NBA’s banishment of Jontay Porter is about money and perception, not morality

We are, probably for the betterment of society, long past the point where press releases can be believed on the whole. To the extent that we ever believed in what was passed down from the powers that be, that automatic nodding along has become, well, less automatic.

“There is nothing more important than protecting the integrity of NBA competition for our fans, our teams and everyone associated with our sport, which is why Jontay Porter’s blatant violations of our gaming rules are being met with the most severe punishment,” commissioner Adam Silver said in a league statement announcing Porter’s banishment.

And, oh, by the way, the NBA has partnerships with DraftKings and FanDuel, which increases the total basketball-related income the league splits evenly with its players. Left unsaid: That might be a little more important than the integrity of NBA competition. (Full disclosure: The Athletic has had a partnership with BetMGM since 2021.)

Let’s rewind: The NBA found Porter, the now-former Toronto Raptors centre, informed a known NBA bettor about his health status, leading to that individual placing an $80,000 parlay on an online betting site to win $1.1 million. (That wager was flagged because of unusual activity and frozen.) It also found that while Porter did not himself bet on games he was involved in, he placed 13 bets through an associate’s account on the league from January to March while he was travelling with the Raptors or their G League affiliate, Raptors 905, including one parlay that included a bet on the Raptors to lose. He lost that particular bet, but ultimately made nearly $22,000 in winnings on the more than $54,000 in wagers he made.

Sure, the league cannot risk the game becoming obviously rigged, and Porter’s actions, assuming the investigation was accurate, had to be punished harshly. If these partnerships weren’t making everyone richer in the process, you wonder if the league would have been so righteous in its wrath.

Porter’s winnings are a paltry sum to lose a potential NBA career over, but a few things should be considered. He was on a two-way contract, and even if Porter got a multi-year contract from the Raptors, it was likely to be the lightly guaranteed type that would have still involved having to make the team in training camp next year. The Raptors have not made a history of guaranteeing the contracts of totally unproven NBA players, and while Porter showed some flashes of being a rotation-level player, they were just that — flashes. The Raptors also added Kelly Olynyk in February after signing Porter in December, so their need for a big man with shooting and passing skills was no longer as vital.

Then there is the obvious: Gambling on sports can be highly addictive.

It is that last issue that makes it so difficult to watch this scandal unfold. It is easy to write Porter off as foolishly betting away his NBA career. Indeed, the league’s policy clearly states players cannot gamble on any NBA-related content, including the G League and Summer League. The league (and the FBI and American justice system) came down hard on former referee Tim Donaghy when he was found to have impacted point spreads, and has banned players dating to its earliest days for betting on sports. Back then, the NBA didn’t have business partnerships with sports books.

That is where the league taking the moral high ground on this becomes very iffy. There are safe and responsible ways to gamble, just as there are relatively safe ways to interact with many vices. But, no number of “gambling problem?” hotline phone numbers read at three times the speed on podcasts, no number of public service announcements regarding only wagering what you can afford to lose, can dissuade people with genuine addictions. Reports indicate Porter has gambled a lot of money on sports over the last few years.

It appears the league doesn’t have support guidelines for those who might have such an addiction in place. There was no wording in the statement about offering Porter counselling or other forms of support, as there often is with substance abuse violations. The Athletic reached out to the league to see if any services were being offered to Porter. There was no immediate response.

It is also worth noting that this is a far harsher punishment than the NBA hands down for offences that involved taking performance-enhancing drugs, for which the standard is a 25-game suspension, most recently given to Cleveland Cavaliers centre Tristan Thompson for testing positive for a growth hormone and muscle-building drug. Now, providing insider information and removing yourself from competition is certainly more impactful on the integrity of the game than taking drugs, but the two violations are at least in the same general vicinity.  During drug-related suspensions, players are allowed to participate in practices and travel with their teams, too. Here, just ostracization and banishment.

Away from the court, the league also has not been as harsh in penalizing players who have committed crimes, including those related to domestic violence. Charlotte Hornets forward Miles Bridges was given a 30-game suspension for pleading no contest to a felony charge of injuring a child’s parent. The league also ruled that 20 of those games had already been served in 2022-23, when Bridges didn’t play because of the issue popping up on the eve of free agency. He ultimately signed his $7.9 million qualifying offer, missed 10 games to start this season, and will be an unrestricted free agent this offseason. Meanwhile, the court sentenced him to three years of probation, which included a protective order, counselling and drug testing. The league has an anti-drug policy with specific penalties and accommodations in place.

The criminal system may yet still punish Porter, but the league apparently wants nothing more to do with him. A fringe player sure does make a convenient scapegoat. Meanwhile, the league will continue to work in concert with its partners, and trumpet how legal gambling helps protect against wagers like the ones Porter made, while saying nothing about how much easier legalization makes gambling in the first place.

There was at least one heartening line in Silver’s statement.

“… This matter also raises important issues about the sufficiency of the regulatory framework currently in place, including the types of bets offered on our games and players.”

The point? It is far too easy to manipulate things like player-specific over/unders, and perhaps the league will put a limit on the types of bets that can be made. That is good, but is merely another example of the league trying to protect itself more than the people involved.

It is easy to drop the hammer on a player like Porter. Until the league turns down significant revenue and puts guidelines in place to help those who violate the rules, the league’s morality stance seems like little more than savvy public relations.

(Photo: Isaiah J. Downing / USA Today)

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