In the past month, the National Hockey League (NHL) and the Ottawa Senators have made headlines for a slew of undesirable reasons. One of the sources of controversy involving the club was forward Shane Pinto’s 41-game suspension for sports wagering activities, announced on Oct. 26. This came as a surprise to many players and league personnel for a number of reasons. Not only had the NHL not suspended one of its players for sports gambling activity since 1948, but the league’s investigation also found no evidence that Pinto had wagered on NHL games.
Though the NHL’s Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) prohibits players from placing bets on NHL games, no mention is made of the extent to which players are allowed to bet on other professional sports. Given the prevalence of Fantasy Football pools in NHL locker rooms, many players were confused by Pinto’s suspension. Pinto had seemingly not violated the NHL’s gambling policy. However, it has since been reported that the NHL took issue with proxy betting––when one party places wagers on behalf of another party––on Pinto’s sportsbook account in his home of New York. Professional athletes’ sportsbook accounts are monitored by sportsbooks for suspicious activity and can be flagged in the event of a proxy bet.
The league is within its right to negotiate such a hefty punishment with the NHL Players’ Association––a CBA provision affords the Commissioner the right to impose discipline for conduct deemed detrimental to the league and the sport. However, this all-encompassing provision should make specific mention of what constitutes detrimental conduct.
The current CBA was first ratified in 2013. Until 2018, just one per cent of the population of the United States lived in jurisdictions where sports gambling was legal. Similarly, when the CBA was ratified, the Canadian Parliament had not yet legalized single-event betting. Today, the industry’s landscape looks much different: Sports gambling is legal in 38 of 50 states and counting, while Canadian provinces are now free to regulate single-event sports betting at their discretion. Therefore, given the rapid growth of sports gambling in North America since the most recent CBA came into effect, a new set of explicit rules is needed.
A recent NHL memo to players provides some semblance of clarity, but it insufficiently addresses several questions. For instance, to what extent are players responsible for data breaches and hacks to their betting accounts? If NHL players encounter insider information on other sports through friends or acquaintances in other leagues, would they then be prohibited from placing wagers on those sports? Proposition bets on in-game events that do not directly affect the outcome of the contest are //no bueno//, but what is the league’s stance on long-term bets such as “Who’s going to win the Art Ross Trophy this year?” These are worthwhile questions that the next CBA must clearly address.
At the same time, the NHL must also clarify its rules governing hockey writers, who cast ballots for some of the league’s most coveted awards—including the Hart Memorial Trophy, awarded yearly to the league’s Most Valuable Player. A writer with insider knowledge who casts an MVP ballot should not be able to place a wager on the winner of said award. In an attempt to remove any semblance of impropriety in anticipation of the release of their new sportsbook app, ESPN recently released a memo to its staff prohibiting them from placing wagers on sports that they regularly cover. While a step in the right direction, these rules should be clearly outlined in reporters’ and insiders’ contracts, if they are not already.
Some might point out the irony that Pinto received a suspension while the Senators actively promote sports gambling through a corporate sponsorship with Betway and the NHL partners with BetMGM and FanDuel. This development enters an ongoing debate in the world of sports pertaining to whether corporate partnerships between leagues and sportsbooks threaten the integrity of the games that we all enjoy. However, when leagues do not specify rules that govern sports gambling, they exacerbate the potential for unintended wrongdoing from their players. For the benefit of the league, its players, and its fans, the NHL ought to clarify these uncertainties promptly.