Granderson: Sports gambling is exploding, and it’ll be even worse than you think

The most anticipated first-round series of the NBA playoffs is here: the Lakers versus the defending champion Denver Nuggets. LeBron James’ squad was swept by Denver in the last postseason, and L.A. hasn’t beaten the Nuggets since December 2022, which is why the Lakers are serious underdogs according to the online gambling site DraftKings.

Sound like a good bet? Or at least a fun one? That’s the vibe DraftKings is going for.

Opinion Columnist

LZ Granderson

LZ Granderson writes about culture, politics, sports and navigating life in America.

One of the site’s recent promos features comedian Kevin Hart hawking “no sweat tokens” next to this claim: “Place a NBA SGP or SGPx bet today and get a bonus bet back if you lose!” That sounds as close to a win-win situation as any, regardless of whether you know anything about gambling or single-game parlays.

It all comes across as harmless and fun.

So did candy cigarettes.

Even after the surgeon general advised against smoking in 1964, candy cigarettes were still on the market and tobacco companies were still lending their branding to candy companies. One government study found that 88% of current and former smokers began with candy cigarettes and that “odds for current and ever smoking increased with increasing candy cigarette use.” Nearly half a million people die from cigarette smoke in the U.S. each year, and guess what is still on the market.

Like cigarettes, gambling should never be presented as harmless — or as fun. It can be fun, which is why Hart makes a great pitchman. But legalized sports betting is no more harmless than selling sugar sticks shaped like cigarettes.

It’s not just the personal and societal devastation from out-of-control gambling that we need to fear. The sports industry is not prepared to navigate a world of legalized betting. Ippei Mizuhara, the interpreter who is accused of stealing more than $16 million from the Dodgers pitcher Shohei Ohtani to bet on sports, and Jontay Porter, who this week received a lifetime ban by the NBA for violating its gambling policy, are not unique.

They were just caught.

Last year we learned more than 180 professional tennis players were part of a global match-fixing ring that started in 2014. It wasn’t even started by a player. According to the Washington Post, it began with a law student in Brussels who discovered how little tennis players made at the beginning of their careers. In some cases, winning a title brought home less than the kickback a player could get for purposefully dropping a set. Keep in mind this ring started after the sport was rocked by a gambling scandal involving a Top 10 player in 2007 who was believed to have mafia ties.

Cute commercials and “no sweat tokens” are one face of sports gambling — and are dangerous enough to the public — but there are more sides to this threat. Today it is believed gambling on tennis alone moves more than $50 billion around the globe. That too is a part of sports betting, and I don’t know how you prevent the two from bleeding into one another.

Athletes themselves can be tempted by the promise of easy money, but the LeBron Jameses and the Shohei Ohtanis are not the worry. The worry is the low-level player or trainer who is barely getting by and may be tempted to violate gambling rules for financial help with sustaining their careers. Or even officials on the periphery. Tim Donaghy, the NBA referee who had bet tens of thousands on games over two seasons before getting caught, was a glaring reminder just a few years ago.

If any league has had time to recognize the dangers, it’s the NBA. In 1954, Fort Wayne Pistons player Jack Molinas was suspended for betting on NBA games. By 1961, he was arrested on charges of being part of a college gambling ring that had touched 27 schools, 43 games and 476 players. In 1975, he was shot in the head while standing in the backyard of his home in Hollywood Hills. Police said they believed the murder was mob-related.

That too is part of sports gambling.

It’s not all charming spokesmen and “no sweat tokens.” There’s addiction. There’s greed. There’s corruption and crime. The sports industry is not prepared for this, and neither is America.


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