Brown and red leaves weren’t the only unusual sight during last year’s Masters Tournament. On top of an unprecedented November scene at Augusta National, one of the game’s most historic sites witnessed another peculiarity: one of the game’s most influential players donning a sports betting company’s logo on his hat.
Bryson DeChambeau, the reigning U.S. Open champion and No. 6 golfer in the world at the time, signed a multi-year endorsement contract with DraftKings in early November. DeChambeau became the first athlete to strike a deal with the well-known fantasy sports betting company, and, given the company’s growth, he likely won’t be the last.
Ever since the Supreme Court’s ruling in Murphy v. NCAA in 2018, sports gambling has consistently found itself in the spotlight. As a result, DraftKings was busy in 2020. Not only did it partner with professional sports teams, but it also went public through a special purpose acquisition corporation (“SPAC”).
Public perception, for the most part, seems to support the legalization and growth of sports gambling. While sports leagues in the past have opposed sports gambling, even they are taking advantage and cashing in on newfound revenue (especially given COVID-19 financial difficulties).
Yet, what are sports leagues doing to protect the integrity of their games? While looking only at a small sample, it’s clear that leagues have taken different approaches.
Just about any baseball fan (and most sports fans) will know the name Pete Rose, and because of his infamous gambling habits, Major League Baseball instituted the harshest penalty when it comes to athletes gambling on games. MLB Rule 21(d) details the following: If a player bets on any MLB game, the player will be suspended for one year. If a player bets on a game in which he participates, he is suspended indefinitely.
The NCAA has explicit rules, but they aren’t quite as harsh. Current NCAA rules say athletes and athletics employees are not allowed “(1) to bet on any sport sponsored by the NCAA at any level, including college and/or professional or (2) to share information for sports wagering purposes.” If an athlete gambles, he/she loses eligibility for one year.
Meanwhile, the NFL, NBA, and MLS don’t have concrete minimum punishments in their Constitutions and/or collective bargaining agreements (CBAs) for gambling on games. Rather, those leagues give their respective Commissioners great flexibility in determining player punishment. The NFL’s Constitution, under Article 8.13(C), grants the Commissioner discretion in choosing a punishment. The 2020 CBA player contract also says the following:
Commissioner will have the right, but only after giving Player the opportunity for a hearing at which he may be represented by counsel of his choice, to fine Player in a reasonable amount, to suspend Player for a period certain or indefinitely, and/or to terminate this contract.”
The NBA Constitution and former MLS CBA use very similar language. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, in his first and only gambling-related punishment, suspended the Arizona Cardinals’ Josh Shaw for a season when he bet on the Cardinals to lose a game. But he wasn’t required to suspend Shaw.
The PGA TOUR’s policy strikes an interesting balance between the approaches of the NFL and MLB but adds a new wrinkle. Article VI(D) of the TOUR’s Tournament Regulations states players are subject to a minimum two-year suspension from tournament play for gambling activities. Interestingly, the TOUR also partnered with Genius Sports in 2018 to institute an “Integrity Program.”
Genius Sports offers a monitoring program that “utilizes proprietary algorithms to identify potentially suspicious patterns occurring in global betting markets.” The TOUR believes the integrity of its game is worth partnering with the monitoring system.
But what is leading different leagues to take different approaches? It might be a result of the various leagues’ distinct and diverging histories with gambling scandals. The NCAA, MLB, and PGA TOUR have the most explicit provisions and have had some history with gambling controversies. The NCAA and MLB have dealt with scandals that rocked their product. Meanwhile, the PGA TOUR’s Phil Mickelson garnered headlines for his relationship with an infamous Las Vegas gambler, and some caddies have suggested caddie gambling is not uncommon on the TOUR (and could be likelier for players on mini tours).
On the flip side, the NFL, NBA, and MLS don’t have concrete minimum punishments. The NFL, while it has had a few scandals throughout its history, has not been impacted like MLB or the NCAA. The NBA endured a referee scandal, but it didn’t gain quite the recognition of the Pete Rose story or some of the NCAA scandals. The author could not identify any known examples of player gambling in MLS.
Additionally, maybe some leagues fear gambling more than others simply because of the makeup of the sport. Controlling the outcome of a game is easier in basketball, where there are only ten players on the court, as opposed to football, where it is more difficult for one player to determine the outcome (except for, perhaps, the quarterback).
Yet, as DeChambeau’s partnership with DraftKings shows, athletes and gambling operations are now closer to each other than ever before (at least publicly). Athletes will continually be surrounded by gambling operations and their logos, and there’s already evidence that athlete gambling activities are likely underreported; an NCAA study showed 24 percent of male and 5 percent of female athletes had recently gambled on sports.
The PGA TOUR has a system in place and is, likely, not surprised by one of its players partnering with a sports betting company. When it began taking additional steps to protect itself back in 2018, it very well may have seen this day coming.
Now, it will be interesting to see whether other leagues take additional measures or instead decide they are comfortable with their current system in place.
For additional background and dialogue on this subject, see: Hayes Rule, Ensuring the Integrity of the Game: With the Acceptance of Sports Gambling, Professional Sports Leagues Must Clarify Player Punishments, 20 FLA. ST. U. BUS. R. ___ (forthcoming 2020).
Hayes Rule is a second-year law student at Florida State University College of Law, a legal intern at Heitner Legal, and a staff editor of the Florida State University Law Review.
“DraftKings” by World Poker Tour is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0.