Steve Friess: NFL Is Finally Called Out For Insane, Nonsensical Gambling Policy & Punishments

Written By Steve Friess on August 1, 2023
Steve Friess State of Play NFL Gambling Policy Makes No Sense

State of Play is a column that focuses on the trending stories in the casino and gambling space with sharp and clever insight from senior staff writer Steve Friess. Over his 25-year career, Friess has contributed to publications such as Newsweek, Time, New York Times and more.



Finally, someone who matters told the truth about the NFL’s wildly irrational and baffling player gambling policy. You know, that it sucks.

This fell to new Denver Broncos Head Coach Sean Payton, back on the sideline after a stint at Fox Sports, but still clearly thinking like a pundit. Payton put an end to a trend of simpering, obsequious NFL coaches and general managers accepting without question the draconian penalties that cripple teams and young careers.

Payton’s second-year, 25-year-old defensive lineman Eyioma Uwazurike was suspended indefinitely last week for betting on NFL games last season. He’s the 10th player this year to be punished for gambling.  (All of them are Black. But that’s a topic for another day.)

Payton is piping mad about the whole debacle. He told USA Today he’s upset by the simplistic punishment:

“We’re going to send them home for a year, where they can’t be around. The idea that you just go away. Shame on us.”

Later in the interview, he chastised the league for its failure to explain the gambling policy in the simplest of terms. Here’s what he tells players:

“You can’t bet on NFL football, ever, ever, ever. I don’t give a (expletive) what it is. The other thing is, it’s the same as the gun policy. You can’t bet on nothing if you’re at your facility, your hotel, your airplane. So, wherever you can’t carry a gun, you can’t place a bet.”

Unfortunately, Payton doesn’t go after the policy itself, really. Just the punishments.

Still, this is a start.

Trying to figure out the NFL gambling policy

There is no rhyme or reason to the policy itself. What, for instance, is the difference between a player for Denver betting on a Dolphins-Jets game and a player for Denver betting on a Heat-Pistons game? What sort of pull does a linebacker in Detroit have to influence a game that involves hundreds of athletes and takes place in Los Angeles?

My husband suggested the idea is to head off a multi-player, multi-team conspiracy to throw games. Yet such an effort would be so complex and involve so many people, the chance that such a thing could even be discussed without anyone catching on is impossible to imagine. The risk of exposure, of jail time, of humiliation is too great to be a serious c0ncern.

The idea of not betting on your own games is understandable. As a journalist, there are a lot of things I avoid to prevent the appearance of impropriety, even if it would make any difference to my work. One player might not have the ability to control the outcome of a game, but theoretically he could influence the final score and, thus, the outcomes for wagers based on point spreads.

Beyond that, though, I just don’t get it.

Is this amount of invasion of privacy allowed?

More important, though, is why, exactly, players can’t place bets on any sport in their locker rooms or hotel rooms. Has anyone explained that?

Why is that, as Payton notes, the equivalent of carrying a gun?

What’s more, is it not distressing that NFL investigators evidently have the power to track players’ activity on their personal devices? Yes, these are well-compensated employees whose union has obviously agreed to allow this, but it still seems awfully dangerous.

Who, exactly, is empowered to commit this invasion of privacy? Is it some arm of the team itself? If so, how do we know they’re not reading all of the players’ e-mails and text messages and, say, catching wise to private trade discussions? How do we know all teams are honest about their players’ transgressions? How do we know that everyone’s devices are being monitored at the same level, to avoid racial targeting akin to how Black people are disproportionately pulled over by cops?

We know nothing. The players know nothing.  Given the stakes — millions in salary lost, careers and reputations marred — it should alarm everyone that there’s a policy requiring employees to provide incriminating evidence against themselves.

How about trying to provide help to NFL players caught gambling?

There’s also the part where neither the NFL nor the teams seem interested in trying to help the punished players. If a player knows that placing a certain bet could result in this sort of career and personal disaster but did so anyway, that pretty much fits the clinical definition of pathological gambling addiction.

Says Payton:

“The question is, ‘What’s the intent of the punishment?’ … Do we want these young men to still have a chance to learn from their mistakes?”

No, the NFL doesn’t give a damn about helping players with this mental illness. These punishments are sledgehammers meant to terrify everyone else into behaving while also putting on a big public relations show for the media and other skeptics about how paramount “the integrity of the game” is.

Is it, though? Again, how does a player betting on a sport different than his own impact even the perception of the integrity of their game? Why is it OK in private away from an NFL “facility” however loosely defined but not there?

The only explanation is that the NFL thinks the act of gambling itself is immoral and inappropriate. Yet we know that’s not true either or team owners wouldn’t be promoting it and profiting off it in sponsorships and advertisements.

There are lots of activities that players do in private in their team hotel rooms that aren’t moral or appropriate. They cheat on their wives. They drink to excess. They use slurs and epithets. They “like” tweets from former President Donald Trump.

There is no constant electronic tracking on any of these activities. There’s no career capital punishment for them.

Only gambling. And, I guess, carrying a gun.

NFL hypocrisy: Do as I say, not as I do

Payton also called out the most obvious hypocrisy of all, that team owners receive sponsorship money from major casino companies while their employees’ lives are turned upside down if they place a bet. It’s as if, as the owner of a candy factory, you banned employees from eating a grain of sugar at work.

“I know this: There’s a handful of owners that are owning these ‘problems.’ A player can’t have a share of DraftKings or FanDuel. It’s shameful. Embarrassing.”

I didn’t even realize this. NFL players can’t even buy the stock? Because, uh, what could happen? Does DraftKings or FanDuel stock rise and fall based on the outcome a particular game? Or a season?

The absurdities keep piling up. Payton isn’t the perfect messenger, having just come off his own one-year suspension, but his outburst is a start.

More people inside the NFL need to speak out. Owners. Union officials. Players. Coaches. Fans.

It can’t just be when a scandal comes to you and harms your squad. You can’t just tsk-tsk the other teams when they’re beset with problems and pretend it doesn’t affect you.

It will, sooner or later. This policy makes no sense. It accomplishes nothing. It violates civil rights. And it is a much, much greater threat to the integrity of the game than whatever horror the league thinks it protecting itself from.

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Photo by David Zalubowski/AP photo; illustrated by PlayUSA
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Steve Friess

Steve Friess writes the State of Play column for PlayUSA twice a week. He's a veteran gambling-industry reporter who began covering Las Vegas in 1996 and covered the openings of resorts in Asia, Europe, and across the U.S. His bylines have appeared in The New York Times, Playboy, New Republic, Time, BusinessWeek, Newsweek, New York magazine, and many others. He, his husband, their children and three Poms live in Ann Arbor.

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