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Steve Friess: NHL Suspension Makes NFL Gambling Rules Look Almost Rational

Shane Pinto’s punishment is baffling because it had been widely understood that NHL players are only prohibited from betting on NHL games.

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Photo by Charles Krupa/AP photo; illustrated by PlayUSA
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State of Play with Steve Friess

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.


The NFL has forced us to pay so much attention to its illogical and unfair rules on whether, where or how personnel can gamble on sports that the NHL, evidently, felt left out.

And so last week came the announcement that Ottawa Senators forward Shane Pinto has been suspended for 41 games — half the season — for something vaguely described as “activities relating to sports wagering.”  Not hockey, mind you. We don’t know much more than that he didn’t place any bets on pro hockey.

It turns out that while the NFL has at least been trying to offer a way for its employees to partake in a perfectly legal activity — albeit with weird rules about precisely where they may do so — the NHL just made a jumble of its own that leaves an awful lot of people uncertain how to proceed.

The Pinto punishment is baffling because until now it had been widely understood that NHL players are only explicitly prohibited from betting on NHL games. The collective bargaining agreement says only this: “Gambling on any NHL game is prohibited.”

So what, specifically, Pinto did matters. But he and his union have agreed to his punishment and did not disclose the nature of the infraction. Pinto offered only contrition and self-flagellation in his statement to the media:

“I want to apologize to the National Hockey League, the Ottawa Senators, my teammates, the fans and city of Ottawa and most importantly my family. I take full responsibility for my actions and look forward to getting back on the ice with my team.”

Where the other professional sports leagues stand

At almost the exact moment as the Pinto sports betting drama bubbled up, PGA Commissioner Jay Monahan last week suspended two Korn Ferry Tour players, Vince India and Jake Staiano, for three and six months, respectively, from the PGA Tour for betting on golf events they were not participating in. Monahan’s announcement was simple and clear, although it also left out how they were caught.

That’s the rule of thumb everywhere.  The NBA and MLB have similar policies — no betting on their own leagues — without the rules about betting at “team facilities.” If it’s legal to bet in the state or province they’re in, they can bet from their road hotel rooms, the locker room toilets and the putting green of the 16th hole at Pinehurst No. 2.

Here’s MLB’s 2019 policy:

“Baseball personnel may place legal bets on sports other than baseball or softball in jurisdictions in which sports betting is legal, provided that the person placing the bet is eligible under applicable law to place the wager.”

The NFL lets employees bet on anything other than the NFL so long as it’s not done at a “team facility,” whatever that is. There are a lot of problems with that caveat, as I’ve written a few times.

But the NHL just made the NFL rules seem clear.

The problem with a lack of transparency

In lieu of solid information, New York Post columnist Larry Brooks printed this bit over the weekend:

“Everyone who has talked to anyone in the league has a pretty good idea it had something to do with third-party access to the winger’s personal account with a betting concern.”

Geez. Not even the unsourced gossip is written in plain English. Do you have any idea what Brooks is saying? The worst-case scenario would be that this suggests he gave privileged information about the NHL to someone involved in the gambling world. If so, isn’t that even more serious than a half-season suspension?

There’s the problem with a lack of transparency. The rumor mill gets fired up. The tea leaves are the only thing to read.

As it stands currently, 22-year-old Pinto’s punishment feels random and how he got caught is opaque. Did a jealous teammate turn him in? A spurned lover? An investigative firm seeking to earn its keep? A bookie angry that Pinto decided to cut off the flow of information?

The public deserves more information about suspension

Or — and stay with me here — what if his own team turned him in because they’re in the midst of a contract dispute (they are) and they wanted to cut the legs out from under his negotiating power? Is that so farfetched?

As these cases proliferate, the lack of transparency continues to grow. That’s a problem because the entire point of these restrictions on players’ gambling is to ensure the “integrity of the game” remains intact.

Who are they worried about doubting that? Why, it’s the fans, of course.

So the fans — that is, the public — deserve more information. Nothing undermines the perception of a lack of integrity more than the way they’ve been handling these cases thus far.

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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.

View all posts by 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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