It was a solemn day when Pete Rose, the most prolific hitter in baseball history, was banned from the game.

Not only had Rose bet on baseball, but he had bet on his own team, the Cincinnati Reds. It cast suspicion on how Rose managed games that he may have wagered on. Commissioner Bart Giamatti knew the league couldn’t stand for Rose’s involvement any longer, even though he was one of the greats.

“If one is responsible for protecting the game of baseball — that is the game’s authenticity, coherence and honesty,” Giamatti said in 1989, “then the process one uses to protect the integrity of baseball must, itself, embody that integrity.”

I wonder what Giamatti and others would think now, as baseball launches into a scandal embroiling Dodgers superstar Shohei Ohtani, whose interpreter Ippei Mizuhara — a trusted friend, confidante and adviser — allegedly stole millions from him to cover gambling debts.

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It’s a sad story, but it forces us to question how Major League Baseball and other leagues that have embraced legal sports betting go about protecting the authenticity, coherence and honesty of their games. Gambling is now intrinsic to the business side of sports. The leagues themselves opened the floodgates, in search of more viewers and a cut of the revenue.

It’s important to distinguish that Mizuhara made bets with an illegal bookmaking operation in a state that doesn’t allow sports betting, and he told ESPN he never bet on baseball — then again, he also said he didn’t steal from Ohtani, so it’ll be a while before that can be determined for sure.

But gambling in general is not only permitted but encouraged by sports leagues. Try turning on March Madness without stumbling over two or three betting app advertisements per commercial break. There is a Superbook on the Camden Yards complex, and similar businesses are proliferating at stadiums and arenas all over the country steps away from the games themselves — nearly unthinkable as recently as a decade ago.

On Wednesday, hours ahead of the Ohtani scandal breaking, the NBA announced it would incorporate a live betting tool into its League Pass broadcast package. It makes sense from a strictly business perspective. Americans wagered an estimated $100 billion in 2023.

It might seem as if the scandal that has engulfed Ohtani is a canary in the coal mine of the risks of this intermingling. But the reality is that the signs have been there for some time.

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Last offseason, the NFL cracked down on 10 players for gambling, winding up raising the penalties for betting on league games. NCAA investigations have been more sprawling. A probe into Iowa and Iowa State last season resulted in at least six guilty pleas by athletes, with others set to go to trial this year. As you enjoy college hoops these next few weeks, try not to think about the NCAA games this season that have been flagged for unusual line moves.

Close to home, the Loyola Greyhounds men’s basketball team acknowledged it had fired a staffer for a gambling-related offense.

If you ascribe to the idea that the people who get caught represent a small percentage of the people who might be running afoul of the rules, it seems more like a crisis than a few bad apples.

Some of these penalties are being reevaluated now that sports betting is legal in many states. Easier access to sports betting and the separation of gambling from extralegal, shady enterprises imply that gambling is more a part of American sports culture than it used to be. Last November, the NCAA reduced penalties for athletes who gamble on sports other than their own.

But the issue that many sports leaders used to worry about — gambling affecting the integrity of the game — somehow hasn’t resonated.

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Then again, who would question it? Many major sports outlets now are tied in with gambling coverage: ESPN as much as anyone through its in-house sports book ESPN Bet, or news breakers such as The Athletic’s Shams Charania’s association with FanDuel. Stephen A. Smith might talk sternly about a gambling scandal on TV, but his face will be on ESPN’s betting ads, too.

It’s encouraging that ESPN was one of the outlets that helped break news of Mizuhara’s gambling debts and forced the Dodgers to fire him. On the other hand, when ESPN’s revenue and even its fate as a company are tied so deeply to gambling, can it be trusted to question what this scandal might mean more broadly? Poking at more pieces of the infrastructure might make the whole Jenga tower tumble.

But there is already a lot of wobbling if you gauge what people are wondering online. Going on X (formerly Twitter) or Reddit will quickly and easily yield conspiracy-theory mongering about whether it was really Mizuhara with the gambling problem or whether he is merely a fall guy for Ohtani.

Social media has elevated such speculation into far-reaching rumors, and conspiracy theories can be impossible to retract even when the truth could be much more innocent. Ohtani may be hurting from the betrayal of a close friend and a financial loss, but the more lasting damage could be the shadow that the scandal hangs over his career.

It’s bad for baseball to have its biggest star wrestling with the perception that he might have been involved with gambling. It undermines the sport’s integrity, leading the viewer to wonder if these world-class athletes could be compromised by the betting industry — either from the promise of money or the pressure of debt.

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That could hurt interest and love for sports, because no one likes a rigged game.

People used to care about this. Commissioners and media used to try to safeguard their sports from the specter of betting precisely because they understood that inviting such entities into the fold was, itself, a gamble.

Now we live in a different world, where the lines are blurred between the kind of gambling that’s welcome and the kind that represents a threat to the integrity of our sports. The leagues themselves have made it harder to tell the difference.

Kyle joined The Baltimore Banner in 2023 as a sports columnist. He previously covered the L.A. Lakers for The Orange County Register and myriad sports at The Salt Lake Tribune. He’s a Mt. Hebron High and University of Maryland alum.

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