The Astros, Sports Betting And ‘Integrity:’ Why MLB Lost The Moral High Ground

Written By Dustin Gouker | Last Updated
Major League Baseball has officially lost the moral high ground when it comes to the “integrity of the game” and sports betting. That much is clear in the wake of the Houston Astros cheating scandal, and as the 2020 campaign begins with Spring Training. And yet, MLB lobbyists will continue to argue with state legislatures and, indeed, with anyone who will listen as the wave of legalization continues, that it is the arbiter of integrity. They’ll engage in intellectually dishonest arguments that will paint sports gambling as the scourge of baseball’s integrity when institutionalized cheating by the Astros had been going on under MLB’s nose for years. The latest revelation: Everyone knew about the Astros’ cheating, but no one did anything about it until the issue became unavoidable. I won’t spend a ton of time recounting the Astros brouhaha that has been covered extremely well by media outlets across the country. Suffice it to say that it’s beyond doubt that many in the Astros’ organization contributed to a scheme of stealing signs that violated MLB’s rules. But the MLB reaction to the scandal has created a large gap between its actions in reality, and the idea that is doing everything it can for the sake of “integrity.” And that’s important when considering if MLB should get any credit for being vigilant when it comes to integrity matters. It also clearly calls into question whether betting is even as big of a threat to integrity as cheating, which has nothing to do with gambling.

First, what MLB has said in regards to integrity and betting

Major League Baseball has shouted long and loud about how much of a threat gambling on the sport threatens its underlying games. The history of the Black Sox and Pete Rose — though neither had anything to do with a legal, regulated gambling market — has long dominated the narrative around baseball and gambling. Here’s a sampling of what we have heard from MLB in the recent past on integrity and betting:

Commissioner Rob Manfred

Manfred has had a lot to say about sports betting in recent years. Some of the highlights specifically about “integrity.” After the fall of the federal sports betting ban:

“Even worse, they’re presenting a threat to the integrity of that product that will require us to spend money in order to protect that integrity. I just think it’s important to keep those fundamentals in mind.”

On states passing sports betting laws:
“We will never delegate responsibility for those integrity issues to state regulators, whatever their expertise in the gambling area may be. We have our own expertise and no one is more motivated than the commissioner’s office in baseball to make sure that there is no threat to the integrity of our sport.”
So, to recap: Integrity is very important to Manfred. MLB also originally asked for “integrity fees” in state legislation before deciding that was an idea with bad optics and started asking for “royalties.” And for good measure, here’s former Commissioner Bud Selig circa 2012:
“[G]ambling on a sport, on any sport but on this sport is what you want to talk to me about is, I think, the deadliest of all things that can happen. It’s evil; it creates doubt and destroys your sport.”

MLB Senior Vice President Bryan Seeley

Seeley is one of the people that MLB puts front and center on the sports betting issue. He also led the investigation into the Astros. So what has he said on the issue of betting and integrity?
  • “We don’t want to see a race to the bottom where certain states decide that less regulation is going to mean more to their bottom line. We think there should be a floor. States should have to enact certain provisions to protect the integrity of the game.” (Baseball America)
  • “You need as much data as possible to spot the real integrity issues. When I talk about that in meetings with people, they all nod their heads, it intuitively makes sense but again, it’s something the gaming industry is opposing.” (Boston Herald)
  • “We are the product that powers sports betting, and we bear increased risks and costs to monitor integrity and protect integrity,” Seeley said. (MassLive)
So, remember all this as we contemplate how MLB reacted — or didn’t — to the Astros scandal.

How much effort is MLB actually putting into “integrity” not related to betting?

The entire Astros’ situation reads like an organization that is pretending to care about integrity. It’s, at least, trying to make it a priority and failing miserably. Consider what we know and what MLB did.
  • The Astros’ sign-stealing was hardly a secret in pro baseball, The Washington Post reports. So, we’re either to believe Manfred and MLB headquarters were oblivious to this talk, or they just ignored it. Neither scenario is particularly flattering or good for MLB.
  • MLB classified the Astros’ scheme as “player-led.” But somehow zero current or former Astros players were suspended, only the team’s manager and general manager.
  • We then learned from a blockbuster in the Wall Street Journal that the entire idea started with the Astros’ front office, starting in 2016. Manfred’s report left all of this information out.
  • The investigation might not have even happened had it not been for the media and internet sleuths. It’s borderline crazy that this is what it would take to trigger the investigation into what would become one of the biggest scandals in baseball history.
Again, read all the above and tell me how much MLB cares about protecting the “integrity of the game.” Here’s the best team of baseball breaking the rules and then winning the World Series. The timeline reads like a league that hoped the issue would go away. A league that really wanted to protect integrity would have: 1. Identified the cheating sooner than two years after it occurred. 2. It would have started its own investigation without any media or public pressure. 3. Taken stronger actions against the Astros and its players. To think that one of MLB’s main concerns is “integrity” after the Astros scandal is laughable at best.

What does this mean for MLB and gambling?

Manfred, Seeley and others with MLB will continue to yell, “YOU NEED TO LISTEN TO US ON INTEGRITY,” even when it’s clear they are not functionally capable of conducting either a transparent or comprehensive investigation into the Astros. Here’s what should happen: Everyone needs to stop listening to Major League Baseball when it comes to sports betting. Should MLB have a seat at the table, and should the league be looped in with sportsbooks and data providers on gambling? Absolutely. But they have no place telling anyone how to conduct gambling with integrity. If anything, the gambling and sports data industry are doing more for the integrity of baseball than MLB itself. The bottom line: Everyone needs to stop giving MLB the high ground on sports betting. It doesn’t deserve it.