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Six Questions About the Jontay Porter NBA Gambling Scandal

I keep thinking about the five years it took for Jontay Porter, who is being investigated by the NBA for “betting irregularities,” to put himself in a position to even be able to cheat the very game he purportedly loves.

Porter, a five-star recruit in high school, chose not to go the one-and-done route at Missouri, as his brother Michael Porter Jr., a 2018 lottery pick now in the second year of a five-year, $179 million deal, did. But then Jontay tore his ACL and MCL in an offseason scrimmage, forcing him to miss his entire sophomore season. Five months later, in early 2019, he tore his ACL again. “In all honesty, I was impatient and completely naive to think I was ready to get back on the court and play before I was cleared to,” he wrote on Twitter then.

He went undrafted in 2019, rode the commercial airlines of the G League circuit for the better part of three seasons, and mulled quitting basketball altogether before finally landing on a rebuilding Toronto Raptors team in December. “It’s quite the comeback story, I guess,” he told Sportsnet’s Blake Murphy. “Hopefully, it has a happy ending.”

That comeback story is now indefinitely on pause, as Porter may have chosen a path with more twisted incentives. Last week, the NBA announced that it is investigating Porter over a series of prop bets involving him that were attempted on Raptors games on January 26 and March 20.

The investigation into Porter comes at a critical moment for sports gambling. Since the landmark Murphy v. NCAA case legalized sports gambling in New Jersey, 37 other states have followed suit. Sports betting generated $10 billion in revenue last year. The NBA, which plans on letting you seamlessly bet over/unders on League Pass very soon, is projected to rake in $167 million in gambling-related revenue this season. Sportsbooks sponsor the league and many of the most prominent media organizations that cover it. ESPN has its own sportsbook. TNT Sports has partnerships with FanDuel and DraftKings. The Ringer itself has a partnership with FanDuel.

But between the Porter investigation and the Shohei Ohtani saga in MLB, public perception about how this movement could impact sports may be shifting. Reforms are already on their way. Will there be more? What comes next for Porter, the NBA, and the future of legalized sports gambling?

Here’s my attempt at untangling what’s going on.

What do we know?

On January 3, Porter made his Raptors debut.

He logged seven minutes and scored zero points while grabbing three rebounds. About three weeks later, in a game against the Clippers on January 26, the betting activity on Porter’s prop bets—bets on specific player stats, like rebounds and 3s, as opposed to game results—spiked. Bettors were taking the under on Porter’s props to a degree that DraftKings flagged multiple irregularities, according to ESPN. In some cases, five-figure wagers were placed on Porter props. Porter then left that game just four minutes in, citing the re-aggravation of an eye injury he apparently suffered in the prior game on January 22. On January 26, the under on 3-pointers made by Porter was the biggest moneymaker of the night for DraftKings bettors.

On March 20 against the Kings, a similar thing happened with Porter bets on DraftKings: There was irregular activity, large amounts of money were wagered, and Porter once again went scoreless and left the game early—this time with an illness—effectively guaranteeing a win for anyone who took an under on him. In the games under investigation, Porter didn’t crack eight minutes once. Porter has been out for “personal reasons” while the investigation continues.

What was so irregular about this?

It’s highly unusual for a two-way contract player like Porter, who isn’t even a lock to play if the rest of the Raptors are healthy, to garner so much betting interest. For Porter to also exit those games with ambiguous injuries and illnesses is even more unusual. For a player’s prop bets to pay out, the player must enter the game (if the player logs zero minutes, the bets are voided). And in the games under investigation, the sizes of some of the prop bets attempted on Porter suggest that people may have been extremely confident they would hit.

In a world before legal sportsbooks had the technology to monitor minute details, a strategy like this could have gone overlooked for a player whose prop bets would have been available on the black market. Before ESPN broke the story, nobody seemed to be batting an eye at the early game departures of a 10th man with an injury history on a rebuilding team. This is exactly the kind of anomaly that the algorithms and integrity monitors of modern-day sportsbooks are built to suss out, which brings me to my next question.

What does this say about legalized sports gambling?

A DraftKings spokesperson said that the Porter investigation speaks to one of the benefits of legal sports betting: “Sports betting operators identify and report suspicious activity, and the integrity of sport is therefore protected in a manner that does not exist in the illegal market.”

