mizuhara, which regulated sportsbooks would not be able to do.

And there are still a lot of questions about the story here, including how Mizuhara reportedly met Bowyer at a poker game with MLB players, and how realistic it is to believe that Mizuhara did all he’s accused of while Ohtani was fully in the dark. Many of those questions are impacted by this being illegal rather than legal betting. And the Ohtani case is absolutely worth covering. But it’s worth keeping in mind that it’s incredibly different from other cases thanks to the illegality of the bets.

Are bets from impermissible people or impermissible locations?

Three of the five NFL suspensions last April involved players betting on their own sport. But the other two (which only saw six-game suspensions) were of players placing bets on other sports while at team facilities. That was also the case with one of the June suspensions. (And those cases were at least partly brought to the league by gambling apps’ location-tracking data, even though those didn’t come with any suggestions of match- or prop-fixing.)

Meanwhile, the controversial Iowa/Iowa State gambling saga includes criminal charges over record alteration with attempted fake accounts. And it included violations of NCAA policies prohibiting betting on an athlete’s own school. But it appears to have largely come from a location sweep with a debatable focus on athletes’ facilities and residences.

It’s important to distinguish that some of these “gambling scandals” are about league policies that go beyond the law. And they’re sometimes even just about gambling at specific locations. And last year’s NFL and Iowa sagas came with no suggestion of anything improper around games. So that’s quite distinct from discussions like what’s going on with Porter.

Is theft involved?

It’s worth noting that some things covered as “gambling scandals” actually don’t involve wrongdoing with the wagers involved, but rather with the source of the funds used. We’ve seen that in cases big and small, from a Jacksonville Jaguars employee who embezzled more than $20 million and claimed to spend much of it on betting and daily fantasy to a Maryland parent-student-teacher association treasurer who stole $29,000 from the association (including from chocolate bar sales) and spent a good portion at gambling websites. Those kinds of stories are absolutely worth covering and are part of the gambling discussion, but they’re not about anything wrong with the bets. (The Ohtani interpreter story also involves alleged theft, but questions about the bets and about MLB policies on gambling are involved there too.)

Is potential addiction involved?

Many of those theft stories do involve claims of gambling addiction from the people involved. Addiction’s role in any particular case can be debated, but there is certainly evidence that gambling addiction is an overall problem for many. And there can definitely be debate about just what gambling companies should do to address problematic betting habits and bettors and promote responsible gaming.

What about responsible gambling and advertising regulations?

One gambling debate that sprung up this week didn’t actually have anything to do with a placed bet. Rather, it came from ESPN’s Rece Davis and his on-air remark that a particular pick from ESPN Bet analyst Erin K. Dolan was a “risk-free investment.” Yes, Davis clarified he was joking, and insisted on that further in an interview with Pat McAfee where he made it quite clear he apologized for nothing. But that’s still very much something no one should say on air around gambling, and it could lead to regulator action. And it came at a terrible time for gaming discussion around some of these other scandals.

Around that, it’s maybe not shocking that seven of the largest U.S. sports betting operators announced Wednesday that they’re forming a trade group to promote responsible gaming and (for the first time) share information on problem gamblers. That group doesn’t involve several large sportsbooks, and its effectiveness remains to be seen. But it is significant to see these companies teaming up on this, especially at a time when there’s so much negative discussion around betting.

It is worth mentioning that it is quite possible for loosened sports betting rules to eventually be walked back. England’s Premier League did just that last year on shirt sponsorships, with that move kicking in by 2026. So responsible gambling efforts are very important for operators if they want to avoid governmental crackdowns or league policy changes in response to perceived betting problems.

The overall takeaways

The point here isn’t to criticize pieces looking at the overall state of sports gambling and referencing various current or recent stories on it. (That would be quite hypocritical, as this is one.) But those pieces need to note the dramatic differences between these different scenarios. As discussed in the Davis conversation, part of the issue there was in having someone who admittedly doesn’t bet opine on gambling, which led to him saying things that no gambling expert (who presumably would have been more aware of specific regulator prohibitions) would have. And it’s a similar thing with general media coverage of “gambling scandals.”

The scale of sports betting in 2024 also comes into play here. Statista projects the U.S. online gambling market (sports and casino games) to reach $23 billion in revenue in 2024, with sports betting alone accounting for $9.65 billion of that. That’s more revenue than Sportico’s 2024 estimates for MLS ($2 billion) or the NHL ($6.8 billion), and almost as much as what they project for MLB ($10.9 billion).

As discussed at the top of this piece, it’s unlikely you’d see a story linking together absolutely everything that happened across MLB in a short span. That’s especially true if that came without the context of how different the various moves are: a free agent roundup would not also typically include information on league sponsorship deals or MLB Network broadcasts. Sports gambling is almost as big as all of MLB in terms of revenues, and it deserves similar consideration when it comes to identifying the nuances between its various stories.

About Andrew Bucholtz

Andrew Bucholtz has been covering sports media for Awful Announcing since 2012. He is also a staff writer for The Comeback. His previous work includes time at Yahoo! Sports Canada and Black Press.