Athletes can be banned for betting but what are the legal consequences?

Editor’s note: This story was published originally April 5 and has been updated.

Jontay Porter’s lifetime ban from the NBA for violating an assortment of league gambling policies is unprecedented in the NBA, and raises questions about the legal consequences athletes may face now that sports betting has become a regulated industry throughout the continent.

Although leagues and teams have broad powers to ban anyone found to contravene their policies around betting, governments haven’t kept pace with their laws.

“The risk of competition manipulation is so significant because there are so many ways to be able to wager on competitions nowadays,” said Jeremy Luke, president and CEO of the Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport (CCES). His team has led the charge in calls to make match-fixing illegal and criminal. Currently, there are no federal laws on the books in either Canada or the United States specifically criminalizing competitive manipulation in sports.

An internal NBA investigation found Porter was guilty of disclosing confidential information to bettors, manipulating his own performance, and betting on NBA games using an associate’s account. Some of his actions represent a type of competitive manipulation sometimes referred to as spot-fixing, meaning the NBA found Porter influenced aspects of the game but not necessarily its outcome.

Two of Porter’s performances – Jan. 26 and March 20 – triggered the NBA’s probe. In both cases, Porter left the game early, resulting in his points, rebounds, and 3-pointers totals falling under the prop-bet over-under lines available to bettors. The league found Porter disclosed health information to a known NBA bettor prior to his March 20 game.

The NBA is currently investigating Jontay Porter for irregularities in two of his performances Mark Blinch / Getty Images Sport / Getty

The NBA believed it had enough information to ban Porter but proving a crime could be a far different matter.

“Though it may seem clear that this is what he did to most people, actually proving his actions and intent may not be so easy,” Ben Michael, a criminal defense attorney in Austin, Texas, wrote in an email to theScore before the ban was announced.

Financial and health records, in addition to personal communications, will be vital if evidence of any wrongdoing is to be proven through the courts, but finding a specific law on the books in this case might be tricky.

Sports betting became legal under federal law in the U.S. in 2018 after a Supreme Court ruling struck down a 1992 law called the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act. Individual states have since enacted their own frameworks to regulate the industry. Betting is legal now in 38 states.

Canada’s law was amended in 2021 to allow single-game betting. Only one province, Ontario, has opened a regulated market to betting companies. Sports betting in the province is overseen by the Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario (AGCO). Other provinces have government-run betting operations within their lottery commissions.

The advent of legal sports betting in North America means integrity issues will crop up more often. “With that comes great risks of competition manipulation, both the outcome of competitions, but also component parts of competitions that people are wagering on,” Luke said. “It’s a very, very serious issue.”

Sportradar Integrity Services, a branch of the global data services company, reported in March that it found 1,329 suspicious matches in 11 sports around the world in 2023, which represented just 0.5% of competitions. Only 35 of those irregular findings happened in North America.

Betting irregularities are not just the domain of teams and leagues. ESPN reported that DraftKings said prop bets on Porter, who averaged only 14 minutes a game, in the two games flagged were the biggest winning prop bets of the night. The NBA said it found one of Porter’s associates placed an $80,000 parlay online on Porter’s performance lines from the March 20 game that would have paid $1.1 million. The bet was ultimately frozen and not paid out.

The increase in popularity of prop bets has underscored the risk of spot-fixing in particular. “It’s not specific to the outcome of a competition and trying to fix the outcome,” Luke said.

The rise in popularity of prop bets, such as the color of the Gatorade at the Super Bowl, has created more opportunities for spot-fixing Michael Zagaris / Getty Images

Jurisdictions worldwide grapple with how best to address match-fixing. In 2014, European nations adopted the Macolin Convention – currently the only rule of international law on the subject of match-fixing. Nine European nations have ratified the law and 32 more have signed the treaty. Australia and Morocco are also signatories.

“What that convention does is that it requires governments to put in place regulatory approaches to protect the integrity of competitions and to make sure that any issues related to manipulation can be reported, that they can be identified, and that they can be investigated so that the public can have confidence in our support system and we can also know that we’re protecting the health and safety of our athletes,” Luke said. “It speaks to how significant an issue it is, when there’s an international convention signed on by over 30 different countries.”

