After it was revealed last week on ESPN that Phil Mickelson was connected to "illegal" online gambling, there has been a mixed reaction from various people in the media, in government and online. While most were prepared to feed Pete Rose to the lions when ESPN found evidence that he bet on baseball as a player, many of the same people seemed almost angry that Mickelson has been named in this new lawsuit. While many in the media are calling Mickelson a hypocrite and an embarrassment to golf, the majority seem to have a different opinion. Some have suggested that Mickelson is part of a witch hunt, others suggested that it's just Mickelson being Mickelson, but the vast majority are wondering what the big deal is since gambling is so prevalent in the U.S. as it is.
"I don't want to talk about Mickelson and online gambling," one of the radio hosts said on PGA Tour radio for one of the call in shows, "everyone gambles at some time. I don't spend a lot on gambling but when I do, I be online. I can't bet in Vegas because I don't live in Vegas, so the only option is offshore."
The host seemed less upset at Mickelson's so called indiscretion than he was at the fact that Mickelson was implicated at all. And strangely even the U.S. Department of Justice didn't want to associate the lawsuit with Mickelson, since they asked that references to the initials "P.M." be removed from the plea deal, so as not to implicate Mickelson.
For those unfamiliar with the situation, last week Greg Silveira, a professional handicapper and gambler pleaded guilty in a California court to laundering about $3 million through online gambling websites. ESPN's show Outside the Lines did some digging and found that the source of the money was Mickelson. In the plea deal between Silveira and the government, Silveira indicated that the proceeds were for a golfer with the initials P.M. That reference as mentioned was quickly dropped after Outside the Lines aired the show. While Silveira could face years in jail, the DoJ did not charge Mickelson stating that they were only interested in those who are in the business of gambling, not the gamblers themselves.
Mickelson has long been known to gamble on all sports, including golf. He was once fined by the PGA Tour for offering 20/1 odds that Jim Furyk would not sink a bunker shot (a bet he lost to Mike Weir) and he apparently bets as little as $1 to thousands of dollars throughout golf matches with fellow players. Whether he bet on himself or other players for golf tournaments in Vegas or offshore is uncertain, but more than likely he did. Moreover Mickelson is known to be a huge gambler in Vegas having once lost a massive bet on the Super Bowl. When Mickelson had his first child he indicated that he was a changed man in relation to gambling since "now he has a wife and family to consider" but as most gamblers know too well that logic passes off quickly once the urge to gamble comes back. There is also much speculation that Mickelson moved his sponsorship from Titleist to Callaway only after Callaway agreed to pay off a huge gambling debt.
Mickelson isn't the first athlete to gamble and he won't be the last. Fellow golfer John Daly admitted in his autobiography that he was a huge gambler having lost almost $60 million over a 15 year period. Some of it was bet on sports, but most of it was bet on slot machines. But sources claim that Daly, like Mickelson, often would place wagers with fellow golfers on shots and he would make large wagers on major sporting events like the Super Bowl. And of course this gambling isn't unique to golfers. Earlier this year Floyd Mayweather was on the news flashing his $1 million wager on the Super Bowl and his Twitter feed showed a $100,000 bet he made on Duke beating Arizona in the first half and $41,000 on Duke in the second half. And according to those close to him he'll bet on virtually anything. Jaromir Jagr was outed for owing over $500,000 to Carib Sportsbook and another unnamed offshore book, plus many have posted articles stating that he was seen taking suitcases of money to casinos. Charles Barkley admitted to paying over $160,000 to friends he lost money to on the golf course and was seen in casinos the day prior to a championship game. And Michael Jordan's gambling excursions are legendary, many of those with Charles Barkley. In each of those cases the athletes claimed there was no issue since they had the money to lose, so even if they were heavy gamblers, it was no one's business.
On the other side of the coin there have been situations where athletes couldn't afford to lose and it led to tragedy. Antoine Walker was forced to declare bankruptcy as a result of gambling losses; Lenny Dykstra was known to be an addict of many things including gambling which led to his living on the streets and in hotels not to mention his being charged by the feds for theft; Michael Vick's career was practically in ruins (although he did come back) when he organized dog fights in order to satisfy his gambling addiction; and NFL wide receiver Kenny McKinley committed suicide after he ran up over a $400,000 debt at Las Vegas casinos. And of course there were thousands of similar stories, though most didn't make the news. By their very nature athletes are competitive and gambling is just another way to compete.
Ironically in all the cases mentioned, with the exception of Rose, the leagues and the DoJ looked the other way or didn't see an issue. And with Mickelson it appears that they have not only chose to ignore his gambling and connections to offshore gambling, but have chosen to find scapegoats for him instead.
