The NFL last week put on a remarkable, almost convincing performance as Very Serious People who are Very, Very Concerned about the impact of sports gambling on the “integrity of the game.” On sports pages and sites across America, a group of players – four Detroit Lions plus an insignificant Washington Commander – were devoured by jackals to prove the NFL will ferret out gambling-related malfeasance.
And yet, in the process of “protecting the game,” the NFL raised so many questions it has no interest or intention of answering. And this lack of transparency over NFL betting belies its insistence that integrity is paramount.
Trying To Make Sense of NFL Betting Rules
To recap: An “investigation” resulted in Lions receiver Quintez Cephus and safety C.J. Moore and Commanders defensive end Shaka Toney being suspended indefinitely for betting on NFL games last season. Also, receivers Stanley Berryhill and Jameson Williams of the Lions got six-game suspensions for betting on other sports while located at “an NFL facility.” There’s a reason I put those terms in quotes, which I’ll get to shortly.
Two of the three who bet on the NFL were released by the Lions. All three will lose hundreds of thousands of dollars in salary and can petition for reinstatement next year.
Only Williams, the up-and-comer of most concern, has said anything publicly so far. Or, rather, his representatives offered a frothy mix of contrition (he “takes full responsibility for his actions and is very apologetic to the NFL, his teammates and the fans and city of Detroit”) and defensiveness (he was busted “not for betting on football but rather due to a technical rule.”)
The whole thing is being masticated by the sports press with precious little skepticism about the underlying facts. There are two emerging strains of (non-contradictory) thought captured by the headline on Detroit Free Press’ Shawn Windsor column on Sunday: “NFL owners are hypocrites on gambling. That doesn’t let Jameson Williams off the hook.”
Both are fair points. But I’m still trying to figure out we got here in the first place.
Why were these five NFL players suspended?
I’m stuck on these five guys, all but one of whom are minor talents. Four are from the same team. Why them? There are more than 1,600 active players on rosters at any one time; you’re going to tell me these are the only ones who placed a bet? Or placed a bet in the “wrong” location?
We are told there was an investigation. That sounds so serious, so professional. But we are not told what that entailed or who did it. Past professional gambling scandals, especially in MLB, have been outsourced to ensure independence and transparency. Not here.
The NFL also refuses to say exactly what the offending bets were or for how much. Both answers are important. Instead, all we get is this blanket insistence that the league had no evidence that “any inside information was used or that any game was compromised in any way.”
Would we ever be told if it had? Ya think?
In this vacuum of information, we’re left to speculate as to how all of this was uncovered. There are a few overlapping possibilities.
- A teammate ratted them out.
- A sportsbook ratted them out.
- They ratted each other out.
- The NFL has access to the private activities on every athlete’s personal devices.
- The NFL conducts sting operations.
- Something unexpected happened on the field of play that raise suspicions.
What’s particularly troubling beyond the NFL’s refusal to say any of this is the players union’s willingness to accept a no-hearings, no-appeals stance by the league. It’s a closed loop. Everybody’s lips are sealed.
That doesn’t reassure the public. Without knowing the process, it’s impossible for fans or bettors to accept that every NFL player is treated the same way, everybody’s privacy is invaded equally, everybody else is as pure as the driven snow.
NFL rules, punishments make no sense
Also, let’s talk about these rules and their punishments. They make no sense. That six-game suspension is the same minimum sentence Ekeziel Elliott received in 2017 for a domestic violence incident. Ray Rice was indefinitely suspended when video came out of him attacking his girlfriend; before that, he was suspended for two games. Greg Hardy lost four games when he was convicted of threatening to kill his ex-girlfriend.
At the very least, the NFL has determined that actual violence and criminal activity is as awful or less awful than placing a legal wager.
What’s more, the rules are, technically speaking, stupid. If you’re an NFL player, you can’t bet on any NFL games. You can, however, bet on other sports. Just not on devices located at whatever an “NFL facility” might be. Also, an “NFL facility” is not merely a stadium or a team bus or a training site, but also the hotel where the team stays and the green room at ESPN while waiting to go on for an interview.
No, really. Why do these rules exist?
Why can’t he bet on a football game he’s not in? And why can he bet on other sports at home or in the Arby’s parking lot but not at “work,” especially when “work” is so loosely defined? Can he, say, participate in a poker game in the clubhouse? If so, what’s the difference?
The more you pick at these questions, the less the sense the rules make in practical terms. It’s fairly well accepted that pro athletes shouldn’t bet on game they’re playing in. As a journalist who follows rules that prevent the appearance of impropriety even when they seems onerous or unnecessary, I accept this particular line in the sand for athletes, too.
NFL needs to offer further explanation
But what exactly is the theory prohibiting athletes from betting on any game they are not playing in? How would a Jets player’s bet on the Cowboys-Rams game contaminate that game?
Cheating in team sports is really, really hard and risky. It requires a vast conspiracy that could easily unravel. There are too many people with competing interests. And look at the risk; these people are rich. Their salaries, even for the worst and most irrelevant of them, are eye-popping to the rest of us.
Maybe the revelations of these five players are the tip of an iceberg. Maybe in coming weeks, we’ll find out that, in fact, the NFL has the goods on a lot of other players from a lot of other teams.
At the moment, though, it feels like a selective scandal with disproportionate punishments and results. The NFL has come a long way in accepting and embracing sports betting as an important pastime that enhances public interest in the product. But part of that transition has to be a new openness about transgressions and a framework of rules for athletes that doesn’t feel so arbitrary and illogical.
There may be a day when a gambling scandal actually affects the outcome of a game or season. If and when that happens, the NFL will wish it built up a level of public trust to weather that storm.
It still has a lot of work to do.
Read more from the State of Play column:
- Gambling Goes Green In The Vegas Desert
- BetMGM’s Online Poker Has A Quitting Problem For Problem Gamblers
- UNLV’s iGaming Payments Study May Be History’s Most Important Gambling Addiction Research
- Betting Operators Need To End College Tie-Ins Now Before Lawmakers Do
- Unpopular Opinion: This Year’s March Madness Sucked