Major League Soccer on Friday announced that it suspended a player from Sporting Kansas City for at least the remainder of the season. That’s after he admitted to betting on two league matches that did not involve his squad.
An MLS statement revealed that Felipe Hernandez “engaged in extensive and unlawful sports gambling” in violation of the league’s gambling integrity rules. The 23-year-old midfielder met with team officials on July 5, disclosing that he feared for his safety because of gambling debts.
Hernandez has since been on unpaid leave and undergoing treatment for a gambling addiction.
The team and the league contacted law enforcement, and MLS officials brought in Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison LLP to lead an independent review. That review, done in cooperation with the law enforcement investigation, involved questioning witnesses, accessing online wagering accounts, and analyzing betting activity on select league matches.
Investigators could not find evidence Hernandez had any inside information on either of the contests in question, nor could they find anything indicating he ever bet on an MLS match involving his team. The independent investigation also did not find any evidence that any match reviewed had its integrity compromised by betting activity. Also, no other MLS player was determined to have bet on league contests.
“The integrity of our game and safety of players is the leagues’ top priority,” the league said in a statement. “MLS thanks law enforcement, Sporting Kansas City, and the MLS Players Association for their cooperation and assistance in this matter.”
About Felipe Hernandez
In his own statement posted on his Twitter account, Hernandez said he’s used the time away from the sport “to reassess, take responsibility, and get proper care for something that has greatly affected me.”
He added he would not make any additional comments as he worked on making a return to the league.
Hernandez had been a part-time player with the MLS side. Since 2019, he’s played in 24 MLS games while also playing for Sporting’s second unit, which plays in the USL Championship league. However, it seemed like he was on the verge of a breakthrough with the team’s top squad just as he confided with Sporting management.
He appeared in five straight games, including four starts. In that span he also scored his first MLS goal and registered two of his three career assists.
I look forward to doing everything possible to get back on the field and will work harder than ever to help Sporting KC achieve its goals,” Hernandez said.
However, before that can happen, he’ll need to apply for reinstatement, which he can do on or after Jan. 1. Commissioner Don Garber will make the decision based on Hernandez’s compliance with certain requirements from the league, such as ongoing counseling.
MLS can also resume its investigation at any time if “credible new information” is discovered, according to the release.
Sporting KC Supporting Hernandez
Hernandez is considered a “homegrown” player in MLS. The Venezuela native moved to Nashville, where he became a member of US national youth teams. He joined Sporting KC’s residential academy seven years ago and progressed through the organization. His contract with the team has an option for the 2022 season.
In a press conference Friday, Sporting KC manager Peter Vermes said that professional athletes should not bet on their own sports. However, he added that he believes Hernandez is taking the right steps and deserves a second chance with the team if MLS reinstates him.
“I think you also have to think about this part as well: Him coming forward took a lot of courage,” Vermes said. “Because I think he’s smart enough to realize that he knows that he wasn’t supposed to be gambling, but he still came forward. And that’s not an easy thing to do, because he could easily let his mind race and say, ‘Hey, maybe I’d never play soccer again.’”
Because of the long-term relationship the team has had with Hernandez, Vermes said that the club believes it has a responsibility to do more with players than just putting them on the field.
It’s much bigger than that,” he said. “That obligation is that we want to try to help with the whole person, and it’s not just supporting somebody when they’re contributing and doing something well for you. You got to stand by them and help them when things aren’t going so well.”
Besides the league-mandated counseling, Vermes said that former Sporting goalie Jimmy Nielsen, who detailed his battle with gambling addiction in an autobiography years ago, may be someone who can help Hernandez after he leaves his treatment program.
“He’s always been… extremely transparent about what happened with him and how he got through it,” the manager said. “And I’m sure he’ll be a tremendous mentor for Felipe.”
Sports Betting and Teams Still Converging
Hernandez is not the first US athlete in a team sport in the post-PASPA era to be suspended for breaking a league’s rules on sports betting. PASPA stands for Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act of 1992, the breakthrough law that lifted the nationwide ban on sports betting outside of Las Vegas.
Josh Shaw was suspended through the 2020 season after he made an NFL parlay bet at a Caesars sportsbook in Las Vegas. Shaw was on injured reserve for the Arizona Cardinals at the time. While he was reinstated by the league this spring, the 29-year-old defensive back is not currently on an NFL roster.
Like other major professional sports, MLS has embraced legal sports betting since the Supreme Court overturned the federal ban in 2018. Less than a year after that landmark decision, MLS announced MGM Resorts as an official league partner.
A year ago, DC United and FanDuel reached a 10-year deal that would allow the sports betting operator to run a sportsbook at Audi Field in the nation’s capital. Before that, Caesars Entertainment had been a United sponsor, having secured a logo sponsorship deal on the team’s jersey sleeves during the 2020 season.
And even though sports betting is not legal in Texas, PointsBet became a founding partner for Austin FC in an agreement reached last month.
“I think it’s inevitable that it’s going to be in all the sports in a legal way,” Vermes said.