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Tuesday, April 16, 2024
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Confounding Ohtani Episode Exposes Dark Underbelly of Sports Betting

  • The situation involving the MLB superstar follows several other flash points in recent weeks.
  • Shohei Ohtani himself has yet to comment on money going from his account to an illegal gambling operation.
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

What happens when the highest-paid player in the history of U.S. pro team sports is connected, at least indirectly, to illegal gambling? We still don’t entirely know, but the disturbing and oft-contradictory saga that is still very much unfolding also exposes a dark underbelly to legalized sports betting that has otherwise enjoyed a historic and meteoric rise over the past six years.

There’s something happening with Shohei Ohtani, but what it is isn’t exactly clear. What isn’t in dispute, however, is that a bank account owned by the Dodgers’ superstar wired millions of dollars last year to an illegal gambling operation. An initial story coming from Ohtani’s camp was that the payments were made to cover gambling debts run up by his interpreter and close friend Ippei Mizuhara. A subsequent account from Ohtani’s lawyers pivoted sharply and instead claimed that Mizuhara stole the money without the player’s knowledge.

MLB has yet to comment formally, and after prior embarrassing sagas involving stars such as Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, and Alex Rodriguez, the league will be closely scrutinized on how it responds to its most famous player—who ordinarily enjoys a virtually spotless reputation—venturing into this type of area. The matter, however, is already being turned over to authorities, and the Dodgers have fired Mizuhara. 

Rapid Growth, Darker Realities

More broadly, this situation highlights an entirely different and far darker side of the rapid expansion of U.S. sports betting since 2018, when the Supreme Court allowed individual states to set their own rules in this space. Much of the focus since then has been the massive growth of overall user activity to unprecedented levels, fan engagement fostered through the legalization, and the extensive dealmaking between leagues and major sportsbooks such as DraftKings and FanDuel. 

But just in the last two weeks in addition to Ohtani: 

  • Cleveland Cavaliers coach J.B. Bickerstaff said he and his family have been threatened by gamblers.
  • Indiana Pacers star Tyrese Haliburton said he feels like a “prop” and that his social media has been dominated by gambling chatter.
  • The NBA fined Minnesota Timberwolves center Rudy Gobert $100,000 for making a money gesture toward a referee, seemingly implying he was on the take, and Gobert subsequently said that “betting is hurting our game.”
  • Former Jacksonville Jaguars employee Amit Patel was sentenced to more than six years in prison for embezzling more than $22 million from the NFL team, and he said he has struggled with a serious gambling addiction.

Earlier this month, Sportradar similarly detailed how suspected match-fixing in 2023 stayed roughly equal to the year before and how artificial intelligence is now being used to help fight against that. 

Following the Dodgers’ second and final game Thursday in Seoul to start the 2024 regular season, Ohtani’s locker was guarded by team officials, and the star left without speaking to reporters, leaving many more questions unanswered.

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