The game cost the Alabama coach his job. How much could that cost in baseball?

Tuscaloosa News

On Thursday, the University of Alabama abruptly fired baseball head coach Brad Bohannon for his involvement in a pair of suspicious bets involving Crimson Tide’s game against LSU last Friday. That night, a sportsbook bettor at Great American Ball Park – home of the Reds – placed two oddly large bets on LSU to win, large enough to attract the attention of US Integrity, the company retained by the Ohio Casino. Control Commission and the Southeastern Conference to monitor sports betting at state casinos.

On Monday, the OCCC asked bookmakers in Ohio to remove Crimson Tide games from the board. Regulators in other states have followed suit, as have several major online sportsbooks. And following Bohannon’s dismissal three days later, ESPN reporter David Purdum revealed that surveillance cameras in the bookmaker recorded the suspicious punter communicating with Bohannon as he placed the bets in question.

The substance of the conversation between the bettor and Bohannon has yet to be made public, but it’s reasonable to assume it pertained to the starting pitcher from Alabama that night. An hour before the start of last Friday’s game, Bohannon released starter Luke Holman, who suffered a minor back injury, and replaced him with Hagan Banks. Presumably, the bettor got this information before the public and bet accordingly.

This marks the first major gambling scandal in American baseball since the Supreme Court struck down the ban on single-game betting in 2018. Even what little we now know about the situation leaves a lot to unpack.

The biggest mysteries that remain, at least to me, are the punter’s relationship with Bohannon and the coach’s motives for sharing inside information with him. Bohannon was reportedly aware of the NCAA’s zero-tolerance policy on sports betting by coaches and athletes; communicating with a player under these circumstances would have been an immense risk, particularly if that player was careless enough to raise regulatory red flags. (More on the wisdom of this particular bet later.)

And it might or might not matter, but Bohannon was in a precarious position to begin with. He had been Alabama’s head coach since 2018; in four full seasons (not counting the current season or the COVID-shortened 2020 campaign), he’s never finished better than 12-17 in the SEC and has never won more than 32 games overall. The program is treading water at a bad time: SEC West is a tougher division than AL Central right now and won’t become tougher until Texas and Oklahoma join the conference in two years. Bohannon, pitching coach Jason Jackson (now interim head coach after Bohannon was fired) and athletic trainer Sean Stryker are also being sued by Johnny Blake Bennett, a former Alabama pitcher who claims the team mismanaged his recovery from thoracic outlet syndrome.

All of this is not to say, or even imply, that the gambling racket is a sham invented by the university so that it could fire Bohannon for cause and avoid paying a buyout. If the Ohio state government is involved, you can be sure the case is legitimate. On the contrary, Bohannon was not in a position where anyone above him in the food chain in Alabama would be particularly inclined to crane their necks to protect him.

Not that anyone could have helped Bohannon once the surveillance video linked him to the suspicious gambler. If his intention was to communicate the late pitch change for gambling purposes, he was either betting on his own team to lose or to encourage someone else to do so. If there is a graduated scale of sports betting sins, betting on your team to lose is one of the worst.

The popularity of sports – the integrity of sports, if we want to use that language – depends on all competitors making a serious effort to win. If two people pull on opposite ends of a rope and one lets go, both fall. That’s why the tank bothers people so much. This is why, in my opinion, a competitor who bets on sports is categorically worse than a competitor who cheats. Cheating, whether through PEDs, stealing electronic boards, or manipulating balls, can throw arm wrestling off balance, but since the forces keep pulling in the direction they’re supposed to, it doesn’t cause the game to collapse.

You could argue that this incident proves that the system is working. Regulators detected suspicious bets almost immediately and traced the bettor to Bohannon within a week. If this had happened at an illegal underground bookmaker, we might never have been the wiser. As far as we know, college baseball coaches have been leaking information to bookies for years, and this is only the first time anyone has been caught. No one was even looking for Tim Donaghy when he showed up as a bycatch in an FBI organized crime net. By bringing the game out into the open, the government can monitor it and make sure everything is level. Because that’s the proposition of legalized gambling: the odds may be in favor of the house, but the players know what the odds are. Everything else is shell game.

The introduction of legal gambling into sport takes the fundamental proposition of gambling – all parties must compete to win – and reinforces it. Not only do people invest emotionally in the outcome of a game, they also invest financially. You cannot repay hurt feelings after a loss, but you can repay lost gains.

Not only does sport have to be legitimate, then; must also look legit. It makes sense of Donaghy’s protestations that he never pitched a game, merely that he tipped players. This voids Pete Rose’s defense that he only ever bet on his team’s victory; there were matches where he did not bet on his team, and his proximity to illegal bookmakers made him vulnerable to coercion. This is why Bohannon’s punishment was so severe and so immediate. If the integrity of sport is called into question, sport will not survive long.

It bears repeating, however, that the bet that started all this fuss was placed from inside an MLB stadium. By partnering with sports betting, MLB has invited the game into the tent. Once inside, the bets go into everything.

The range of opinion on baseball’s adoption of the game runs the gamut, and it seems most people who have an opinion on the matter hold it firmly. There are avid bettors who will look at baseball less for its own sake and more as an opportunity to make a quick buck or experience the thrill of the action. There are others who oppose the game on moral or aesthetic grounds, or who resent the ubiquity of game content and advertising in an arena that was devoid of it just five years ago. years.

Personally, I am ambivalent on the issue. I don’t bet on sports, but more because it doesn’t interest me than because of an outright moral objection. Particularly in baseball; you have to be crazy to bet on a single regular season baseball game.

That’s what appeals to me about the bets that got Bohannon in trouble. How much could this information have really helped? LSU has held the No. 1 national ranking all season — nearly as long as any team in history. The Tigers would have been huge favorites no matter who started Alabama; Holman’s injury couldn’t have changed the odds so much. And even after he got injured and LSU took an 8-1 lead, Alabama put on a late rally and almost came back to win anyway. You can’t, as they say, predict baseball.

Still, we all have our frivolous spending, and it seems like a great way to have fun while losing money. And sure, gaming-centric content can be off-putting to people who are only there to watch the game, but it’s not hard to put together a radio segment or TV graphic that’s useful to gamers and interesting, or at least not offensive, to non-gamers. It is what it is, and MLB has way more reprehensible ways to make money.

But the game is increasing the pressure on the league to confirm the legitimacy of its product. It invites careful examination of matters imperceptible to the casual observer, such as minute differences in the way baseball behaves, or the probity of officials, or the timing of last-minute pitching changes. (Holman is fine, by the way; he went seven innings in an 11-2 win over Vanderbilt hours after his coach was fired.) It’s no innocent coincidence when there’s money from game in game.

At the same time, and perversely, the game invites bad actors in the game to take actions that would undermine this integrity – for example, a coach giving information that would persuade a bettor to place a big bet against his team. It could also invite bad actors outside the game to pressure players, coaches and officials into divulging inside information or even kicking off matches. The NCAA’s no-play policy may seem harsh, and the NFL’s recent list of game suspensions may seem draconian. But these measures are necessary. When the mere appearance of an irregularity could pose an existential threat to the league, there’s no paint too bright for the impassable line. Because once the game is in, it’s everywhere. It can only be monitored and regulated, but never completely mastered.

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