Published: February 15, 2023

The fact that sports gambling is legal in so many states does not mean it is insulated from sophisticated criminals.

The fact that sports gambling is legal in so many states does not mean it is insulated from sophisticated criminals.

Is gambling swallowing sports?

I can’t watch major college or professional sports on television, listen to a game on the radio, or read about sports online without being bombarded with gambling ads. Many stadiums, arenas, and ice rinks are draped with sports gambling promotions, often with retired star pitchmen, that encourage all manner of betting on games. The Washington Commanders have even opened the NFL’s first in-stadium sportsbook.

Based on the promotions, one would think that gambling is fun, exciting, and harmless entertainment. In my experience, that is not necessarily the case. I encountered gambling addicts when I was investigating organized crime groups for the FBI in Chicago. Sports gambling was part of the groups’ criminal operations (a lot of gambling on sports was illegal then), and the groups took advantage of (and a lot of money from) many of the people who placed bets through them. I pitied the addicted gamblers; they were often broken people. Their lives were driven by the pursuit of their next big win. Unfortunately, even when they won big, it was not the answer to their prayers, as they soon returned to recklessly betting on games.

Despite the dangers, sports gambling is being legalized in more states, and it’s being made easier to place a bet from anywhere. “In some states all you need to do is download a gambling app, provide some basic information, and you can place all the bets you desire from the comfort of your couch. What this means is that a greater number of people will be betting ever more money on sports. In fact, according to a recent ESPN story, “A record 50.4 million adults in the United States — roughly 20 percent of the population — are expected to combine to bet approximately $16 billion on Super Bowl LVII.” Keep in mind that those figures apply to one football game.

The fact that sports gambling is legal in so many states does not mean it is insulated from sophisticated criminals. In fact, the more money being wagered, the more unscrupulous people there will be seeking a piece of the pie. Such people will attempt to infiltrate (and influence) gambling companies. They will try to manipulate athletes competing in the games (to shave points), and they will do whatever it takes to obtain nonpublic information about individual players and teams, including bribery and blackmail as this insight can provide them an information advantage over others betting on the same contests.

In pursuit of nonpublic information that will give them an edge, unscrupulous gamblers will do what organized crime groups and spy agencies have always done. They will identify people who have “access and a vulnerability,” and then they will target and exploit some of them. “Access” in this context refers to people who possess nonpublic information about players and teams (which good player is more injured than reported). “Vulnerability” refers to those with a weakness of some type that could open them up to being taken advantage of by another person (a drug, gambling, or sex addiction, a major financial problem, etc.). In effect, an unscrupulous bettor will seek to satisfy the vulnerable person’s desires in exchange for the access (i.e., nonpublic information) that insider can provide. In my former line of work, I regularly witnessed people being exploited — some wittingly, some unwittingly — by criminals and spies. These are tried and true tactics, and the same activity could become prevalent in the sports realm, all driven by gambling.

Broken lives are bad enough, but the impact that gambling scandals could have on the integrity of athletic contests is also troubling. How many point-shaving episodes (or related insider betting controversies) would it take before the public began to question whether participants are compromised? (Not much of the wrongdoing will soon be identified as, according to a New York Times investigation, few enforcement resources are being utilized to examine potential issues.

One of the things I love about sports is the presumption that the games are as fair as humanly possible (with a little assistance from technology, such as video replay). At the end of the game, there is great certainty about who won and who lost. Let’s not let the activities of unscrupulous individuals cast a shadow on the certainty of who won and lost the game.

I remember an instructor from the FBI Training Academy explaining to my new agent class that mind-altering substances and gambling have always been a part of society and humans will probably always continue to engage in them. I’m not advocating for a return to the days in which sports gambling was (mostly) illegal and run by criminals. But much more needs to be done to educate the public about the dangers of gambling. It’s not enough to provide a phone number for problem gamblers to call. By then, it’s often too late.

We should aim to prevent people from becoming problem gamblers in the first place. And we need to do far more to inform those fortunate enough to be associated with major sports teams about the gambling-related risks they, their families, and friends face. For the athletes, this begins by informing them that they have a target on their back and then equipping them with the know-how necessary to safely navigate the new sports gambling environment.

Bill Priestap, founder of Trenchcoat Advisors, coached football at the high school and college levels and served as the director of Football Operations at the University of Michigan. He later spent 21 years with the FBI and led its counterintelligence division from 2015 through 2018.

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