There is nothing the NFL cares more about than the integrity of its product. At first that sounds like brandspeak from a league that loves to tell you about how it’s more than just a money-printing machine. But in the NFL, competitive integrity and cash go hand in hand. NFL games are by far the most-watched television broadcasts in the country, and the league’s broadcast partners shower it with billions of dollars to air those games. People watch because football is fun, but also because of a foundational truth about live sports: We don’t know who’s going to win. The suspense underpins everything else and gives people a reason to tune in. It’s also the reason two teams can’t just tie on purpose even when they both should.
Crucial to sustaining that appeal is the NFL’s strict ban on sports gambling, which players, team staff, and officials agree to follow. An NFL player can go to a regular casino but can’t even enter a sportsbook during the season. The prohibition isn’t just for NFL games; he can’t bet on any sports. If he runs up more than $10,000 in gambling debt at any time, he has to tell the NFL’s security team, so the NFL can make sure no one blackmails him into rigging an NFL game. The NFL has policies that don’t make a lot of sense—suspensions for marijuana use come to mind—but this one does. In a way, it is the football version of not letting employees trade company stock on inside information.
So, commissioner Roger Goodell wasn’t just grandstanding when he suspended Atlanta Falcons receiver Calvin Ridley for the entire 2022 season on Monday. Goodell’s every public word merits skepticism, but in his letter to Ridley, he was honest:
There is nothing more fundamental to the NFL’s success—and to the reputation of everyone associated with our league—than upholding the integrity of the game. This is the responsibility of every player, coach, owner, game official, and anyone else employed in the league. Your actions put the integrity of the game at risk, threatened to damage public confidence in professional football, and potentially undermined the reputations of your fellow players throughout the NFL.
The circumstances of Ridley’s bets were relatively benign, but that didn’t spare him. He placed them while he was away from the team. He did bet on the Falcons, but he bet on them to win. He laid out just $1,500, he said. He cooperated with the league’s investigation. And yet.
The difficulty for the NFL is that it wants to avoid cake and eat it, too. Since the Supreme Court opened the door to state-by-state legalization of sports betting in 2018, the league has hopped full-bore into gambling partnerships. It has deals with at least seven sportsbooks that now blanket various billboards and signs around the country and fill commercial slots during broadcasts. All of these sportsbooks use the platform the NFL provides to emphasize just how easy it is to place a wager—you can do it right on your phone, even in the middle of a game!—and how much free money they’ll give you to get you onto their app in the first place. These collaborations don’t mean that the NFL should let team and league employees bet on games. That would create big problems, and via a collective bargaining agreement, players already get a big chunk of these gambling deals. The athletes are business partners in the NFL’s gambling endeavors.
But the NFL has a lot of employees. Teams have a lot of players. They all live in a sports world increasingly overrun by gambling interests. And when anyone exhibits less than 100 percent compliance with league gambling bans and it becomes its own blockbuster news story, it becomes obvious where this is inevitably heading. There will be more Calvin Ridleys.
It is worth noting that not everything about this story is new. In 1963, the NFL suspended two of its biggest stars, Paul Hornung and Alex Karras, for a year each. They’d also placed bets on NFL games, more frequently and for more inflation-adjusted dollars than Ridley did, and also (at least on occasion) on their own teams. And they got the same suspensions that Ridley did.
The more serious gambling scandals that dot the history of American professional sports all came before legalized sports betting. The NBA didn’t have to be in bed with sportsbooks for referee Tim Donaghy to fix games. Major League Baseball didn’t have a formal gambling operation at the time of the Black Sox scandal, or later, the Pete Rose one. The same goes for various college basketball point-shaving scandals, all unfolding in a time when unregulated betting operators did the damage.
But in the four years since the Supreme Court lifted the sports betting prohibition that kept it out of almost the entire country, the NFL has suspended two players for betting. Previously, it hadn’t suspended one since 1983. The last suspended player before Ridley, defensive back Josh Shaw, was punished in 2019. Shaw had placed NFL bets in a casino, and his camp said he misunderstood the Supreme Court ruling. (It wasn’t clear what his understanding was of NFL policy.) That betting now happens out in the open seems to make it easier for the league to find out who’s doing it. The NFL doesn’t have deals with some random bookie in a nightclub, but it does with licensed sportsbooks and monitoring firms that can flag wagers by NFL personnel. And that’s how Ridley got caught.
On the one hand, that’s the system working as intended, and the NFL can tell the story that its business deals with bookmakers actually promote the integrity of the sport. On another hand, it used to be a lot harder to place a bet in the first place. The NFL has helped to make it easier, and it’s no wonder that even with rigorous rules and checks in place, people who work for NFL teams will from time to time buy the very thing the league is selling.
Every sports league that gets close with gambling operators will deal with the same incentives among its own workforce. But the NFL’s gambling policy is restrictive even by professional sports standards, which could invite even more stories like this one in pro football than in other sports, in the long run. (For instance, Major League Baseball doesn’t bar bets on other sports.) The NFL has also invited obvious questions about itself. It has put so much focus on its disciplinary system over the years that gambling punishments draw natural comparisons to how the NFL handles actual crimes. When a domestic violence arrest is worth two games and only gets longer upon the public release of a videotape that the NFL already had or should have had, someone might reasonably ask: “Why does the NFL treat betting more severely than Ray Rice punching his wife unconscious?” The NFL will never come out and say verbatim that players betting on NFL games threatens its business in a way real-world violence does not, so it avoids addressing the point.
The league is in another awkward position at the moment. Recently fired Miami Dolphins coach Brian Flores accused the franchise’s owner, Stephen Ross, of offering him money to lose games during the 2019 season, when Miami was hurtling toward a high draft pick. Flores made the allegation in a lawsuit that primarily focused on racism in the NFL’s coach hiring processes. While the league quickly dismissed the idea that racism played a role in Flores not getting another head coaching job, it appeared to take the game-rigging allegation much more seriously. The league opened an investigation, its state media outlet reported on it, and Goodell talked publicly about his belief that owners can boot one of their peers from the NFL. Whatever the league finds Ross did or didn’t do, Goodell will field criticism that the men who run NFL teams get less league scrutiny than their workers. You can see why people would say that.
The NFL will probably succeed in splashing the cash with its gambling partners and still upholding “the integrity of the game” enough to avoid a major incident with its fans and broadcasters. Thousands of people around the league follow its gambling rules without incident every day. But sports leagues are in a challenging position of their own making. The most sacrosanct thing to all of them is preserving the unpredictability of their games and in turn their value to TV networks and the ticket-buying public. They all treat internal gambling as a significant threat to that core product, but they see external gambling as its complement.
It is impossible to preserve that line all the time, so leagues have to adapt. Every time there is a case like Ridley’s, they need to make a big enough deal about it that it’s clear how seriously they take these things, but not such a big deal that people start to wonder if games might have been compromised. In this instance, it does not seem like any were, and the NFL even took pains to point out that it found no evidence that Ridley used inside information in betting on the Falcons. That’s another risk: Sports leagues can’t be seen to have their own people manipulating the same betting markets where its partners want you to wager your dollars.
The NFL has always specialized in mythmaking—that it stands for patriotism, that football is not that violent, that the owners are benevolent stewards of their communities, and much more. A different myth was that the NFL had a philosophical objection to gambling. It stopped telling that one over the past few years, once it had a legal pathway to make millions on it. But the NFL and its peer leagues have pivoted to a different story now: that they can successfully insulate themselves from the very thing they’re selling you on every other commercial.
Don’t bet against them succeeding.