Sixty years after Paul Hornung and Alex Karras were suspended a full season for wagering on football games, gambling is now as much a part of the NFL spectacle as mock drafts, tailgating and Super Bowl halftime shows.
The Raiders now play a dice roll from the Las Vegas Strip, and the Oakland Athletics of Major League Baseball just announced they’ve signed a binding agreement to purchase land for a ballpark close to Sin City’s famous casinos.
Gambling is no longer a pariah but a massive moneymaker for the NFL, which has several lucrative sponsorships with online gambling sites and even a brick-and-mortar sportsbook at one of its stadiums.
So, is it two-faced for the league that has so embraced legalized wagering to suspend some of its players for betting on football games and other sporting events from their phones like millions of NFL fans are constantly encouraged to do?
“I think it’s hypocritical,” said former Steelers and Bears quarterback Jim Miller. “You can’t lie in bed with the devil, and not think you’re going to get burned.
“Soon, you’ll be able to make bets in (most) NFL stadiums,” Miller added. “That being said, the players are well aware of the rules. They have seminars and stuff up in the locker room to educate them.”
The NFL suspended five players last week for violating the league’s gambling policy. Lions receiver Quintez Cephus and safety C.J. Moore and Commanders defensive end Shaka Toney were suspended through at least the 2023 season for betting on NFL games last season. Lions receivers Stanley Berryhill and Jameson Williams were each suspended six games for betting from an NFL facility on non-NFL games.
“The NFL has always taken an aggressive approach with players and gambling,” Miller said. “When I was in Chicago, (former commissioner) Paul Tagliabue came to town and told a teammate the league knew he was hanging out with a friend who owned a casino and told him he could not do that anymore.”
That was before airwaves were inundated with commercials about wagering on fantasy football, actual final scores and even live-action odds.
The Washington Commanders have a sportsbook inside FedEx Field, and the Jets, Giants and Cardinals all have sportsbooks just outside their venues. That number will soon grow because NFL owners voted at their annual meeting last month to allow teams to have sportsbooks inside stadiums in states where gambling is legal.
Thirty-three states have legalized gambling since a landmark Supreme Court ruling a few years back and that means 17 NFL teams will now be allowed to host on-line sportsbooks. The other 15 teams aren’t fretting because revenue will be capped at a certain threshold beyond which all 32 teams will share in the profits.
“The whole situation is a joke that the NFL and its teams profit off gambling, but players can’t gamble,” said former Bengals linebacker Larry Stevens. “It’s also a joke how inconsistent the NFL is with suspensions. There have been guys who have beaten up wives and girlfriends, giving the league blatant black eyes, that were suspended as long as these guys were for gambling on non-NFL games.”
League spokesman Brian McCarthy pointed out that players — unlike coaches and other employees of the NFL and its teams — are indeed allowed to bet on any sports other than the NFL, just not while at work.
The NFL forbids any wagering while at work for all its league and club employees, and that includes at practice facilities, stadium, team hotels, draft or other league or club events, and on club charters or other transports and even while making endorsement or promotional appearances.
Not even March Madness office pools are allowed.
All of this is to ensure the integrity of the game because if the public ever begins to doubt the fairness of the competition, the most popular league in America could come crumbling down.
“It’s reasonable for the league to prohibit players from wagering on NFL events, and, I would add, college football,” said Chris Altruda, a senior analyst for Sports Handle, a media outlet that covers legal U.S. sports gambling. “For non-football events, I think NFL players should be allowed to do it, but I do understand the league’s hang-up about the optics of allowing players to gamble on team grounds.”
So, how does the league know when players are gambling when they should be working?
“That is a mystery,” Altruda said, “but I would not be surprised if the league has integrated technology to get that information.”
McCarthy declined to go into specifics about how players are monitored for compliance with the league’s gambling restrictions other than to say, “The NFL uses a variety of tools to monitor for violations of the gambling policy. These include internal measures, along with resources and services provided by our partners, to be sure we have the most comprehensive information possible.”
“The NFL has always maintained a robust integrity and compliance program underpinned by policy, education, monitoring, and enforcement,” McCarthy said. “We regularly assess and continue to enhance our programs to ensure these components remain well-suited to protect the integrity of our game.”
McCarthy said the league provides gambling policy education and training “to all players, coaches and staff at the 32 clubs as well as NFL league personnel and other stakeholders (e.g., vendors). In total we educate more than 17,000 people a year on our gambling policy.”
Former Washington and Detroit offensive tackle Jon Jansen puts the onus on the players who should know better than to risk getting caught gambling.
“The integrity of the game is at the heart of what the NFL sells to networks, sponsors and, ultimately, the fans,” Jansen said. “Players love it that the salary cap keeps going up. Thanks to TV deals and many partnerships, including those with casinos and sportsbooks, players will continue to make more money.
“If they don’t like the rules they collectively agreed to, they can bargain to change those in the next CBA,” Jansen added. “The average career is just over three years long. If you can’t sacrifice and follow the rules for your career, then it’s not really that important to you and someone else should and will be given a chance.”