Everyone, even casual sports fans will have seen the multitude of ads and sponsorships that sportsbooks have found in professional sports leagues over the past couple of years. It seems in every commercial cycle there is at least one commercial for a sports book whether it's Bet MGM or some other service. These advertisements and partnerships with professional sports leagues have boosted sports book revenues to new highs, with revenues growing over 30% during the 2020 and 2021 calendar years.
This growth in sports betting and advertisement across the country coincides with stories such as Calvin Ridley, who wagered a TOTAL of $1,500 as a player in the NFL, and upon discovering these bets the NFL suspended him for at least the entire 2022 season. this mind-bogglingly long suspension also shines a direct and stark contrast onto the suspension of Deshaun Watson, whose finalized suspension, which was extended from 6 to 11 games, and included a five-million-dollar fine in response to the 20-plus sexual assault allegations against him. Despite the NFL publicly saying this is the “steepest penalty” handed to a player seems to ignore Ridley’s, which is for “at least” the entire 2022 season for an activity that harmed no one, including the league while he wasn’t actively playing football. Now, I am not an expert, but you would think that there would be harsher penalties for domestic violence than gambling which is essentially “chump change” on games while you're on the injured list, but for some reason, the reality is that we live in has these two reversed. Let's dive into the sports betting question to discover just how crazy these rules are in the modern era, and my hot take solution.
The Dark History of Players Betting:
Every sports fan in the United States has probably heard of the black Sox scandal in 1919, where eight members of the Chicago White Sox were accused of throwing the 1919 World Series in exchange for a payment from a gambling syndicate. This event is repeatedly discussed and cited as the reason that the players shouldn't be allowed to bet on games. At the time that this occurred, baseball was certainly the number one sport in America, and this scandal caused people to lose faith in the integrity of the game at a time when sports betting was not nearly as organized or regulated as it is today. The impact of this scandal is still felt today in baseball as well as most other professional sports through their prohibitions on players betting.
Breaking Down Current Rules
Currently, according to the NFL CBA, NFL players can bet legally on all other sports besides the NFL and must disclose these bets if requested, while team personnel is not allowed to bet on ANY form of professional sports. The NBA has similar policies, as does the MLB (with added caveats that it can’t be illegal betting, i.e. if your state doesn’t allow betting—which needs updating as online betting becomes a powerhouse). Whenever these questions are brought up it's always that people are afraid of the “insider information” these people could have and utilize.
So, let's say that I hypothetically found a job working for an NFL team after graduating law school, working as their in-house transactional attorney, or handling advertising contracts. Technically, I am a member of the front office for this team at this point, and thus would be prohibited from betting on any other professional sports, even if it's the NHL championship, one that I have absolutely nothing to do with in my daily course of business. what insider information could I realistically have about the NHL?
Or, more generally, what insider information am I going to have that Vegas isn't already aware of even if it is on an NFL game? Isn’t the whole point of having a sports book and operating it well to set the odds in ways based on all possible information gathered that will lead to still making a profit? Let's say that betting on NFL games was allowed if you were a member of the front office/player for a team, but only with contests that did not include the team that you're currently playing/working for. If the odds given by the sportsbook are in fact representative of the actual probability of the occurrence/non-occurrence of a specific event within the game, how am I going to have better information about two teams that I don’t work for just by working with an unaffiliated team?
If casinos are doing their jobs and setting the odds properly, and as long as I'm not betting on a game in which the team that I play for/work for, I don't see a huge ethical issue. It sounds to me like we're actively trying to protect casinos and sportsbooks, you know because they are only making “marginal profits.”
Despite my above feelings regarding the complete prohibition on betting for front office staff, I understand and respect the reasons active players are currently prohibited from betting on games within their leagues. It would open up a preverbal “can of worms” that would be extremely difficult if not impossible to address. I also understand why there is such a negative connotation to betting by players and teams because of things like the Black Sox Scandal. But it still boggles my mind that in 2022, betting on a few games while you’re not an active player carries a longer suspension than one handed down to a player with over twenty documented domestic violence allegations. The message dichotomous situations like these highlight a lopsided system of enforcement that has serious flaws.
As much as I don’t agree with the Ridley suspension personally, he did break the rules—he was aware of the rules, violated them, and there should be consequences. But is potentially being suspended for over a full season for wagering $1,500 on games you weren’t actively participating in really proportionate to be suspended for that long? Ridley used what is essentially public knowledge (I can go watch film, breakdown the team’s performance, and decide what a good bet is on my own—this is literally what ESPN does with all of their football content) to legally bet on sports contests—Watson sexually assaulted over 20 women. But Ridley’s suspension is longer? Something just doesn’t add up.
The “odd” length of Watson's Suspension
When the final decision on appeal was issued for Watson, the 11-game suspension made me scratch my head a little bit. Why 11 games, and not a round, even number like 12 or 10? Why not the whole season? Well, take a look at the Cleveland Browns Schedule for week 12. That week, on December 4th, the Browns play the Texans, in Texas. The Texans just “conveniently happen” to be the team that Watson left to go to the Browns, and it would be his first “homecoming” game, likely a primetime event. At the end of the day, the NFL is a business, and they decided it was more profitable to conveniently have Watsons’s first game back be against his old team.
When I found this out, the NFL’s credibility and trustworthiness in this situation evaporated. They are essentially signaling to the entire world that while they don’t endorse domestic violence, they are willing to “go easy” on you if it means they will make more money—but the hammer will come down hard if you bet on games. At a time like this, in 2022, this proves to the world that the NFL ultimately cares more about making a profit than domestic violence, which is unacceptable.
In short, I think these exorbitant punishments within sports leagues are antiquated. I understand this may not be a very popular opinion, but the more that you sit and think about it the less the arguments around it really hold water, especially in light of the league’s response to domestic violence and choosing profit over an actually proportionate suspension and punishment. I can understand and respect a punishment for a player that violates what is clear and established rules around betting—but having a punishment for gambling $1,500 be heavier than punishments for sexual violence/domestic abuse is absolutely backward, and needs to be addressed if the NFL wants to gain any credibility.
Zachary Bryson is a graduate from Wake Forest University with B.A. in Economics and a Minor in Entrepreneurship. He is currently JD candidate at Elon University School of Law, Class of 2023. You can connect with him via LinkedIn or follow him on twitter at @ZacharySBryson.