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NFL Betting Penalties Test the ‘Integrity’ Ideal

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When the NFL announced on Thursday that three players had been found to have bet on football, the penalties were severe: indefinite suspensions that could only be appealed after a full season.

It was the league’s second such set of gambling punishments this offseason after the league imposed the same suspension on three players who had bet on NFL games in April.

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The penalties, which were punitive in nature, served as a message to other professionals who might be enticed by the numerous opportunities to wager on sports. However, critics argue that the hefty punishment is at odds with the league’s financial relationships with betting businesses, which are expected to bring in more than $1 billion in 2022.

The NFL punished Isaiah Rodgers and Rashod Berry of the Indianapolis Colts, as well as free agent Demetrius Taylor, for wagering on NFL games on Thursday. The Colts terminated Rodgers and Berry shortly after the announcement.

“The integrity of the game is of the utmost importance,” the team’s general manager, Chris Ballard, said of the decision.

His words echoed those of Jeff Miller, the league’s executive vice president for communications, public affairs, and policy, who told reporters following the April suspensions, “The integrity of the game has to be held at such a high standard that there’s no tolerance for those sorts of behaviors.”

The NFL began to embrace sports gambling after the Supreme Court overturned a restriction that barred betting in most states in 2018. As gambling has increased, sports betting has become as a significant source of revenue for the league. The NFL announced a collaboration with DraftKings, FanDuel, and Caesars Entertainment in 2021, with agreements allegedly valued at roughly $1 billion.

After avoiding Las Vegas and its casinos and sports books for almost seven years, the Super Bowl will be staged there in February, nearly seven years after club owners authorized the Raiders’ relocation.

According to Bob Boland, a sports law professor at Seton Hall and a former athletics integrity officer at Penn State, the recent suspensions demonstrate the league’s reluctance to set a line in its support of gambling.

“The idea that sports betting is part of our product, we advertise in our broadcasts, and where it was once something we recoiled from, it’s now something we kind of embrace, but not for you as a player,” Boland explained in an interview. “That’s the complicated question, and it sends mixed signals.”

Despite the fact that the league’s gambling policy is stated in Appendix A of the collective bargaining agreement and is featured on every player contract, players have recently expressed reservations about the bans.

“I understand rules are rules, but I can risk my life so that my team wins, but I can’t risk $1k on my team winning,” Patriots cornerback Jonathan Jones said in a tweet in response to the sanctions.

When Lions receiver Jameson Williams was suspended for six games for betting on other sports while at the team’s facility, he claimed he was unaware of the NFL’s policy.

The league has stated that it will make the policy a point of focus, visiting teams to discuss the nuances of the gambling laws and requiring rookies to attend instructional seminars. However, imposing harsh discipline has been football’s most apparent attempt to ensure that competition on the pitch is fair and uninfluenced, which is critical to preserving customer trust.

“You want to pique people’s interest so that the last shot, kick, or pass is always up to chance and human effort.” To some extent, this is why we like them,” Boland added. “The fact that they would be fixed or that the outcome would be created would immediately turn people off.”

However, by allowing players who bet on football to be reinstated, the NFL avoided the zero-tolerance policy that has been a bedrock in Major League Baseball since the “Black Sox” controversy in 1919, when the Chicago White Sox were suspected of tossing the World Series.

Instead, the NFL’s lengthy sanctions with the possibility of reinstatement function as an effective ban on marginal players while allowing stars who bet on football to return to the pitch.

Calvin Ridley, who was suspended for the 2022 season for wagering on sports, is eligible to return after serving his punishment. However, for less significant contributors like Rodgers and Berry, a return to football is less apparent.

Indefinite suspensions are not a new solution in the National Football League. Commissioner Bert Bell suspended Frank Filchock and Merle Hapes of the New York Giants indefinitely in 1947 for “acts detrimental to the N.F.L. and pro football” after they were allegedly given payments to fix the championship game that year, which neither player accepted. Filchock’s suspension was removed in 1950, and he only appeared in one more game after that. After seven years, Hapes’ suspension was lifted, and he never played again.

This controversy pushed Bell to increase the N.F.L.’s betting surveillance, including employing former F.B.I. agents to monitor league executives and gamblers alike. The team owners also gave him the unilateral ability to impose a lifelong ban on anyone engaging in sports gambling. Despite finding no evidence that they attempted to influence the outcome of a game, Commissioner Pete Rozelle punished two players for 11 months for betting in 1963.

The next player punishment for football betting came in 2019 when Arizona Cardinals cornerback Josh Shaw was suspended for the rest of the season for betting on NFL games. (Shaw was reinstated in 2021 but has yet to appear in an NFL game since.)

The current wave of gambling breaches may eventually push the league to contemplate stiffer punishment, which would require agreement from the NFL players’ union. According to Michael LeRoy, a professor and sports labor expert at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the volume and star profile of player bettors could offer both sides motivation to go further to protect faith in football games.

“Let’s just say, hypothetically, that the league really digs into this kind of investigating and they find that 100 or more players are gambling,” he explained, “so you’d have a massive disruption of team rosters.” That’s the kind of thing I’d expect to entice the parties to come to the table and bargain over this.”

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Amelia Jhon

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