The NFL and sports gambling have always had a complicated relationship. Gambling is still a major taboo in the eyes of the NFL. The league has meted out discipline for not only betting on games but also for merely associating with casinos. Even a few short years ago, the NFL shut down a fantasy football convention involving Tony Romo and dozens of other players simply because it was to be held in a building adjoining a casino.
Meanwhile, casinos are certainly not absent from the NFL landscape. In Green Bay, players spend nights before home games at the Radisson Hotel, abutting the Oneida Nation Casino (Oneida Nation was and is of the Packers’ biggest sponsors). Several teams have spent time in training camp at the Greenbrier Resort in West Virginia featuring a casino. The Lions have had a sponsorship deal with MGM for years. The NFL will soon have a team playing in Las Vegas, the country’s mecca for casinos. And the NFL recently named Caesar’s Palace to be the league’s “Official Casino Sponsor.”
Yes, it’s complicated.
A new era
The NFL—like all other leagues and the NCAA—fought New Jersey’s attempt to implement sports betting for almost a decade. The leagues were successful throughout the lower courts and expected the same in the United States Supreme Court. But on May 14, 2018, the Supreme Court allowed New Jersey, and any other state, to implement sports betting. Thus, the NFL was brought, kicking and screaming, into the age of legalized sports betting.
We now have a quilted patchwork of a map with a dozen states having legalized sports betting—some with pending bills, some considering legislation and others completely opposed (like Utah). The NFL’s preferred method would have been, and still is, a Congressional bill, but even with the President being a former casino owner, good luck with that.
Despite losing the Supreme Court decision, the NFL found a new and valuable revenue stream in the legality and increased credibility of sports betting. The NFL has known for decades that its games are the most wagered contests, by far, in the world of sports betting, and now an increasing share of those bets are being made legally, as opposed to the more common illegal form prior to the recent changes.
But while the NFL is all-in on sports betting and the monetization opportunities it brings, its no-betting policy when it comes to its players is unchanged. It is similar to the NFL’s stance towards marijuana: despite growing legal and societal tolerance, it does not matter if a player plays and/or lives in a state with legalized marijuana use or sports betting. When it comes to both legalized marijuana use and legalized sports betting, NFL law trumps state law.
Against that backdrop comes our first test case, one where the NFL acted swiftly and decisively.
Josh Shaw, a player on the injured reserve list for the Cardinals, placed a three-team parlay bet at Caesar’s Palace sportsbook (yes, the NFL’s official casino sponsor) on Nov. 10, and he was hardly discreet about it. When he filled out an application for a player’s card at the casino, he identified himself as a “professional football player.” And as part of the three-team parlay wager, Shaw reportedly bet against the Cardinals. Even in the most famous sports gambling case, Pete Rose only bet for his own team, the Cincinnati Reds, and never against them.
Shaw’s bet was immediately flagged and, less than three weeks later, the NFL suspended Shaw at least through the 2020 season.
The severity of Shaw’s penalty is striking. Players have received far less onerous punishment for acts including assault, domestic violence, gun ownership, drug and alcohol use, etc. Shaw’s discipline screams out that while tolerance of sports betting changes all around us, it is not changing for NFL players.
Shaw has appealed (there are lawyers), and ESPN has reported that he will argue that he “misunderstood the Supreme Court decision.” Shaw may have assumed that if sports betting is legal with United States Supreme Court, it is legal with the NFL. The NFL will, of course, respond that players are informed early and often—with messaging in all 32 locker rooms—that betting on NFL games is expressly forbidden. Indeed, as part of the Shaw news, the NFL sent out a memo to its teams that included: “IF YOU WORK IN THE NFL IN ANY CAPACITY, YOU MAY NOT BET ON NFL FOOTBALL.”
Shaw’s primary argument on appeal should be precedent. As mentioned above, players have done what appear to be much more heinous acts than gambling on football games and received much lighter punishments. And this brings us back to where we started: the league’s “integrity of the game” mantra and how the NFL interprets that integrity with betting as compared to other forms of misbehavior. It will be interesting to see where this appeal lands for Shaw, as the NFL has made a loud and decisive statement to all players to steer clear of casinos and sports betting.
Chief Gambling Officer
Looking ahead to a future with legalized sports betting becoming the norm, the NFL’s policy will become harder to both rationalize and enforce. And with Las Vegas soon becoming the host of an NFL team, a new world awaits. There will be players, coaches and staff residing in Vegas and rotating visiting groups of players, coaches, staff, officials, etc. It would be naive of the NFL to think players and coaches are going to live in and visit Vegas and avoid the city’s main attraction: casinos. The NFL needs to adjust, tweak and update and retrofit its policy in this space with Vegas coming online in April.
It’s clear the NFL needs to hire a CGO (Chief Gambling Officer). This person would play an integral role in overseeing what “integrity of the game” means in regard to this changing landscape of sports betting and be adaptable to changing societal norms and pending state legalizations. The NFL should hire this person and empower him/her to be both realistic and pragmatic in monitoring integrity and identifying and strategizing business opportunities towards monetization.
Welcome to the new world of sports betting. For NFL management, it will be a challenging yet exciting and lucrative landscape. Yet for NFL players like Josh Shaw there is nothing new about it, it is business (meaning no business) as usual.
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