Ohtani, Porter, Davis Situations Could Map the Management of Future Sports Gambling Crises

There will be lessons for Major League Baseball, its teams, and players even if investigating Ippei Mizuhara’s sports betting absolves Los Angeles Dodgers superstar Shohei Ohtani of wrongdoing.

Because when the American sport most scarred by gambling scandals first embraces sports betting as a revenue stream, then is unprepared for the inevitable first controversy – or is simply slow to act – it allows suspicion and innuendo to fill the void where information could have engendered trust. And then it is allowed an epic institutional failure to occur.

One appears underway nearly three weeks since ESPN detailed how Ohtani’s now-former interpreter and confidante was entwined in a federal investigation into illegal California bookmaker Mathew Bowyer.

Ohtani’s insular camp has since had numerous missteps in the name of protecting his pristine image. First, it allowed Mizuhara to clarify Ohtani’s part in helping Bowyer pay off more than $4.5 million in gambling debt. Then Ohtani’s handlers recanted and accused Mizuhara of stealing the money wired to Bowyer from Ohtani’s laptop and labeled it for bookkeeping purposes as a loan.

In rushed more speculation over whether Ohtani himself had perhaps been making these illegal bets, which would have placed him in baseball’s hall of gambling trauma with banished pariahs Joe Jackson of the 1919 Chicago White Sox and Pete Rose.

Mizuhara has subsequently been charged with federal bank fraud.

Sports betting scandals

AP Photos: Brant James illustration
From left to right: Ippei Mizuhara, former interpreter for the Los Angeles Dodgers’ Shohei Ohtani, the Toronto Raptors’ Jontay Porter, and ESPN’s Rece Davis likely all provided clues on how and how not to handle clandestine and legal sports betting controversies as society continues to absorb the activity.

Or would MLB protect the Dodgers’ $700 million luminary and baseball’s most marketable global ambassador?

None of the principles have provided answers. Ohtani attempted to provide a few in a press conference where reporters were not allowed to ask still-lingering questions.

MLB appeared feckless as public accounting of a potentially devastating scandal unfolded on ESPN.com and, eventually, at the podium at Dodger Stadium. The league didn’t announce an investigation until days following the original ESPN reporting and originally said it wouldn’t launch its own inquiry.

“The biggest mistake that Major League Baseball has made from my perspective, was that brief moment in time in which they indicated that they were not investigating,” Marc Edelman, a professor of law at Baruch College Zicklin School of Business told Gaming Today. “It would be one thing if Major League Baseball said that they did not consider Ohtani to be a suspect of having done anything that violated the rules.

“It is very different to have made the statement that they were simply not investigating. And I’m curious as to what was actually meant by that statement and why they made it at the time that they did.”

Difficult questions would have been asked no matter the speed of an investigation that Commissioner Rob Manfred hopes is “short.”

But they didn’t have to dominate the discussion, Ramsey Poston, the president of Washington, D.C.-based crisis communications firm Tuckahoe Strategies told Gaming Today.

“In a crisis situation, the best approach is to say it all, say it first, and say it yourself,” Poston said. “Ohtani didn’t have the luxury of being able to do that because the media went to Ippei first, and he made statements that seemed to be in conflict. The initial story was that Ippei was paying off gambling debts with Ohtani’s knowledge.

“Conflict comes when he changed the story. When Ohtani met the media, I think he made definitive statements, which is good. He said definitively did not make bets or gamble on baseball or any sport. But he was only partially transparent.”

Poston said that while facing the public was a beneficial move for Ohtani – “He set a marker there,” Poston noted – not taking questions tempered what could have been a stronger moment. Among lingering questions is why Mizhuara rescinded his original story and how he could have made payments to the bookmaker without Ohtani’s awareness.

“If the federal investigators had contacted MLB prior to the news coming out publicly from the ESPN report, baseball should have immediately begun its own investigation at that time,” Poston said. “If they knew that there was something going on and failed to act, that’s going to be a problem for baseball.

“If MLB were like the rest of us and caught off guard and hearing about this for the first time, I suspect there wasn’t a whole lot they could do. But Major League Baseball is in a unique space on this issue because of the two lifetime bans.”

