As we inch toward training camp, the NFL’s near-complete takeover of the sports calendar is passing through its last remaining quiet period. Recently, however, there’s been an unwelcome, unofficial addition to the league schedule, one that poses a threat to the foundation and integrity of America’s most popular sport.
Let’s call it suspension season. Or more specifically, gambling suspension season.
In the past few months, sandwiched beyond the regular season, the playoffs, the scouting combine, free agency, the draft, and minicamps, the NFL has suspended multiple players, some for the entire season, for violating the league’s gambling policy. And while those players should surely know better, once again, I can’t help but look to a league that positioned itself as partners with multiple gambling sites, that has placed a coveted franchise smack in the heart of the gambling capital of the world, Las Vegas, that has invited sportsbook locations as neighbors and co-tenants to its home locations, and wonder:
How could it imagine any other outcome?
With every announcement that has to do with gambling, the NFL exposes itself for putting greed above common sense, for so willingly hurdling what had always been the third rail of professional sports. While legal gambling by fans is as much a part of sports as tailgating and ticket-buying, the leagues themselves historically stayed far away, seemingly understanding that even a whiff of gambling-inspired match-fixing, a la the infamous Black Sox baseball scandal, is not worth the risk. As former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue said in 1991 testimony before Congress, “We do not want our games used as bait to sell gambling,” and adding, “we should not gamble with our children’s heroes.”
But here we are, with lawmakers ignoring such advice and opening the door to widespread legalized gambling, and with the NFL, like so many of its pro sports brethren, happily jumping aboard the gravy train. Gambling ads are ubiquitous, as easy and available as a swipe on a cellphone, with the NFL itself pushing partnerships with FanDuel, DraftKings, and Caesars. To see all of that and then assert there is no connection to an increased number of gambling-related suspensions flies in the face of logic.
Here we are, watching players violate a policy that on one hand, endorses gambling by making it a league partner, but on the other, demonizes it for purposes of protecting the integrity of the game. As usual, the NFL wants it both ways, a mixed message that it could have just avoided by keeping its distance from gambling. It poses too much of a threat to the fairness of the game, and the de facto condoning of it makes it that much easier for players to believe it’s OK.
And that opens some dangerous doors. You can annoy your fans with players’ social activism. You can disappoint your fans with player arrests for domestic violence or drunk driving. You can disgust your fans with owners who run their workplaces like a frat house run amok or quarterbacks who get record contracts despite multiple accusations of sexual assault. Do all that and you might lose some of them as a result. But the game itself will go on.
But mess with the fans’ belief that the product they are watching is legit? That is an unforgivable sin.
Declan Hill, a University of New Haven professor and leading expert on the sports betting industry, put it this way: “It’s not necessarily that the NFL has a problem, it’s that if enough fans believe the NFL has a problem, that specific play, that huge drive, that play at the goal line to a force turnover, if enough fans start going, ‘I don’t know if that’s true or not,’ that’s death to a sports league.”
After announcing five of the suspensions in April — the Lions’ Jameson Williams (six games), Stanley Berryhill (six games), Quintez Cephus (indefinite of at least one year), and C.J. Moore (indefinite), as well as the Commanders’ Shaka Toney (indefinite) — the NFL insisted its “review uncovered no evidence indicating any inside information was used or that any game was compromised in any way.”
Well, that makes me feel better (insert sarcasm here). The very fact that the NFL has to preemptively announce there was no insider trading speaks to the simmering potential for full-blown catastrophe to boil over. And since then, the Colts’ Isaiah Rodgers and Rashod Berry, and free agent Demetrius Taylor earned indefinite suspensions, and the Titans’ Nicholas Petit-Frere was banned six games, all for gambling violations.
In the meantime, the league also welcomed back Calvin Ridley after suspending him for the 2022 season. Now in Jacksonville, Ridley was disappointed to see subsequent players making the same mistake he did.
“It bugs me a little because my NFL buddies didn’t look at me and say, ‘Aw man, hell, that’s serious,’ ” Ridley told the Florida Times-Union in early June, after the Jaguars held mandatory minicamp.
“I wish they would’ve looked at me and said, ‘Wow, they did him like that? I hope it doesn’t happen to me.’ Because that’s what I would’ve done. If I would’ve seen one of my NFL buddies get slammed like that, I would’ve been a little bit afraid and watching myself. But you know, it is what it is, they have to learn the hard way like I did.”
He’s right. But it’s a lesson that would resonate a lot louder if the bosses weren’t busy working with companies that make the gambling all too easy to do.