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On Monday, Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Calvin Ridley was suspended for a full season for wagering on NFL games. The league’s investigation, which found that Ridley made the bets while he was away from the team to concentrate on his mental health in November, said there was no reason to suggest Ridley had used inside information or influenced the outcome of any games. The NFL also said it was satisfied no other members of the Falcons were involved. What Ridley did is wrong. Yes, the penalty feels harsh: he will lose a year of his athletic prime and $11m in salary over what he said was $1,500 in bets. And the proportionality raises eyebrows given the lesser punishments meted out for cheating scandals, lying about Covid vaccination status, literal child abuse and unspeakable acts of gender-based violence. But you can’t bet on your own sport, much less on your own team, and the NFL clearly needed to set a precedent.
Still, there’s something that feels off about making Ridley a splashy example at a time when the NFL is raking in millions of dollars in revenue from gambling, something it regarded as a corrosive element and fought tooth and nail against not that long ago. It is a dramatic pivot to go from a century’s worth of moral policing to, effectively, becoming a sportsbook with a bit of football on the side.
For years the NFL adhered to the firewall between American sports and gambling that went up with the 1919 Black Sox scandal, one perhaps informed by the nation’s puritanical roots but implemented in the face of existential crisis. That firewall was only reinforced with each passing generation’s scandal: the CCNY point-shaving imbroglio, Tulane basketball, Pete Rose and Tim Donaghy. The NFL’s resolve to insulate football from sports betting only redoubled in 1963, when Green Bay Packers halfback Paul Hornung and Detroit Lions defensive tackle Alex Karras were suspended indefinitely for wagering on games.
Until recently NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, the milquetoast cipher who has earned more than $375m in salary during a decade-and-a-half-long tenure as a human shield for the cadre of billionaire owners he represents, toed the decades-old line and was unequivocal on where pro football stood on the subject even as public attitudes shifted.
In 2009, Goodell described even a watered-down version of sports gambling as “an additional threat to the integrity of our league and contrary to the public good”.
In 2017, on the day when the league’s owners approved the Raiders’ move from Oakland to Las Vegas, the commissioner left no doubt: “I think we still strongly oppose legalized sports gambling. The integrity of our game is No 1. We will not compromise that.”
But these days? Since the 2018 Supreme Court ruling that opened up sports betting around the country, the NFL’s hypocrisy has been laid bare. Turns out all those decades of moralizing didn’t have a thing to do with integrity, upholding the public good or “protecting the shield”: the NFL just wanted their piece of the action.
Like most conservative-leaning cultural leviathans the NFL is slow-moving, which has made the raw speed of its about-face on gambling extraordinary. But it comes as no surprise. All sports leagues have gone through some degree of hand-wringing over attracting younger fans as their older core ages out and not even the NFL has been immune.
If the end goal is “engagement”, the NFL clearly no longer cares whether your investment is the emotional pull of an allegiance to a team or the financial dopamine hit of an eight-leg parlay.
ESPN, one the league’s billion-dollar television partners, began featuring point spreads on its BottomLine ticker. Game broadcasts which rarely mentioned odds or point spreads for decades with anything more than a wink and a nod have since been flooded with advertisements for “risk-free” promos where the first one is free. (It always is.) Goodell said it best on a visit to Las Vegas in 2020: “We think that sports gambling in many ways creates a lot more engagement for our fans. It gives them another opportunity to engage with the game.”
It’s also enriched the NFL’s owners by opening the floodgates to new revenue streams of shocking value. Last year the NFL announced five-year contracts worth nearly $1bn combined with DraftKings, FanDuel and Caesars to become the league’s official sports betting partners, in addition to secondary deals with BetMGM, WynnBET, Fox Bet and PointsBet.
It’s not hard to see where this is all headed, mainly because it’s right there in black and white in the collective bargaining agreement between the NFL and its players’ union signed during the pandemic. Over the next 10 years, owners and players will share revenues generated “by the operation of gambling-related businesses located in or physically attached to an NFL Stadium”.
The language all but assures a future with sportsbooks inside stadiums – less than two decades after the NFL refused to air a commercial from the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority promoting the city’s tourism.
The NFL’s hypocrisy is barely newsworthy anymore, but the commissioner’s paternalistic letter informing Ridley of his suspension was a groaner even by Goodell standards.
“There is nothing more fundamental to the NFL’s success – and to the reputation of everyone associated with our league – than upholding the integrity of the game,” the letter read. “This is the responsibility of every player, coach, owner, game official, and anyone else employed in the league. Your actions put the integrity of the game at risk, threatened to damage public confidence in professional football, and potentially undermined the reputations of your fellow players throughout the NFL.”
Which brings us back to Ridley, who deserves to be held accountable for his mistake in judgment. But there’s no question mixed messages are being sent at a time when the NFL is profiting from sports betting in a fashion that would have been unthinkable even five years ago. Even if it makes them complicit in an activity that at best warps minds and at worst ruins lives.