READ MORE: Gambling Rules for Professional Athletes

For now, both camps await the outcome of MLB’s investigation. Then what?

“I think the Ohtani camp and the Dodgers, the best thing they can do is the moment that there is, or if there is any new information, they want to be controlling that information as best they can and getting it out to the public as soon as possible,” Poston said. “For Major League Baseball at this point, if they are seen as not being fully transparent, then because of its history and the steps it has taken in the past, this will be a problem for the sport, not only for the short term, but for the long term.”

Edelman, who is also Director of Sports Ethics at the Robert Zicklin Center for Corporate Integrity, says whether betting on baseball occurred is paramount.

“I think the number one question will be whether this betting activity related to baseball,” he said. “If none of these bets – illegal or otherwise – had any nexus to Major League Baseball games or results, I think it’ll be relatively easy for this one to disappear from the public eye.

“If, however, it turns out that these bets in some way related to baseball, even if everything was done through the translator and the player himself had no part, this would amount to a major breach of trust in the game.

“Major League Baseball, consequently, has a duty to investigate this matter without, with at least the same level of vigor as they have investigated off-field misconduct involving players such as Trevor Bauer, as well as the purported use of performance-enhancing substances by Major League baseball players. I believe that for Major League Baseball to maintain its reputation as a national pastime, there is a duty to investigate and report earnestly, even if there are things in the report that Major League Baseball would prefer not to have made public.”

MLB Reverse Course, Reaped Revenue Without Safeguards?

MLB gambling scandal
AP Photo: DraftKings signage adorns the left field vista at Fenway Park.

Observers have noted that this is an illegal gambling scandal and that discourse about the legalization of sports betting and its association with sports leagues is not applicable.

Sports betting is not legal in California. Bowyer’s operation is illegal in all 40 American jurisdictions with the regulated and taxed variety. But Mizuhara claiming that he’d previously bet using DraftKings and couldn’t tell the difference from Bowyer’s operation was optically bad for MLB. And it makes painting with broad philosophical brushes easy.

Professional sports leagues have espoused legal wagering, in part to safeguard their games’ integrity better. MLB, the NBA, and the NHL even allow active players to endorse sportsbooks, with limitations, although few have. Leagues need the public to make definitive judgments about legal and illegal gambling and for the legal version to be viewed favorably. They should have been better prepared, Edelman said.

In 2023, MLB bought an equity stake in DraftKings, adding it as its official fantasy sports provider and establishing a relationship that has since expanded into a sports betting partnership. Mobile betting makes a sportsbook out of every ballpark and living room where the enterprise is legal.

“I don’t think any sports league could ever be completely ready to address an alleged scandal of this nature,” Edelman said. “But beginning with the secret conversations that took place that have since been brought into the public between DraftKings and Major League Baseball Advanced Media as early as March of 2013, one could question the motivations and goals of Major League Baseball in terms of preparing for how to handle the advent of this new technology.”

“Major League Baseball teams seemed to have jumped at this incredible opportunity to make sums of money directly and indirectly through sports gambling and seemed to, at least in the public eye, almost overnight, disregard all of their views on sports gambling that for generations they thought were self-evident.”

“Reasonably sports gambling is not all bad. But it’s also not entirely innocuous. And to move from one extreme to another extreme so quickly leads to reasonable questions as to whether the league and its leaders really had good-faith reason to believe that every single one of their long-term standing concerns were no longer concerns.”

– Marc Edelman

Steps MLB Could Have Taken to Insure Trust, Integrity, Firewall Baseball From Scandal

Edelman cites Robert A. Bowman, the former head of Major League Baseball Advanced Media – the Internet and interactive branch of the league – with tipping baseball toward sports betting as a revenue stream and away from decades of insulation from gambling. In the process, MLB joined the other top-four sports leagues before and in the years after the fall of the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act in lobbying state legislatures to require sportsbooks to buy what they considered their proprietary data as part of so-called “integrity fees.”

That ultimately failed, but leagues found other means to monetize data through branding deals with gambling companies and firms that sell the digital grist for bets to sportsbooks.

The chase for profit, Edelman said, apparently didn’t include sufficient safeguards. Edelman says he is “not at all opposed” to legal sports betting but questions how baseball could pivot from one hardened position on gambling to the opposite so quickly without “nuance being lost.”

