Jack Todd: Sports betting tarnishes the integrity of every league

Gambling is a cancer. For some it’s a harmless pastime but for too many others, it’s an addiction that destroys individuals and families.

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In the wake of the 41-game suspension handed to Ottawa’s Shane Pinto Thursday, someone sent a close-up of Pinto wearing his home-ice black helmet last season.

The message on the side of the helmet? “Bet99.”

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Bet99, for those just back from a trip to Pluto, is the Canadian version of BetMGM, formed when Wayne Gretzky signed a deal to act as a brand ambassador for the American gambling giant in order to exploit the legalization of single event sports betting in Canada.

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Bet99 quickly signed Connor McDavid and Auston Matthews, the two biggest stars on Canadian teams, to push its product in that orgy of sports gambling ads we were forced to watch last season.

The Ontario Gaming Commission put an end to that in August when it banned the use of athletes in advertising for online gambling, but it’s noteworthy that the decision did not come from the NHL and it did not affect helmet advertising.

The Senators became the first club to allow gambling advertising on home helmets back in 2021 — so while Pinto is a walking advertisement for gambling every time he puts on his home uniform, he can lose half a season for betting on sports.

The hypocrisy is stunning. Like all the other pro leagues, the NHL has taken a headlong gamble on gambling. The league is awash in gambling ads, between periods gambling updates and gambling partnerships and it was the first to place a franchise in Las Vegas. Billionaire owners are scooping up the revenue from gambling interests with both fists — but let a 22-year-old player place bets and he can lose half a season.

The NHL, which cannot deliver a report on its investigation into the alleged Ontario gang rape months after it was promised, can still railroad a player in record time when gambling is involved. Yet if anyone connected with the league finds the hypocrisy embarrassing, they hide it well.

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(Let’s be clear: Pinto was stupid to gamble on sports. The league did not divulge the exact nature of his offence and Pinto apparently did not bet on NHL games, but given the ban on sports betting, he should have known better.)

Pinto became the first NHL player to be suspended for gambling since Billy Taylor, Don Gallinger and Babe Pratt back in the 1940s. (Injustice was as much a part of the league then as it is now: Taylor and Gallinger played for the Boston Bruins when they were suspended for life during the 1947-48 season for gambling on Bruins games, while Pratt played for the Leafs when he gambled on Toronto games in 1946 and received a nine-game suspension.)

Pinto can take some consolation in the fact that he is not alone. The NFL has suspended 10 players for gambling in the past two years, even though the league has multiple sportsbook “partners,” including BetMGM, FanDuel, Caesars and DraftKings. (Quick — raise your hand if you believe that no billionaire owner has ever bet on the NFL.)

Watch an NBA game and you’ll see the NBA logo paired with FanDuel, which is also the authorized gaming operator for Major League Baseball, which has banned Pete Rose for gambling for the past 25 years.

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Gambling is also heavy on college football and basketball games in the U.S. but so far, the always greedy NCAA has resisted the temptation to partner with one of the major sportsbooks.

The suspensions were probably inevitable once the U.S. Supreme Court opened the floodgates with the 2018 decision to allow individual states to enact their own laws on sports gambling. They’re also the tip of the iceberg.

Already, we have an entire generation of sports crazy 10- and 12-year-old kids thinking gambling is just dandy because the branding is everywhere from Shane Pinto’s helmet to the breathless odds updates on SportsCentre.

The player suspensions are small stuff. One fine day, it’s all but inevitable that a complex scheme to fix betting odds will come to light. It may involve players, coaches, referees and anyone else in a position to influence not simply the outcome of a game but also the in-game plays on things like missed field goals and muffed penalty shots.

Gambling, once the bane of owners and commissioners in every league, has taken over pro sports with what appears to be minimal thought or foresight on the part of team owners and league offices. Even the NBA, the best-run league in North America, took the plunge without blinking and will soon follow through with a franchise in Las Vegas.

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Make no mistake: gambling is a cancer. For some it’s a harmless pastime but for too many others, it’s an addiction that destroys individuals and families. It undermines the integrity of every sport, tarnishes the reputation of everyone involved and it will one day cause a scandal that will dwarf the 1919 Black Sox scandal that ended the career of the great Shoeless Joe Jackson.

Jackson’s fate puts Shane Pinto’s ban to shame. The drastically underpaid Shoeless Joe took money to throw a World Series, then played his heart out — but his suspension from Major League Baseball reached 102 years in August.

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