When the Supreme Court cleared the way for legalized sports gambling in 2018, the N.F.L. rushed to embrace a lucrative line of business it had denounced for decades as bad for the sport. There was, after all, new money to be made. The consequences of that about-face are now coming due.
The league on Friday handed down some of the strictest penalties it has ever issued, banning three players for at least the 2023 season for betting on N.F.L. games and suspending two others for six games for other violations of the league’s betting policy. The scale of the latest scandal and the terse verdict from the league rekindle questions about the precarious line the N.F.L. is trying to walk on gambling.
The indefinite suspension of three players — receiver Quintez Cephus and safety C.J. Moore of the Detroit Lions and defensive end Shaka Toney of the Washington Commanders — means that five players in the past four years have received at least season-long bans for betting on N.F.L. games, after decades without any such punishments. This week’s investigation ended with two more Lions players, receivers Stanley Berryhill and Jameson Williams, suspended for six games for lesser gambling violations that did not include betting on N.F.L. games.
This kind of scandal may have been what the N.F.L. was guarding against during the 25 years it spent inveighing against legalized sports betting. “We should not gamble with our children’s heroes,” Paul Tagliabue, then the league’s commissioner, testified to Congress in 1991 in support of legislation that effectively banned sports betting nationwide. In 2012, it was Roger Goodell’s turn to take up the cause.
“The N.F.L. cannot be compensated in damages for the harm that sports gambling poses to the goodwill, character and integrity of N.F.L. football,” Goodell wrote in a declaration for a court case about sports betting.
Yet in 2018, when the Supreme Court overturned the law that Tagliabue had championed, paving the way for states to legalize sports betting, the N.F.L. quickly reversed course and sought to profit. Once a critic of everything Las Vegas stood for, the league in short order permitted the Raiders to build a stadium just off the Strip with a view of Luxor’s pyramid, held the Pro Bowl and the draft in the city, and will conclude the 2023 season with a Super Bowl there.
In the process, the league swung the door open to the very harm its leaders spent a quarter century warning against.
“Now, the young athletes are coming up in professional sports leagues with mixed messaging, not just from society and gambling companies, but from the sports leagues themselves,” said Marc Edelman, a law professor and director of sports ethics at Baruch College. As long as the N.F.L. has partnerships with betting companies, advertises betting during its games and encourages betting to the point of having sportsbooks on-site at N.F.L. stadiums, there will be “a level of cognitive dissonance for some players,” who may not fully realize the ramifications if they do bet on sports, Edelman added.
The N.F.L., which says it educates all personnel annually about its gambling policies, has justified its stringent penalties as being necessary to protect the “integrity of the game.” Yet the N.F.L. did not disclose enough information about the violations for the public to know whether the players bet on their teams’ games, or bet in coordination with one another, or how they were caught. There’s been no clarity from the league on whether, or how, the integrity of that game or others were at risk.
The seriousness of the discipline, on par with that levied against players who have previously bet on their own teams, seemed aimed at deterring others. But the league’s explanation of its penalties fell short of another purpose: ensuring public trust.
In a 181-word statement, issued on the cusp of the weekend, the league asked fans to take at face value its single-sentence assertion that “a league review uncovered no evidence indicating any inside information was used or that any game was compromised in any way.”
But the league has a track record of not being forthcoming about damaging information. The N.F.L. destroyed the videotapes and other evidence it collected as part of the 2007 Spygate investigation, which showed that the New England Patriots had filmed their opponents’ sideline to steal signals. And it refused to compel and release a written report detailing the findings of the league-sponsored investigation into accusations of workplace abuse and harassment under Daniel Snyder’s leadership of the Commanders.
Though sports betting has been widely legal in the United States for only a few years, today’s players have effectively been raised on gambling as entertainment. Sports betting apps borrow from the micro-transactions and loot boxes that are widespread in video games, and many are created by the same companies that once saturated the N.F.L.’s airwaves with advertisements for daily fantasy sports.
“The ease with which people can bet on sports on their phone is a boon to the sports gambling industry, because it puts a casino at the tip of everybody’s hand,” Edelman said. “But it is much easier for somebody to make an instantaneous decision to place a single bet of a small amount without thinking twice about it, and only realizing afterward that’s a violation.”
Many sports betting experts argue that catching players betting is evidence the system is working. With sports leagues, betting data companies and law enforcement aligned, their monitoring, they say, is more effective at rooting out illicit activity now that betting is legal.
The partnerships the N.F.L. has forged with sports betting companies are estimated to be worth hundreds of millions annually. Instead of the “damages” Goodell warned of in 2012, the N.F.L. has reaped spoils, including massive sponsorship deals with casinos — while a handful of players have paid a steep price as the league heralds its integrity.
Arizona Cardinals defensive back Josh Shaw, who was suspended in 2019 for more than a season for betting on N.F.L. games, has never played in the N.F.L. again. Former Atlanta Falcons receiver Calvin Ridley, a former first-round pick, was traded to the Jacksonville Jaguars during his season-long suspension and was reinstated in March. The Lions promptly cut Cephus and Moore on Friday.
Bob Boland, a sports law professor at Seton Hall who teaches subjects that include gaming law, described the influx of new gambling money to the N.F.L. as having a “steroidal effect” that hastened the league’s abandonment of its view of gambling as an existential threat.
“That probably will dissipate with time,” Boland said. “But it’s certainly sent a message that we’re no longer treating this with the amount of fear and trepidation that we used to, so maybe you shouldn’t worry about it, either.”
Finding a palatable way to embrace something long viewed as a vice, Boland added, “is a difficult challenge,” particularly when the change happened so quickly.
Goodell was right in 2012 that there would be a cost to legalizing sports betting. But the N.F.L. continues to hope it won’t be the one to pay it.