I decided to converse with a couple of friends that almost exclusively write about sports gambling and asked for their opinions on why they believe the leagues and feds have decided to ignore the gambling in almost all these instances when the leagues are on record saying that gambling goes against all their rules. The three of us came up with the 3 most likely reasons for the inaction.
First, with the exception of Rose the athletes didn't bet on their own team sports. While Mickelson almost certainly bet on golf, no one has any proof he did so other than with friendly competitive bets between fellow golfers. And even if he did bet on golf, there is a huge difference between individual sports and team sports and the inference on gambling. If Mickelson decides to miss a shot the only one it affects is him. The same goes for tennis, billiards, boxing, etc. In fact, the Tennis Integrity Unit (introduced in 2008) which looks into corruption in tennis indicated that 1% of tennis matches are fixed. Novak Djokovic, the #1 player in the world admitted that he'd been approached to fix matches and Mike Bryan, a top doubles player said he suspects between 25 and 30% of all players have been approached to fix matches. And tennis is said to be the 3rd most susceptible sport to corruption behind only soccer and cricket. The reason why tennis is so open to match fixing is simple - the low tournament prizes makes it more lucrative for many players to lose matches and be paid off by gamblers than it is to win. And because tennis has so many bet options available, including set betting, a good player can throw a set and still win the match giving them a good payday in both areas. The same is true in boxing or UFC. But in team sports one player's penchant to fix games could affect the whole team. If a hockey goalie purposely lets in goals then it affects the outcome of the game for him and his teammates. So while Michael Jordan, Jaromir Jagr and Charles Barkley bet heavily on sports there is no proof that they did so on their own sports and are thus given a pass. Rose to date is the only one that was caught betting on their own sport and right or wrong that is still seen as the ultimate taboo.
Second, most of the players that were implicated are heroes and like AIG they are too big to fail. The feds had no trouble implicating Rick Tocchet for the 2006 New Jersey betting ring since Tocchet was not a major name in hockey, but one has to wonder if it was Gretzky or Martin Brodeur that was running the gambling operation if it possibly would have been hidden or minimized. It's no surprise that during the 2006 investigation Janet Jones (Gretzky's wife) was implicated but the feds were quick to point out that Wayne Gretzky wasn't involved so as not to tarnish his legacy. For the same reason the feds and leagues don't want to take down their heroes which are the ambassadors to the sport. If the Mickelson affair was connected to Will McKenzie or Hudson Swafford it's likely the feds would not have pulled their initials from the plea deal and no doubt they would be part of any hearing and likely put on the stand to justify their actions. And if was Cameron Bairstow in the NBA that was connected to gambling scandals the way Charles Barkley was one has to wonder if David Stern would have let him off without action as he did with both Barkley and Jordan. Like it or not, being rich and a hero has its privileges even in the league offices and the justice system.
Third and probably most importantly the leagues are generally starting to change their stance on gambling and it won't be long before the opposition is revoked. The writing is on the wall in this one.
As soon as the NBA got a new commissioner Adam Silver was clear that his league was no longer opposed to gambling on its sport. MLB recently dropped its objection to single game sports betting in Canada and other leagues are also hinting they may back off, if and when the time is right. The only professional league that is holding firm is the NFL, but there is widespread belief that when Roger Goodell is shown the door the new commissioner will soften its stance too. There's just too much money to be made from sports betting and the leagues want their cut. That is precisely what happened with daily fantasy sports. It's just another form of gambling but all the leagues and/or teams within their leagues have signed sponsorship agreements and both sides are benefitting greatly. It's impossible to visit any stadium nowadays or watch a broadcast without FanDuel or DraftKings being flashed across the screen. Almost everyone in the industry agrees that it's just a matter of time before the leagues in North American follow their counterparts in Europe, but they have to wait for the right place and time so as not to look too hypocritical and that time would likely be when the league commissioner steps down and possibly once the 2016 elections are over.
So what will happen with Mickelson? Probably nothing. Mickelson will continue to compete and will continue to bet but he will try and do so in a smarter manner. Mickelson knows he's being watched so he'll likely ensure that his actions from now on can't be traced by ESPN or other sportscasters with an axe to grind. But "Lefty" will still be followed closely at the majors by the PGA, he will still have oodles of fans following him and he will still likely be competitive for at least a few years anyways. Mickelson owes no one an explanation for his actions except possibly his family but as Charles Barkley stated to the media, he's rich and can afford to lose so it's no one else's business.