The NFL’s betting penalties put the ideal of ‘integrity’ to the test

When the NFL announced Thursday that three players had been found guilty of betting on football, the penalties came down with characteristic harshness: indefinite suspensions that can only be appealed after a full season.

It was the second set of gambling penalties levied in the offseason after the league in April invoked the same suspension against three players who had bet on NFL games.

The suspensions, which were punitive in nature, also served as a warning to other professionals who were tempted by the extensive opportunities to bet on football. But critics say the harsh punishment is dissonant with the league’s business partnerships with betting companies, which brought in more than $1 billion for the league in 2022.

On Thursday, the NFL suspended Isaiah Rodgers and Rashod Berry of the Indianapolis Colts and free agent Demetrius Taylor through at least the 2023 season from playing in NFL games. Shortly after the announcement, the Colts released Rodgers and Berry.

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

His language echoed that of Jeff Miller, the league’s vice president of communications, public affairs and policy, who told reporters in the wake of the suspensions in April: “The integrity of the game has to be held to such a high standard that there is no tolerance for that kind of behavior.”

The NFL began its embrace of sports gambling after the Supreme Court in 2018 struck down a ban that kept betting out of most states. Since then, sports betting has emerged as a lucrative source of revenue for the league, just as gambling has proliferated. In 2021, the NFL partnered with DraftKings, FanDuel and Caesars Entertainment on deals reportedly worth nearly $1 billion combined.

After a long avoidance of Las Vegas and its casinos and sports books, the Super Bowl will be held there in February, nearly seven years after team owners approved the Raiders’ move there.

The latest suspensions show the league’s struggle to draw a line in its acceptance of gambling, said Bob Boland, a sports law professor at Seton Hall and the former athletics integrity officer at Penn State.

“The idea that sports betting is part of our product we advertise in our broadcasts and where once it was something we shied away from, now it’s something we embrace, but not for you as a player,” Boland said in a interview. “That’s the complicated issue about it, and it sends mixed messages.”

Although the league’s gaming policy is outlined in Appendix A of the NFL’s collective bargaining agreement — and is included in every player’s contract — players have recently expressed concerns about the bans.

“I understand rules are rules, but I can risk my life for my team to win, but I can’t risk 1k on my team to win,” Patriots cornerback Jonathan Jones wrote in a Twitter postreferring to the suspensions.

When Lions receiver Jameson Williams was hit with a six-game suspension for betting on other sports while at a team facility, claimed he was unaware of it of the NFL’s policy.

The league has said it will make the policy a focal point, visiting teams to highlight the finer points of gambling rules and mandating that rookies attend information sessions. But imposing strict discipline has so far been football’s most visible attempt to ensure that competition on the pitch is fair and unaffected, a key to maintaining consumer confidence.

You want to create interest, so that the last shot, the last kick, the last pass is always subject to chance and human effort. That’s why we love them to a degree,” said Boland. “The fact that they would be fixed or that the result was created would immediately draw interest away.”

But by allowing reinstatement for players who gambled on football, the NFL ended the zero-tolerance policy that has been a cornerstone of Major League Baseball since the “Black Sox” scandal of 1919, when the Chicago White Sox were accused of throw the World Series.

Instead, the NFL’s indefinite suspensions, with the possibility of return, serve as an effective ban on fringe players while leaving the door open for football betting stars to return to the game.

Calvin Ridley, who was suspended for the 2022 season for gambling on the sport, could return after serving his suspension. But for less impactful contributors like Rodgers and Berry, the path back to football is less clear.

Indefinite Suspensions Not a Recent Deal in the NFL In 1947, Commissioner Bert Bell indefinitely suspended Frank Filchock and Merle Hapes of the New York Giants for “conduct prejudicial to the NFL and professional football” after they were allegedly offered bribes to fix that year’s championship game, although neither player accepted. Filchock’s ban was lifted in 1950 and he played just one more game. Hapes’ suspension was lifted after seven years and he never played another down.

That scandal forced Bell to expand the NFL’s betting surveillance, including hiring former FBI investigators to watch league officials and players. Team owners also gave him the unilateral authority to impose a lifetime ban on anyone involved in gambling on the sport. In 1963, commissioner Pete Rozelle suspended two players for 11 months for betting, despite finding no evidence that they tried to influence the outcome of a game.

The next penalties for players for betting on football came in 2019, when Arizona Cardinals cornerback Josh Shaw was suspended until the end of the 2020 season for betting on NFL games. (Shaw was reinstated in 2021 but has not played in an NFL game since.)

The latest spate of gambling violations could eventually force the league to consider harsher punishment, an outcome that would have to be agreed upon by the NFL players’ union. The volume and stardom of players playing could give both sides incentive to step up to protect the trust in football games, said Michael LeRoy, a professor and sports labor expert at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

“Let’s just say, hypothetically, that the league really digs into this kind of investigation and they find that 100 or more players are gambling,” he said, “so you’d have a massive roster disruption. That’s kind of things that I would think would bring the parties to the table and negotiate this.”

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