Athletes who Gamble: Why Do They Keep Violating the Rules?

Opinion Sportsbooks/Bookmakers
Earl Burton

Updated by Earl Burton

Journalist

Last Updated 10th Jun 2024, 08:04 PM

Chicago White Sox aka Black Sox 1919

The Chicago White Sox in 1919 became known as the Chicago Black Sox for the biggest sports gambling scandal of the time. (Image: GL Archive/Alamy)

The recent suspensions by Major League Baseball (MLB) of five players, one being a lifetime suspension, has left many fans with several questions. One might be “Why is baseball suspending these guys?” and that is a question that is going to need answering in another article. Another is “Why do these guys keep violating the rules?” and that question is one that we will try to address right now. It is a multi-faceted situation that not only MLB but also many other professional sports outlets are currently facing.

Draconian Punishments? Not In Baseball’s Eyes

On June 5, MLB handed down suspensions to five players related to gambling. For four of those players, it was a year-long suspension for wagering on the sport of baseball in games in which they were not participating. For infielder Tucupita Marcano of the San Diego Padres, it was a lifetime suspension. What made his punishment worse? Marcano was found to have bet on the Pittsburgh Pirates, the team he was with at that time. 

Ever since the Black Sox Scandal of 1919, when members of the Chicago White Sox were found guilty of conspiring with gamblers to throw the World Series (as depicted in the film Eight Men Out), baseball has been highly draconian with its punishments “in the best interest of baseball,” as determined by the first Commissioner of baseball, Kenesaw Mountain Landis. Not only were the eight White Sox players banned from the game for life, but a player who was not a part of the conspiracy, ‘Shoeless’ Joe Jackson, was swept up in a “guilt by association” manner and banned as one of the eight ‘Black Sox.’ Those suspensions last to this very day. 

Since that time, MLB visits every Spring Training facility before the start of the season and instructs both the minor and major leaguers on the nuances of Rule 21. To paraphrase, Rule 21 prohibits any player, manager, coach, trainer, or other team personnel from betting on baseball in ANY manner. Punishments for violating this rule can range from a temporary suspension to banishment from the game.

This rule was not tested until The Pete Rose Saga began. Rose, considered one of the greatest players the game has ever seen, bet on the team he was managing at the time, the Cincinnati Reds with bookies (this only became known once info about Rose’s tax issues arose and after the bookmakers sang about Rose’s involvement to save their skins). Investigations into the situation lasted for several months and, after being confronted with the voluminous evidence that investigator Tom Dowd had found, Rose voluntarily gave up his eligibility for anything regarding baseball – working in the game, managing, EVERYTHING – to then-Commissioner A. Bartlett Giamatti in 1989. (it did NOT, however, prohibit election to the Baseball Hall of Fame; the Hall has in its bylaws that candidates must not be under any suspensions by MLB to be eligible, which is what keeps him from induction.)

Rule 21 is extremely basic and straightforward. Any person involved with the game of baseball who wagers on the sport faces at minimum a yearlong suspension from the game. If a person can have a direct effect on the outcome of a said game that they have placed a bet on, then they are automatically to receive a lifetime ban from the game. It is what Rose received and what Marcano got for his wagers (which were about $150,000 on baseball, with roughly $87,000 on games he was involved with the Pirates). 

Pete Rose trophy room

Pete Rose, seen here in 1979, was the biggest star in baseball until betting on games he was involved in derailed his career. (Image: Ira Berger/Alamy)

If the Rule is That Harsh, Why Do Players Violate It?

So, if Marcano and the other four men were informed of the rule, knew what they were doing was wrong, yet did it anyway…WHY did they do it? It is a simple examination of the changes in culture. Cultural changes, however, are not grounds for overturning these professional sports leagues' rules regarding governing their sports. 

To explain why the 1919 Black Sox threw the World Series, you only must look at the state of the game then. Players of that era were comparable to the Bic lighters of today, disposable entities that were paid as little as possible to enable the owners to make the most profits. These players were paid by the gamblers a reported $100,000, a huge amount of money in that era and vastly more than what White Sox owner Charles Comiskey was paying them. 

