Gambling on your own team’s games has always been the biggest line to cross in team sports. It’s why Pete Rose is still out of the Hall of Fame and probably always will be (though, being pretty much the same unrepentant asshole he was on the field doesn’t help his cause much). While it’s certainly bad optics for leagues like the NHL that won’t itself investigate the Hawks’ cover-up of sexual assault, or the way other leagues handle domestic abuse or sexual assault, sprinting to say it’ll investigate Evander Kane — that betting on your own games chips away at the integrity the whole thing is built on. That’s not to justify these out of whack priorities, but that’s the deal. The whole industry and the many tentacles that spread out from them is based on a foundation of an unspoiled athletic contest. That may seem quaint, but it is.
If a wide selection of fans think that the game isn’t on the up and up — and no, not your “the ref is against us!” conspiracy theories, though the NBA made that true for a bit didn’t they — that intentions aren’t pure, the whole thing collapses.
So it wasn’t surprising to see the NHL jump on some loose Insta posts from Evander Kane’s ex-wife about him betting on Sharks games, even though they can drag their feet on just about everything else. It may not seem to be a crime on the level that others they have ignored or wished away have been, but it gets to something fundamental that the others don’t.
Except how far can the NHL go given the current climate and partnerships in sports?
In just the past three years, the NHL and every league has signed myriad agreements with sports betting companies, just as every other league has. The odds run on sports tickers at the bottom of the screen during broadcasts. Pregame and intermission shows dedicate a couple minutes at least to the changing odds and best bets. The ads run nonstop. Teams’ own channels run shows completely dedicated to sports betting (which I have no doubts are probably some of the worst shows imaginable. You know a show is bad when it has to tell you how funny and fun they are).
So how exactly is the NHL going to punish Kane and argue that betting is bad?
They’ll say that being in bed with every gambling company they can find doesn’t apply to their players. They’ll say betting on his own games is THE cardinal violation. They’ll tell you that they have plenty of partnerships and sponsorships that the players can’t indulge in. Like signing on with beer and liquor companies doesn’t mean their players can show up tack-hammered to every game (that hasn’t stopped a few players I’m sure).
Even physical proximity will soon be a pretty funny juxtaposition, as NHL and NBA arenas open their own sportsbooks for in-game betting mere feet away from players who will be told they can’t go anywhere near it.
There’s also a healthy debate about that very foundation and how much fans care about it as they become bettors more and more. With daily and season-long fantasy plays, betting, and the devotion more to players from the video games they play instead of teams, how thick is the line about winning and losing going to remain?
But it’s going to make for awfully interesting viewing when the league, if the league, has to punish Kane for the evils of sports gambling right before yet another PointsBet ad runs on its website. And just how hard do those sponsors want the NHL to go in on this?
(It should be stated that Kane makes for a very unconvincing sympathetic figure, even if gambling can be a devastating affliction and he clearly has a problem, because he’s a known shitweasel).
It’s not just the league itself either, but those who are supposedly the watchdogs. Danny Funt yesterday at the Columbia Journalism Review did a thorough deep dive into what sports gamblings bloodless coup of sports journalism means now and could mean later. And if you really want to twist yourself into knots, just ask yourself what will happen when reporters have inside information about stuff like this but can’t report it, but can certainly bet on it. That’s the crux of Funt’s article. And before you say that editors and bosses wouldn’t like that, know that very soon editors and bosses will be the gambling companies. (Which is not to say that any reporter in San Jose or elsewhere knew about Kane’s problems, as that’s not been reported anywhere) Who watches the watchmen, and all that.
This is the bed the NHL and sports leagues have made for themselves. The thought was that athletes made too much now, unlike in 1919, to be influenced by gamblers looking to profit off the influence they could wield. And that is mostly still true. But there will always be problems like Kane. And leagues like the NHL will attempt to tell you how wrong he was with checks from Caesar’s, DraftKings, and PointsBet sticking out of their pockets. It’s an odd look.
We still hold the sanctity of the competition above all else. Us vs. them and may the best team win with what happens between the lines. And that’s what the NHL can still run to if it comes time to punish Kane. But that foundation isn’t as strong as it used to be.