“There has been so much attention to revenue generation, revenue maximization, but very little talk about reasonable steps to protect various other stakeholder groups that necessarily arise from the mass proliferation of sports gambling,” he observed, “not to mention sports gambling advertisements appearing throughout stadia and other places where employees and fans visit daily.”

Edelman said proactive steps by MLB could have included alternate broadcast feeds “scrubbed” of gambling content for those wishing not to see it or keep it from children, a better education and gambling education treatment program “more peripheral employees in the space, including trainers, translators, clubhouse, attendance, and other individuals who might be seen as not as highly paid and have more incentive to engage in these behaviors.”

He also said that no whistleblower program is in place “that would adequately encourage or protect individual players or other baseball employees who disclosed concerns about certain things pertaining to gambling-related activities.”

Potentially Massive NBA Scandal Brews in Shadows

jontay porter betting

The NBA, arguably the most aggressive gambling adopter of the major North American pro leagues post-PASPA, navigated a potentially worse sports betting situation in Ohtani’s long shadow.

Toronto Raptors center Jontay Porter was banned from the NBA on April 17 for multiple breaches of the league gambling policy, including betting on games.

Edelman said the potential implications were “unequivocally” worse in the Porter case, where twice the player left games with supposed injuries, allowing high-dollar under plays to cash. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said punishment for Porter could include a lifetime banishment from the NBA.

“The eyes of the sports business world will be on the NBA because if it is found that a player has placed bets on NBA games at all, and certainly ones in which that player is participating, that threatens the entire credibility of the league,” Poston said. “This renewed effort to have betting above board, if wrongdoing is done, every league should have a severe penalty on their books to ensure that players are not tempted and do not attempt to go down this path.

“This potentially has a ripple effect, not only on the sports betting aspect on it, but the pure ticket-buying and viewer aspect for anyone if they believe that the games are not above board.”

Davis “Risk-Free Investing” Quip Likely to be Forgotten?

Poston thinks ESPN anchor Rece Davis’s public misstep will be a short-term issue despite its cringeworthiness.

“I think in Rece Davis’s case, this is the kind of conversation you might have with your friends in a bar, and he brought it onto the airwaves,” Poston said. “We’re transitioning on how we talk about sports gambling in society and on the air. And I think Rece Davis got caught in the transition there. This will probably be a blip on the screen and probably forgotten about. But I think you’ll also see on-air personalities as they talk about gambling, do it in a way that is more responsible.”

ESPN had asserted that it would keep on-air talent away from its ESPN BET sports wagering content after entering into a branding agreement with PENN Entertainment, issuing a code of ethics for staff. However, these familiar studio personalities have already been deployed for ESPN BET television commercials. Davis’s glib quip was likely to have reverberated not only with whatever ombudsmen still draw paychecks, but also with state gambling regulators who have increasingly scrutinized advertising for its underage and responsible gambling impacts.

Davis days later went on the defensive on The Pat McAfee Show, asserting that his X-planation was a clarification, not an apology. As Poston suggested, it was ultimately nothing more than a one-weekend storyline.

But there will be more lasting ones, including the two still playing out: Ohtani and Porter.

"In the last 20 years, sports gambling has gone from an era where some of the football broadcasters back in the day would laugh with a wink and a smile about betting, whether there was a made field goal or a missed field goal," Poston said. "And then the leagues asked the commentators to stop kidding around with gambling because they want to take it seriously.

"So we spent this period of time as a society and in the sports world pretending that gambling didn't happen and they were completely pure on the issue. We've now evolved to bring it to light. Before every sporting event on the big screen, it will teach you how to bet and make bets. So betting is back, and it's above board and transparent."

Professional sports leagues need to be even equally so.


About the Author
Brant James

Brant James

Senior Writer
Brant James is a senior writer who covers the sports betting industry and legislation at Gaming Today. An alum of the Tampa Bay Times, ESPN.com, espnW, SI.com, and USA Today, he's covered motorsports and the NHL as beats. He also once made a tail-hook landing on an aircraft carrier with Dale Earnhardt Jr. and rode to the top of Mt. Washington with Travis Pastrana. John Tortorella has yelled at him numerous times.

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