In every other gambling scandal since then – the Bradley University point-shaving scandal of 1951 in NCAA college basketball and Paul Hornung and Alex Karras being suspended by Pete Rozelle of the National Football League for a year in 1963 comes to mind – the entire reason was that the players weren’t being paid (or paid enough, as in Hornung and Karras’ cases). Without adequate compensation, these players were left to other devices to try to make a buck, and some turned to using their knowledge (more on this in a moment) to pick it up. 

But what about now? Marcano was earning $746,000 on his one-year contract with the San Diego Padres, but it is more about what he might have made in the future. Comparable players to Marcano are Cavan Biggio and Nicky Lopez, who are making $4.21 and $4.3 million, respectively, for playing this season. If Marcano had been able to stay away from betting on baseball, he could have had a healthy bankroll by the time his career was over. 

For Marcano and the other players, it is not about the potential winnings from gambling (although, if the numbers for Marcano were correct, he was looking to make some bank, but he lost about 75% of his bets). It is more about the action that is generated. These players all have plenty of free time on their hands and, with the contracts that they have signed, they also have the “screw around” money to be able to lay wagers down. With that free time, the attraction to gambling is appealing.

Second, the public viewpoint on gambling is undergoing a metamorphosis that was unexpected a decade ago. It was not until the US Supreme Court struck down the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act (PASPA) of 1993 in 2018 that widespread sports betting has proliferated. In 2017, only three states – Nevada, Delaware, and Wyoming – were allowed to accept wagers on professional sports. Once PASPA was overturned, the floodgates opened on sports betting in the US – 38 states and the District of Columbia now allow for the activity.

This widespread acceptance of legalized sports betting has a new generation that is coming up without the stigma that was associated with sports wagering. Because it is legal, it is thought that anyone can do it. However, there are huge reasons why these athletes and others associated with their games, cannot take part in the activity. 

Tucupita Marcano pittsburgh

Tucupita Marcano had a promising career ahead of him but violated MLB gambling rules in ways that would lead to a lifetime ban. He wasn't the first to bet on games he was playing in, but will he be the last? (Image: Archie Carpenter/UPI/Alamy Live News)

What Difference Does It Make?

The difference can be cited by comparing these professional athletes and personnel to another field of expertise – the business world. 

In the business world, knowledge about the inner workings of a company can be quite lucrative for those IF they were to take advantage of that info on the New York Stock Exchange (or other commodities market). If these people were able to buy or sell their stock at just the right time, it could net them large sums of money. The issue with this is it is illegal; it is called insider trading because you are utilizing information that the general public does not have to increase the success of your potential stock trades being profitable (it can also affect companies, but that is a discussion for another time). 

In sports, knowledge of what is going on with a team – a player that is under the weather, or nursing a nagging injury, a player that is potentially slumping because of familial issues or the potential of being traded or sent to the minors – is gold to those who are wagering on the games. While watching the trends and performance of these players may reveal aspects of these situations, teammates and team personnel who observe that there is something wrong could utilize that info to make a sizeable chunk of change through the right bet. 

It is even worse if that player is actively participating in the sport (s)he is betting on. A player who can affect the outcome of the game – a prop bet of points scored or groove a pitch to a batter – can manipulate the proceedings to a point to make their bets come home. This is what caught Toronto Raptors forward Jontay Porter and earned him a lifetime ban from the National Basketball Association. 

Conclusion

The integrity of sports is only viable if the public sees that the games are being conducted on a legitimate, level playing field (no pun intended). Team personnel, or even worse players, who use their information or playing skills to affect the outcomes of games to their benefit change this level playing field to the point where the public loses trust. This is why the leagues crack down on such activities. Despite all the warnings from those in charge, however, the players are going to do what they want to do – sometimes to their detriment.

Meet The Author

Earl Burton
Earl Burton
Journalist Journalist

Over the past two decades, Earl has been at the forefront of poker and casino reporting. He has worked with some of the biggest poker news websites, covering the tournaments, the players, and the politics, and has also covered the casino industry thoroughly. He continues to monitor the industry and its changes and presents it to readers around the world.

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