The NBA’s lifetime ban of Jontay Porter over gambling, explained

The NBA has banned Toronto Raptors player Jontay Porter for life after an internal investigation found that he placed bets on basketball and gave information to a bettor to improve their odds.

The Porter fracas is the latest involving athletes and sports betting as the gambling industry has exploded in recent years and as such transactions have become increasingly accessible. It also follows a recent scandal centered on baseball superstar Shohei Ohtani’s interpreter Ippei Mizuhara, who has been charged with taking $16 million from the athlete to cover gambling debts.

Porter’s gambling practices — including a willingness to change his gameplay to assist with certain bets — ultimately spotlight the ethical quandaries that sports betting poses for athletes and leagues as it becomes more popular.

The betting industry has grown significantly since 2018, when the Supreme Court struck down a policy barring many states from allowing commercial sports betting. In the years since, the majority of states have legalized both in-person and online sports betting, making the practice available to far more people. In 2023, sports betting raked in a record $10.92 billion in revenue, bringing in roughly 45 percent more as an industry than the year before.

As Porter’s case illustrates, a central question raised by the prevalence of sports betting is how sports leagues and athletes can maintain the integrity of their games as betting becomes more common and lucrative.

“The recent case of the NBA’s Jontay Porter is, I am afraid, just the tip of the iceberg,” Sean McKeever, a Davidson College professor who teaches a course on sports and philosophy, told Vox. “The corrupting forces are powerful ones. … And bettors stand to make significant sums if they can extract valuable information and behavior from players and those around them.”

The Porter scandal and its mechanics, explained

Porter, a 24-year-old now-former power forward for the Raptors, had been playing in the NBA for four seasons. His penalty for gambling was announced by the league earlier this week and has been viewed by sports observers as a warning shot to other players who might be tempted to try similar practices.

“There is nothing more important than protecting the integrity of NBA competition for our fans, our teams and everyone associated with our sport, which is why Jontay Porter’s blatant violations of our gaming rules are being met with the most severe punishment,” NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said in a statement.

Porter wound up getting caught after a bet that was placed on his performance got flagged as suspicious by licensed sports betting operators and an organization that monitors gambling markets, the NBA says.

The NBA found Porter did three things wrong.

Firstly, Porter bet on NBA games himself, which is strictly banned for players in the league. The NBA found that he had used someone else’s online betting account to place 13 bets that amounted to $54,094 total on multiple games. These bets did not include games that Porter played in, though they did include bets on Raptors games that he did not play in.

Secondly, Porter gave a sports bettor information about his health status ahead of a March 20 game, inside information that could have helped that bettor place wagers and potentially make money.

And thirdly, Porter altered his own actions in a game in order to help fulfill a wager that a bettor had made. In sports betting, people can bet on everything from who will score the most points to whether a player commits a foul. These are known as proposition bets, or prop bets, which focus more on developments in a game than just the outcome of a game.

In Porter’s case, a bettor had placed a prop bet for $80,000 on the fact that he would underperform in a March 20 game. The payout for that bet would have been $1.1 million. In that game, Porter stopped playing after just three minutes, claiming that he felt sick. This bet, however, was flagged by betting operators and frozen. Following its investigation, the NBA has concluded that Porter claimed illness so that this wager would be successful.

Porter’s actions highlight longstanding fears about how athletes could not only affect game outcomes for their own benefit but also take smaller actions to help bettors. The most aggressive version of such behavior would be to throw a game completely, but there is a range of other factors to manipulate, too, since bets can be placed on who scores the first basket, for example, or who has the most rebounds.

The league’s penalty for Porter is the harshest that’s available, and it marks the first time the NBA has banned a player for gambling-related offenses since 1954. It is intended to indicate both its lack of tolerance for such activities and suggest that there are safeguards in place to catch this behavior while the league continues to collaborate with sports betting businesses.

Sports leagues — including the NBA, NFL, and NHL — actively work with licensed betting platforms to promote sports betting in exchange for a significant cut of the revenue. The NBA, for example, works with FanDuel and DraftKings as its sports betting partners and has integrated live betting during games into its app. The NFL, similarly, has formal sports betting partnerships; the Washington Commanders even host a sports betting hub in their stadium.

“It is everywhere around us in any sports programming we watch,” says Villanova University sports law professor Andrew Brandt.

Porter’s case allows the NBA to argue that it can catch bad actors, despite being an active participant in boosting this industry itself.

“The Jontay Porter bets were flagged by one of the ‘integrity’ companies used by these leagues to note irregular betting,” Brandt told Vox. “Now Porter is banished, and the NBA can claim integrity and simply remove a rogue player that transgressed.”

This is a growing problem that isn’t going away

The sports betting market is only expected to get bigger in the coming years, with Goldman Sachs predicting that it will eventually go from a $10 billion industry to a $45 billion one. For now, 38 states and DC have legalized the practice, with more likely to do so given the hefty tax revenues that come along with it.

The prevalence and accessibility of sports betting are likely to expose more people — including athletes — to it, increasing the potential likelihood of addiction, exploitation, and situations like Porter’s. “As the proportion of the population who gambles grows, so will the proportion of athletes who gamble and who develop problems,” says Lia Nower, the head of the gambling studies center at Rutgers University.

Nower notes that athletes in particular are more susceptible to developing problem gambling habits because they have a higher likelihood of betting on sports, which is a type of gambling more tied to problem gambling. Additionally, she says athletes as a group are more open to risk-taking and competitiveness, and they might believe they’re better at making wagers because of their background.

Such concerns underscore the awkward line sports leagues have tried to tread as they seek to make money from sports betting while also attempting to ensure that their players don’t get caught up in it.