5 of the biggest sports betting scandals in US history

The lure of big payouts has tempted some in sports to fix games. Sqore compiled a list of five of the biggest sports betting scandals in U.S. history.

Jill Jaracz
Posted

Shohei Ohtani #17 of the Los Angeles Dodgers swings the bat during workouts.

Chris Coduto // Getty Images

As of May 2024, 38 states plus Washington D.C. have legalized sports betting. Consequently, as betting has become increasingly entrenched in American sports, more high-profile scandals involving leagues and athletes have come to light.

Before the Supreme Court's 2018 decision to overturn a federal law banning sports betting, if you wanted to bet on sports, you had to visit Nevada (which was exempted from the law), go through an offshore site, or use an illegal bookmaker. As legalized sports betting spread through the country, the public started to pay more attention to sports now that they had money on the line. In 2023, the American Gaming Association reported that bettors spent $119.8 billion trying to beat the odds. Sports leagues like the NBA and MLB also benefited from the explosion of sports betting through exclusive partnerships with gaming companies.

However, leagues still want to see fair play, so the NFL, NBA, MLB, NHL, and NCAA all have policies around sports betting, and no league allows players—or employees—from betting on that league's games. The NCAA's policy extends to wagering on any NCAA-sponsored sport.

Yet, with more and more money on the line, the temptation for players and league employees to fix games increases. And as a result, more sports betting scandals are making the headlines. Sqore compiled a list of five of the biggest sports betting scandals in U.S. history.

While the sports betting theft scandal involving L.A. Dodger Shohei Ohtani dominated sports headlines in early 2024, many other athletes and coaches have recently come under fire for violating sports betting rules. In October 2023, the NHL suspended Ottawa Sen. Shane Pinto for 41 games for violating the league's gambling policies.

In April 2024, the NBA banned Toronto Raptor Jontay Porter for disclosing insider information with bettors, taking himself out of games to cover bets and betting on NBA games himself. The NCAA is not immune to scandals, finding 175 infractions of its sports-betting policy between 2018 and 2023, including the firing of Alabama baseball coach Brad Bohannon after reports of suspicious bets on the team and the investigation of 41 athletes from the University of Iowa and Iowa State for improper wagering.

Time will tell whether this new era of sports betting will bring back more scandals like these, which rocked fans' confidence in their favorite sports.

Black Sox fix the 1919 World Series

Newspaper clipping showing the Black Sox scandal headline.

New York Times Co. // Getty Images

Fixed games and gambling are nothing new in baseball, with players throwing games as early as 1865. But fixing a World Series was a different story. In 1919, the Chicago White Sox were the odds-on favorites to beat the Cincinnati Reds, but eight team members conspired with gamblers to throw the series for hefty payouts. Rumors of fixes abounded after the first game, which the White Sox lost 9-1. But the series went on, with the White Sox ultimately losing five games to three.

The incident might have been swept under the rug, but nearly a year later, a grand jury started to investigate the possible fixing of a regular-season game between the Cubs and the Phillies only to pivot to the White Sox's mysterious World Series loss the year before. Eight members of that White Sox team were indicted for conspiracy. While the players were acquitted in court, the MLB's first commissioner, Kenesaw Mountain Landis, banned all eight players from the game for life.

Pete Rose agrees to lifetime baseball ban for sports betting in 1989

Pete Rose of the Cincinnati Reds crouches on the field before a game.

Gary Gershoff // Getty Images

One of the greatest baseball players ever will never be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame due to sports betting. In 1988, allegations swirled around Cincinnati Reds player-manager Pete Rose that—along with betting on basketball and football—he had been betting on his own team to win since 1985. This was in direct violation of the MLB's Rule 21, which prohibits betting on baseball.

Then-MLB commissioner A. Bartlett Giamatti (father to actor Paul Giamatti) called for a special investigation of Rose, which provided ample evidence to back up the allegations, including that Rose had spent at least $10,000 per day betting on 50 individual Reds games in 1987. Rather than admit fault, Rose agreed to a lifetime ban from the sport in 1989.

Although Rose has formally asked to have his ban overturned, current MLB commissioner Rob Manfred denied the request in 2015.

Arizona State University basketball players caught point-shaving games in 1994

Stevin Smith dribbles the ball.

J.D. Cuban // Getty Images

During his senior year, Arizona State star Stevin "Headake" Smith found himself $10,000 in debt from gambling on pro sports. And then he met the man who would change the trajectory of his life.

Bookie Benny Silman concocted a scheme that would not only help Smith pay off his gambling debts but earn him some cash on the side. Smith, with the help of teammate Isaac Burton Jr., fixed four games through point shaving, a process where players miss points or let their opponents score to ensure that the final outcome didn't meet the point spread and help bookmakers earn a hefty payout.

Las Vegas sportsbooks soon noticed erratic bets on Arizona State games and called the FBI in to investigate. Smith and Burton pled guilty to conspiracy, and both served jail time.

Former NBA referee Tim Donaghy pleads guilty to gambling charges in 2007

Michael Jordan #23 of the Washington Wizards talks with referee Tim Donaghy.

Lisa Blumenfeld // Getty Images

A gambling addiction drove NBA referee Tim Donaghy to leverage inside information about referees' game schedules, teams and athletes' relationships with specific referees, and players' health, feeding the details to his gambling associates for more than four years and NBA seasons.

If he was right, the gamblers won big, and Donaghy got a payout. Donaghy also admitted that he gambled on games in which he had officiated, which would violate NBA rules. However, it was never proven that he purposefully made calls to affect the results of those games.

After the FBI started investigating his behavior, Donaghy resigned from the NBA and pled guilty to two counts of gambling-related conspiracy. Although his crimes carried a sentence of up to 25 years in prison, Donaghy only served 15 months of jail time and three years of probation. The NBA responded by getting more serious about game-fixing, implementing numerous systems to better monitor referees and suspicious bets.

MLB MVP Shohei Ohtani embroiled in gambling investigation in 2024

The Los Angeles Dodgers

DAVID SWANSON // Getty Images

While investigating Mathew Bowyer, an illegal bookmaker in California, federal agents discovered the name of baseball's biggest star on two wire transfer receipts. And just like that, Shohei Ohtani—who had signed a 10-year, $700 million contract with the Los Angeles Dodgers in December 2023—found himself in the middle of a gambling scandal.

Marked as "loans," the receipts totaled $1 million, a fraction of the $4.5 million that came from the athlete's account to pay off the gambling debts Ohtani's long-time interpreter, Ippei Mizuhara, racked up between 2021 and 2023.

When the story originally broke in March 2024, Ohtani's camp said the ballplayer had sent the wire transfers to cover Mizuhara's debt. The Dodgers fired Mizuhara after it came out that the interpreter, who had had access to Ohtani's bank account, made the payments without Ohtani's knowledge. Ohtani found out about the scandal at the same time as his teammates and has repeatedly said he had no idea about Mizuhara's gambling problem.

Mizuhari pled guilty to bank and tax fraud. As of May 2024, he faces a maximum sentence of 33 years in prison, a $1.25 million fine, and over $18 million in fines and restitution to Ohtani and his other victims. The MLB is conducting its own investigation of the matter.

Story editing by Carren Jao. Copy editing by Paris Close. Photo selection by Clarese Moller.

This story originally appeared on Sqore and was produced and distributed in partnership with Stacker Studio.