The Integrity Of The Game Is Everything! (Except When It Isn’t)

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Pete Bayer is not the most famous Pete ever to bet on baseball games. But he has to stand out as the most sympathetic figure named Pete ever to get busted for doing so.

Bayer’s story, brought to light because he shared it on Twitter on Feb. 15, resonated with me. Here’s a minor-league pitcher whose window for making a run at the majors was rapidly closing, who did something objectively wrong and stupid and against the rules by betting on MLB games.

It was at the height of the pandemic. He was out of work. It’s not an excuse, but I can see how one might make a foolish decision or two around that time. Certainly, we all saw our fair share of smartphone videos of adults acting out during the unsettling year that was 2020.

Anyway, Bayer bet on baseball and was placed on the ineligible list. He had to be. It was the only thing to do. MLB had to enforce its rules.

So he missed one season. Then he missed another. And now he’s set to miss a third.

As a sportswriter, I could’ve lost three years in my 20s and still had plenty of time to get my career on track. But as an athlete, three years in your 20s is everything.

It’s important to note that we don’t know the full story. MLB issued a statement to my colleague Mark Saxon for his Sports Handle article linked above that said Bayer “repeatedly bet on baseball” and that he “engaged in other misconduct that was not in the best interest of baseball.” It’s possible that, in his tweets, Bayer was downplaying the severity of his actions or the volume of his wagering. It’s also possible that MLB is unfairly screwing him over because he complained about minor leaguers’ pay. We simply don’t know.

But if all he did was bet on a few baseball games — games he was not involved in at all — a three-year suspension is excessive. It’s the latest example of the various sports leagues coming down hard on athletes and employees who wager, insisting they can’t risk any belief among the public that the games are compromised.

The “integrity” of the sport is paramount, and betting on it by people on the inside is a threat to that. Sports leagues are obsessed with that word — integrity.

Well, they’re obsessed with it when betting is the violation in question. On other matters … integrity is flexible.

Sometimes it’s a penalty, sometimes it isn’t

The sports leagues have exhibited what I’ll call “selective integrity.”

Where is the integrity when NBA or NFL teams are tanking to improve their draft stock? The commissioners don’t like it, surely, but we’re not seeing multi-year suspensions handed down for GMs directing coaches to rest their best players — even though resting those players makes the results of the games roughly as predetermined as point-shaving would.

Where is the integrity when fans are buying tickets to a game in hopes of seeing a superstar player and “load management” puts that superstar in street clothes? Where is the integrity when a blatant penalty goes uncalled and potentially determines which team goes to the Super Bowl?

We don’t want the public thinking games are compromised. But isn’t the public trusting that the correct, deserving team will be awarded the victory part of that? Why are NFL referees still part-time employees if unimpeachable integrity is supposedly the goal?

Where is the integrity when sign stealing and trash-can banging come to light and there’s every reason to believe they could have swung assorted MLB playoff series? The Houston Astros general manager and field manager were suspended one season for that scandal, and no players were punished. But if one of those players who took part in the sign stealing had placed a wager on a totally unrelated MLB game, he’d have gotten the book thrown at him.

(But at least he would have been able to duck the book because he would have heard two clangs on a garbage can warning him.)

Where is the integrity when half the sport is on PEDs but you’re looking the other way because, well, chicks dig the long ball?

Suspension of disbelief

Bayer’s case is not unique. He bet on games he was not involved in while he was inactive, and that was against the rules.

Calvin Ridley did the same and was suspended “indefinitely” by the NFL, and “indefinitely” will likely end up being one full season. The cases are similar, with one key difference being that Ridley’s wagers involved the team he had been playing for just a few weeks earlier. Some viewed his punishment as harsh at the time, but it doesn’t seem so compared to Bayer’s.

Miles Austin’s suspension is more disturbing because he’s an NFL assistant coach — not a player — and he bet on basketball, not football. For non-athlete employees of the league, this is, for some reason, against the rules.

How is a Jets wide receivers coach betting on basketball games a bigger threat to fans’ perception of fairness in the NFL than nobody knowing what is or isn’t a catch? It isn’t, of course. But the league has selective integrity.

They all do. The leagues revealed their hand when they first sought “integrity fees” to go along with the wider legalization of sports betting. That term — integrity fees — implied that they would strive to ensure the games were on the up and up if the sports betting operators paid them a small percentage of profits to do so.

No fees? No integrity. Or at least no guarantee of integrity. That’s what it sounded like to me.

It’s not that sports leagues shouldn’t take their athletes or employees betting on their sport seriously. They absolutely should.

It’s just that they’re misappropriating their outrage.

A minor leaguer could bet on a thousand major league games and it wouldn’t damage the actual integrity of the product as much as one plate umpire having an inconsistent strike zone.

Photo: Mary DiCicco/MLB Photos via Getty Images

Author: Ryan Gonzales