Baseball superstar Shohei Ohtani has been caught up in a gambling controversy. He won’t be the last.

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The 1919 World Series is famous for a few things, but most of all, it’s remembered as the worst gambling scandal in US sports history.

Eight members of the Chicago White Sox were accused of taking money from gamblers to purposefully lose the World Series. Though some maintained their innocence, all eight were eventually banned from baseball for life.

If that punishment was harsh, it was largely justified. No sport can be expected to thrive if fans have reasonable suspicions that the games aren’t on the level.

In the decades that followed, sports did all they could to distance themselves from gambling. To this day, every sports commissioner’s worst nightmare is waking up to hear that one of their top players has been involved in a gambling scandal.

Which is basically what happened to Major League Baseball (MLB) this week.

Oh no, Ohtani

Shortly after the Los Angeles Dodgers and the San Diego Padres opened up the 2024 regular season with MLB’s first-ever game in South Korea this week, news broke that Japanese Dodgers superstar Shohei Ohtani’s interpreter Ippei Mizuhara had been fired after Ohtani’s representatives accused him of stealing millions of dollars to place illegal bets.

At this point, no one is accusing Ohtani of engaging in gambling on baseball, which is strictly forbidden by the sport.

But still, there’s some weirdness here, not least that Mizuhara reportedly gave an interview to ESPN claiming that Ohtani has transferred millions of dollars from his account to Mizuhara to cover the interpreter’s gambling debts, only for Ohtani’s representatives to later say that no, he had actually been the victim of theft.

Honestly, the idea that Ohtani — who signed a $700 million contract this winter — would risk everything by being directly involved in gambling sounds absurd.

But that’s the thing about gambling and sports. You don’t have to be sure that players are placing bets to wonder if everything is on the up and up. Just suspicion is enough to erode the integrity of the game.

Which, of course, is why sports put so much effort into putting walls between the games and the athletes and the bookies. At least, until recently.

The big game of sports gaming

As I write this, March Madness has just tipped off, which means, as we explained Monday, that we’re in the midst of the biggest mainstream betting event of the year. US bettors will put more than $2.72 billion on the men’s and women’s college basketball tournaments using legalized sportsbooks.

Putting aside the fact that $2.72 billion is roughly $2.72 billion more than the amateur men and women participating in these tournaments are directly paid for their work, it’s more than twice what the NCAA brought in from March Madness in 2021. Which just goes to prove that gambling has gone from a shadow sideshow in pro and college sports to, increasingly, the main attraction.

In 2023, as my former Vox colleague Emily Stewart has reported, Americans spent $120 billion on sports gambling, a 28 percent increase from the year before. The staggering growth in sports gambling has been enabled by the growing legalization of legal sports betting throughout the US, which really kicked off with a 2018 Supreme Court decision striking down a 1992 federal law that effectively banned the practice in most states.

Once the decision on whether or not to allow sports gambling was left up to individual states, most of those states said “Yes, please, give us more.” As a result, sports betting is legal in some form in three dozen states, and online sports betting is legal in two dozen states.

That second part is important. Sports gambling hasn’t just migrated away from the quasi-legal black market; it’s migrated to the object we keep closer on hand than anything else: our phones.

From DraftKings to FanDuel, the last few years have seen the rise of sports betting apps that take one known compulsive activity — gambling itself — and marry it with the best (or worst) in gamifying, addiction-generating social media.

Unsurprisingly, Americans spent a record 67.1 million minutes on sports gambling sites in October 2023, a 66 percent increase from the year before. (Disclosure: The sports network SB Nation, which is owned by Vox’s parent company, Vox Media, has a partnership with DraftKings.)

In response to these changes, sports could have kept the walls up.

They did not — you can now make bets on site at many stadiums and arenas, analysis of odds are a major part of pregame shows, and this week, the NBA even started allowing fans to place bets directly on its official League Pass app.

Sports is now gambling in the US, and gambling is sports.

A losing bet

There are a lot of drawbacks to the expansion of sports betting, not least that it means more people end up gambling.

While as many as 5 percent of American adults will experience some problem gambling in their lifetime, much of the existing research was done before the great legalization wave. The Connecticut Council on Problem Gambling, for instance, saw a 91 percent increase in calls to its addiction helpline in 2022 — the year that mobile gambling became legal in the state.

What’s even harder to see — though increasingly palpable — is the impact that the ubiquity of gambling is having on sports itself. You don’t have to go full Field of Dreams to lament the way that gambling essentially financializes sports and the athletes who play it, transforming what should be human drama into over-unders, prop bets, and teasers.

If you don’t believe me, listen to the players and the coaches. Indiana Pacers star Tyrese Haliburton recently complained that “to half the world, I’m just helping them make money on DraftKings … I’m just a prop.” Cleveland Cavaliers coach J.B. Bickerstaff has said that he received threats from gamblers last year. (The Cavaliers, it should be noted, have a sportsbook inside their arena.)

At this point, many experts believe that it’s a matter of when, not if, a major gambling scandal devastates a top US sport.

As March Madness demonstrates with its stirring upsets every year, one of the most powerful forces in sports is belief. But that belief can be shattered by something even more powerful: greed.

This story appeared originally in Today, Explained, Vox’s flagship daily newsletter. Sign up here for future editions.

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