Other jurisdictions have developed homegrown solutions. Germany amended its criminal code in 2017 to address betting fraud in sports and the manipulation of professional sports competitions. This amendment was passed in response to a 2005 match-fixing scandal involving a German football referee.

In North America, there are no specific provisions in U.S. or Canadian federal law to directly address match-fixing or spot-fixing. In Canada, the “cheating at play” provision in Section 209 of the Criminal Code is perhaps the closest legislation on the books. An AGCO spokesperson told the Canadian Press the Ontario Provincial Police have opened an investigation into the Porter matter and cited Section 209.

The section is worded to include, “Everyone who, with the intent to defraud any person, cheats while playing a game …” However, it’s unclear whether professional sporting events would not fall under the legal definition of a “game” because they don’t involve the required amount of chance.

“The challenge for us in Canada is that we are far behind what those other countries have put in place. While we recently legalized all that sport betting and people are becoming more and more familiar with the issue, the reality is other countries have done a lot to protect their athletes and it’s incumbent on us to be doing the same right now,” Luke said. Over the last five years, his organization has held two symposiums on match-fixing, and has openly called on the Canadian government to adopt the Macolin Convention.

In the U.S., the federal Sports Bribery Act makes it a felony to bribe anyone involved in a sporting event to intentionally influence the outcome. But there is no provision for cases where trainers, referees, coaches, or athletes might be influencing games without payment from others.

In one of the few American precedents, former NBA referee Tim Donaghy was sentenced to 15 months in prison for his role in a gambling scandal. He pleaded guilty to wire fraud and transmitting wagering information but was not charged for betting on games or affecting the outcome. If an athlete was charged with an offense related to match-fixing or spot-fixing, prosecutors would likely have to prove the more general fraud charge.

Basketball referee Tim Donaghy received a 15-month prison sentence for his role in a 2006 gambling scandal Dimitrios Kambouris / Getty Images

Criminal fraud may not be the only legal trouble awaiting an athlete. Chicago-area attorney Jonathan Rosenfeld said an athlete may face disciplinary action from regulators in the form of a fine. “Sports betting regulations, established by governmental authorities or regulatory bodies, often prohibit actions that compromise the fairness of betting outcomes,” Rosenfeld wrote in an email.

An athlete also could face civil liabilities. “Affected parties, such as betting agencies or sponsors, may pursue legal action to recover damages resulting from the misconduct,” Rosenfeld said.

The NFL and NHL have also recently banned players for infractions of their codes of conduct against betting. Three NFL players last season were suspended for six games for betting on other sports inside their team facilities. Nine more have been handed minimum one-year suspensions for betting on NFL games since 2019. Several of those players had their contracts terminated by their teams.

Shane Pinto of the Ottawa Senators received a 41-game suspension for violating the NHL’s betting policy Rich Graessle / National Hockey League / Getty Images

Shane Pinto of the Ottawa Senators was suspended for half the current season for violating the league’s gambling policy. It was found he did not bet on NHL games, although no further details were provided.

Luke believes that beyond criminalizing match-fixing, the best solution is for all sports to adopt a system similar to what the World Anti-Doping Association uses to penalize athletes who use banned substances. On the day Porter’s ban was announced, Luke’s group, along with the Canadian Olympic Committee, released a draft of a proposed national policy he hopes will deter would-be competition manipulators. In his proposal, CCES would administer the program, which includes an educational component for coaches, athletes, and others involved in sport, for any sporting organization that signs on.

“I’d like to see a sport system where we treat competition manipulation at the same level and with the same severity that we do doping issues, where we have global regulator, we have a very sophisticated set of rules, we have organizations that have been set up specifically with a mandate to deal with those things and to investigate them,” Luke said.

“I think we will see more and more cases like this. And we need the systems in place to be able to protect the integrity of our sports and health for athletes.”

Jolene Latimer is a feature writer at theScore.