This point may be valid when it comes to other kinds of bets, but it doesn’t pass muster for this particular scenario. Prop bets on players who have as marginal an impact as Porter weren’t as readily available before recent legal changes made sports gambling much more accessible.

“People could have bet on props, perhaps in theory, in Nevada or in offshore sportsbooks for a long time, but there was never as wide of a menu as there is today,” says David Hill, host of The Ringer’s Gamblers podcast.

Beyond that, part of the reason Porter’s props were flagged is because the house generally isn’t willing to take too much of a beating. The algorithms don’t just catch cheaters. They identify winners and impose limits on how much they can wager going forward—a practice that legislators may curb—which is part of the reason the legalization of sports gambling hasn’t eliminated the black market.

Could this impact the future of player prop betting?

You could understand why Porter, who is signed to a two-way contract paying him a little more than $400,000 this season, would be more tempted to potentially make some extra cash by betting on his own player props than, say, LeBron James, who is making almost 125 times that, would be.

And he isn’t the only player with a troubling amount of incentive and power to manipulate betting markets. Multiple college football programs were hit with gambling scandals last season. Mo Hasan, a former SEC quarterback, recently said he was offered $300,000 to fix games. All of this has led the NCAA to urge states to ban player prop betting on all college athletes. Ohio, Maryland, and Vermont have already gotten on board.

But enacting such changes on a professional level would be trickier. How would we decide which players are too compromised to have prop bets? Would the criteria be based on salary, playing time, or something else? Could a player potentially play their way into prop bet status through the course of a season? And who would make these decisions? It feels too specific to performance to be a legislative issue, and sportsbooks aren’t exactly incentivized to reduce their customers’ options.

“[Legal sportsbooks] want to build out these same-game parlays. That’s where they’re going to make all their cheddar. Same-game parlays need a lot of betting options within a particular game,” Hill says. “And that’s why I think there’ll be real resistance from the sportsbooks to limiting those options.”

So, who exactly placed the Porter prop bets?

We don’t know yet. It could have been Porter. Or the mob. Or maybe even an army of Discord users. A report from Daily Hive’s Adam Laskaris suggests that Porter is the kind of guy who likes to seek out a financial edge and that he saw sports gambling as potentially lucrative.

Porter, Laskaris writes, is a cofounder of the Financial Cloud (a community trading website), which also has a Discord server. Per the report, Porter also has a trading account on Twitter that was active last month, which he linked in a tweet from his main account, confirming its identity. He has discussed stocks, cryptocurrency, and college basketball gambling edges on the account. Laskaris reports that the account even liked a tweet from an account that has since gone private, which suggested that there was value to be had in betting on the Memphis Grizzlies, a team Porter briefly played for.

Gambling Discords, Hill says, have proliferated in recent years: “These Discords can sometimes move numbers because you may have thousands of people, you know, steaming a bet all at the same time because it gets posted.”

Whoever made these bets strikes Hill as unsophisticated. He cites the suspicious five-figure bets that triggered DraftKings’ algorithm: “It’s stupid to try to make that bet because it’s going to look so fishy because no one does it. Anybody who bets on props knows a lot of these places won’t take more than 100 bucks on a prop like that from most gamblers.”

The algorithms that flagged this unusual betting activity are not foolproof. Until the NBA concludes its investigation, however, we won’t know for certain who placed these bets. And we won’t know whether Porter had a role in the irregular activity that raised the sportsbook’s suspicions.

What happens next?

If Porter is indeed found to have run afoul of the rules, the NBA will likely make an example of him in an effort to discourage other players from attempting something similar, as other sports have done: The NFL suspended wide receiver Calvin Ridley for a full season in 2022 for betting on NFL games.

But will that be enough? And what if potential copycats take to nonregulated markets?

Even if they don’t, conjecture has power in an industry where trust is paramount. If people like you and me don’t trust the authenticity of the thing we’re watching on the screen, everything else falls apart. Prominent former players such as Andre Iguodala (also the executive director of the NBPA) and Evan Turner have speculated that the NBA is rigged. Will current players start looking over their shoulders when teammates clank open layups? What will fans make of uncharacteristically bad performances or early exits like Porter’s? How could this impact NBA rules surrounding injury disclosures? And what further regulatory changes could be enacted?

Two weeks ago, Jontay Porter was just a bit player trying to hang on in an ultracompetitive league. Now, he’s at the center of an investigation that could have sports-wide ripple effects.

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