With new gambling policies, NFL admits it screwed up Jameson Williams

This week, the NFL held a conference call with reporters to unveil both a new focus and a few new policies when it comes to its employee gambling guidelines. In an effort to improve their own communication to players and simplify the message, the NFL focuses on a six “key rules” policy:

  1. Don’t bet on the NFL
  2. Do not gamble at your team facility while traveling to a road game or staying at a team hotel
  3. Don’t let anyone bet for you
  4. Don’t share team “inside information”
  5. Do not enter one sports book during the NFL season
  6. Don’t play daily fantasy football

In addition to this, the NFL will now make it mandatory for NFL rookies to attend educational sessions on the league’s gambling policy. The league will also send representatives to team facilities to help clarify — in person — what is and isn’t allowed under the NFL’s gambling guidelines.

Undoubtedly, these new policies are more thorough, direct and clear than what the league previously had. But within these changes is a subtle admission that the previous communication of the policy was inadequate and therefore the penalty for violations was unfair. In short, Jameson Williams got screwed.

I’m not here to argue that the Detroit Lions receiver didn’t break NFL policy. He did. Betting on a non-NFL game while at a team facility was a clear violation of league rules, according to the book. But the league certainly didn’t put him in the best position to follow those rules.

A few weeks ago, The Athletic anonymously investigated five players and highlighted how poorly the league had educated its players about the policy. Here’s how one player described the NFL’s previous education program about the gambling policies:

“Every day they’re talking about new rules, so I assume they’ve talked about it, but there’s so much crap they’re just shoving in front of our faces that it’s easy to get lost. After a long day of camp, we’re going to have these evening meetings and review this. Do you think everyone’s mind is in the right place like “Oh, wow, I’m really thinking about gambling?” No, I think about practice and how I hope they don’t cut me.”

And apparently Williams wasn’t the only player caught up in this information overload during training camp. This year alone, four other Lions were suspended for gambling, a Washington quarterback was busted and another wave of investigations is underway, with at least one suspension (the Colts’ Isaiah Rodgers) likely to be dropped and another unnamed Lions player may potentially risk punishment.

The sports betting landscape is changing rapidly. Before a court ruling in 2018, sports betting in the US only took place in Nevada, but now it is legal to place sports bets in over 30 states. And while just five years ago it required a trip to Las Vegas to place a legal sports bet, now you can do it in seconds with a swipe of your phone.

While the seriousness of sports betting is clear to those who have witnessed this drastic change, younger NFL players are growing up in an era where instant sports betting is the norm. Their perception of sports betting is completely different, and the NFL knows it.

“So sports gambling has a lot more presence in people’s lives than it did just a few years ago,” Jim Miller, the NFL’s executive vice president of communications, public affairs and policy, told ESPN this week. “Which means to us as [a] sports league – where the integrity of the game is the highest single principle – that we need to be thoughtful and careful and scrutinize how we share information and educate people about the rules that govern it.”

This is the kind of forward-thinking, proactive thinking the NFL needed when they introduced their game policies in 2018. Instead, the NFL followed their typical operating procedure: be reactive, not proactive—collateral damage be damned.

The NFL says its policy has always been “pretty straightforward,” but that clearly wasn’t true, especially when it comes to betting on non-NFL games — which is both legal and allowed for NFL players. The sticking point is where a bet on a non-NFL game was placed. The league has banned gambling on non-NFL games while on the job, which seems like a simple and obvious rule. But tucked away in the fine print of this policy is the fact that “workplace” extends to team flights, bus rides, and even while in your hotel room during a road trip. These details both do not make much sense and are not intuitive when defining “workplace.” Players can listen to music, watch movies or enjoy any other form of entertainment in most of these environments. Why should gambling – a legal activity – be any different?

This would normally be the part where I create a call to action. “NFL MUST remove or reduce the suspensions of Williams and any other player who placed a legal bet on a non-NFL game.”

But I’m not stupid. The NFL will absolutely never do that for two reasons. First, they would never publicly admit that they messed up – although they are essentially admitting it now with the changes in education policy. Second, reducing a gambling suspension will make it appear as if they are easing the penalty for violating this policy when they will send the opposite message. They know it’s a messy situation with owners pocketing gambling money while the league simultaneously punishes players for engaging in that activity. They want to sweep the hypocrisy under the rug as soon as possible by making an example of Williams and others to ensure it doesn’t continue to happen.

Obviously, there’s some level of personal responsibility that falls on Williams, and the Lions are certainly to blame for not stressing the rules enough to their own players (and other employees who were also fired amid the league’s investigation). It’s not like everyone in the NFL fell victim to this policy, but it’s also clear that the league didn’t put its young players in the best position to follow the rules in an ever-evolving landscape, and it’s unfortunate that the Lions — once again — are those who feel hurt by the NFL’s inadequacy.

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