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The NFL Wrestles with Its Vegas Double Standard

The league’s crackdown on an arm wrestling event for NFL players in Las Vegas—you know, future home of the Raiders—further highlights its “evolving approach” (read: hypocrisy) toward gambling

The NFL’s embrace of Las Vegas as one of its markets (and I predict it will become one of its showcase markets) has put the league in increasingly awkward and hypocritical positions regarding its “evolving” anti-gambling position.

Upon the owners’ approval to relocate the Raiders to Vegas, commissioner Roger Goodell both continued to state his opposition to gambling and, astoundingly, praised Nevada’s gambling regulations. These comments were certainly flagged by attorneys for the state of New Jersey as the NFL, the NCAA and other sports leagues fight those same regulations proposed for legalized gambling in that state.

The web the NFL is weaving has been complicated further this week. The “Pro Football Arm Wrestling Championship,” held last week at the MGM Grand in Vegas, featured more than 30 active and retired NFL players, including hosts James Harrison, Marshawn Lynch and Bart Scott. The league, which shut down players such as Tony Romo from appearing at a fantasy football convention less than two years ago because its location was merely connected to a casino, noted that players involved in the arm wrestling event were violating the anti-gambling policy and, according to the NFL Network’s Ian Rappaport, would be fined. The NFL also noted that it was unaware of the event, although one of its major partners, CBS (for which Scott works as an analyst), will be airing it later this spring.

In the run-up to the launch of the Las Vegas Raiders in 2020, there will be an increasing number of these situations that shine the light on the NFL’s mixed message. The league opposes gambling and bars its players from casinos, yet:

• Virtually all teams have sponsorship deals with daily fantasy companies.
• Robert Kraft and Jerry Jones were early investors in DraftKings.
• A Packers’ lead sponsor is Oneida Nation Casino; the Lions have a deal with MGM Grand Detroit.
• State lottery patches adorn some team training camp jerseys.
• Teams continue to hold training camp at the Greenbrier resort in West Virginia, which houses a casino.
• The NFL placed one of its name-brand franchises in the gambling mecca of the U.S.  

The arm wrestling controversy will pass, but there will be more. A report this week also said that, for the first time, the Nevada Gaming Control Board granted approval for prop bets on the NFL’s signature offseason event, the draft. Ironic, isn’t it, that this comes a month after approval of a Las Vegas NFL franchise.

Before this month the NFL could claim the moral high ground in the name of “integrity of the game.” The creation of the Las Vegas Raiders undermines that. Welcome to the new world of the NFL and gambling.

THE GREAT SUPER BOWL JERSEY CAPER: Read Robert Klemko and Jenny Vrentas’s deep dive into the bizarre case of Tom Brady’s jersey theft

Seamless in Seattle

When I worked at the Packers with Ted Thompson and John Schneider, I noted their shared passion for evaluating players while having vastly different personalities. Ted is quiet and guarded, never discussing contracts or individual player matters.  Schneider, now the GM in Seattle, is a born extrovert, unafraid to be open and transparent, a trait that is evident in his recent comments regarding the Seahawks’ willingness to move start cornerback Richard Sherman (Sherman has been equally open about the prospect o a trade). While most general managers would be nonresponsive—or untruthful—about the potential trade of signature players, Schneider is upfront about what those behind the NFL curtain already know: that Sherman can be had for the right price.

There is also a cold and inconvenient truth about business of sports: Very few players on any roster are untouchable.  Why would the Seahawks trade a Pro Bowl cornerback? As I always say, “Everything’s negotiable.” Last year the Panthers let a Pro Bowl corner, Josh Norman, walk with no return compensation. That was a surprise. Now Sherman is on the market, but the fact that Schneider and Sherman have confirmed the situation makes it less, not more, of a story.

There is no mystery here: If the Seahawks get the right player and/or draft pick, they’ll move him. If they don’t, they won’t. The phone lines are open.

• WHY THE SEAHAWKS WOULD TRADE RICHARD SHERMAN: Andy Benoit points to a subtle flaw in the former All-Pro’s game in 2016 that could influence his future

Relationships Matter

Another colleague of Schneider’s during our time at the Packers was Reggie McKenzie, now the general manager of the Raiders. Reggie’s deliberate and patient presence contrasts with John’s exuberance, yet they are as close as any two general managers in the league. And if Marshawn Lynch, currently under control of the Seahawks on their reserve/retired list, wants to play for his hometown Oakland (for now) Raiders, I see that happening with little difficulty.

Should he apply for reinstatement, the Seahawks have no interest in keeping Lynch and his $9 million salary on their roster. They have no leverage here; anything they get out of letting Lynch play is—to use a Las Vegas Raiders term—house money. However, perhaps as a nod to old friend Schneider, Reggie and the Raiders may offer some nominal compensation, such as switching places in the seventh round. Because of the relationship, this is not your standard NFL transaction.

• THE RAIDERS DESERVE LYNCH: Tim Rohan on the prospect of Beast Mode’s return, plus more NFL

As I tell young people all the time, the NFL is like any business: You are dealing with the same people all the time, both when you have the leverage and when you don’t. Relationships matter. That is on display with the seemingly inevitable transfer of Lynch from the Seahawks to the Raiders.

On the Romo-Cowboys Breakup

In the near-month of free agency during which Tony Romo languished on the Cowboys’ roster, there was a narrative developing where Jerry Jones was not “doing right by” his longtime quarterback. On the contrary, my sense is that Jones was clearly protecting Romo by keeping him tethered to the team during that time.

• WHY ROMO IS LEAVING THE GAME—FOR NOW: Albert Breer on the reasoning behind Tony Romo’s move to TV

There was, at best, a limited market for Romo. Jones did not want the legacy of trading the well-liked veteran for some low-round pick (if that) or, even worse, releasing him to let him dangle in a soft marketplace. Romo-to-CBS works out swimmingly for both Romo and Jones. The Cowboys brand will now be on display with lead analysts for both NFC (Fox) and AFC (CBS) games in the form of Troy Aikman and Romo.

Jones, the steward of the NFL’s most valuable franchise, wins again.

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