Last Friday, Major League Soccer announced that Felipe Hernández of Sporting KC had been suspended for the remainder of the season for a violation of their gambling integrity rules.
Hernández was ruled ineligible because he placed two bets on MLS matches that he was not personally involved with. MLS has rules barring players from betting on any games in the league. Hernández will not be paid while he misses the balance of the season.
A wrinkle to this case is that apparently, Hernández placed illegal bets in Missouri, which has not launched legal sports betting as of yet.
Following the announcement of his suspension, the 23-year old Hernández posted on his Twitter account that he was seeking help for a “gambling addiction.”
Is There a Vulnerability For Sports and Gambling?
The Hernández story has received scant attention from major sports news outlets. Yes, ESPN, Fox Sports, and The Athletic all ran stories on this situation, but the usual outcry and attention you hear has not been attached to it. Typically you’d have a lot of “hot takes” being made about such a suspension.
But the sporting world is changing. Gambling is becoming legal in many areas of the United States, seemingly new states every month. Connecticut is launching this week, and Arizona went online last month. Sports betting companies not only pay hundreds of millions to advertise with pro teams, but they also have their brand on things like sports regional networks and there are sportsbooks on-site at professional venues.
Another reason this story has not made big headlines is that it happened in soccer. Americans don’t always care that much about soccer. Not unless the players have an American flag on their chests and they’re playing Mexico.
Could you imagine if an NBA player or NFL player was suspended for making illegal bets on his own sport? The debate over the issue would be much louder.
But this is not the first instance of a professional athlete betting on his own league since the U.S. Supreme Court cleared the way for the legalization of sports betting in 2018.
In 2019, cornerback Josh Shaw was found to have bet on NFL games while he was on the injured reserve list of the Arizona Cardinals. The NFL suspended Shaw and did not reinstate him for 16 months. He has yet to be signed by a team.
The Hernández situation is troubling because it underscores the vulnerability that a professional league could face. Hernández apparently told his team earlier this season that he feared for his life because of his gambling debts. MLS players do not typically earn hundreds of millions or even tens of millions of dollars. They are not as high-paid as other pro athletes.
Could a lower-paid athlete with a gambling addiction threaten the integrity of a sporting event? What if the athlete owes lots of money to someone?
Professional sports leagues are taking that threat seriously, and the Hernández incident puts their security teams on high alert for such a possibility.
What Measures Do Sports Leagues Take To Ensure Integrity?
Each of the four major sports leagues in North America has rules barring athletes from betting on their sport, or in some cases any sport. Each major league has a security department that can investigate suspected problems in many areas, including gambling by their players, coaches, officials, or other personnel.
The NFL, NBA, MLB, and NHL have rules in place to penalize players for associating with betting or bettors, and they penalize players based on the severity of the infraction. Bet at all on anything you are unrelated to, and an athlete is banned for the rest of the year at minimum.
Major League Baseball had the worst betting scandal in history, though it took place more than a century ago. In 1919, eight members of the Chicago White Sox conspired to lose the World Series, accepting money from professional gamblers. All of those players were banned from life, and it led MLB to hire their first commissioner.
In 1927, MLB added Rule 21(d), which says that any player, umpire, club official, or employee who bets on any baseball game unrelated to their performance “shall be declared ineligible for one year.” If they bet on a game in which they are involved, they are “declared permanently ineligible.”