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According to the lawsuit, which was obtained by Legal Sports Report, the non-profit corporation Strikes for Kids was pressured by NFL Senior Labor Relations Counsel Brooke Gardiner last June to relocate its Second Annual Las Vegas All-Star Classic charity event.
The suit says that Gardiner told Strikes for Kids that if it didn’t relocate the event, which was slated to be held at a large bowling alley on the property of the Sunset Station Casino, that the 25 NFL players who were scheduled to attend would not be able to attend.
The NFL prohibits players from engaging in promotional activities on the grounds of a casino or sportsbook, as well as affiliation or endorsement with gambling-related activities.
The NFL did not respond to requests for comment for this story.
When the non-profit rescheduled the event to a much smaller bowling alley, the NFL-approved Brooklyn Bowl, it says it suffered damages by being forced to suspend sales of tickets to the event.
The group also alleges it was forced to refund tickets to those for whom the event no longer had physical space, and was forced to renege on its promise to give out $100 gift cards to children in need.
But the most interesting facet of the suit to critics of the NFL’s positioning on gambling might be this: The approved venue, Brooklyn Bowl, is part of the Linq Hotel & Casino Complex. That casino has a sportsbook itself and is within steps of two other sportsbooks on the Strip at Harrah’s and The Flamingo.
Because of this, Strikes for Kids contends that the NFL committed fraud by knowingly misrepresenting the position that if the organization didn’t move its event, NFL players would be prohibited from attending.
What’s more, in April of 2014, Strikes for Kids held a bowling event supporting the Make-A-Wish Foundation at the South Point Casino. That event reportedly featured current NFL players Julius Thomas, Ryan Mathews, Kenjon Berner and Duke Ihenacho. That event was not pressured to relocate or curtail the involvement of current players.
Strikes for Kids attorney Julie Pettit characterized the NFL as a bully that pressured her client into forced relocation, while other events near or on the property of a casino that involved NFL players were allowed to go forward. Pettit said she didn’t know why the NFL would approve the Strikes for Kids event at The Linq, but not at Sunset Station.
“That’s a great question and we do not have the answer to that. That’s one of the many unknown things about the NFL and the way that they have chosen to enforce certain policies against certain groups. Why they were OK with it is anyone’s guess. There’s no consistency with what the NFL does in regards to these policies,” Pettit said.
“The NFL has a tendency to selectively enforce their own policies when it’s convenient for them or when it makes sense for them.”
New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski’s notorious party cruise came into question last February for having a full casino on board. The cruise appeared to constitute an NFL player organizing and participating in an event on a property with a casino.
But The Boston Globe’s Ben Volin reported that the cruise will not be investigated by the NFL.
The lawsuit includes a copy of a letter on NFL Foundation letterhead it says was sent from Alexia Gallagher, the NFL’s Director of Youth Football. From the lawsuit:
“After the charity event, by letter dated July 22, 2015, the NFL and Roger Goodell sent hush money to Strikes for Kids in the form of a $5,000 check. The letter read, in part: ‘[o]n behalf of Commissioner Goodell and the National Football League Foundation, enclosed is a check in the amount of $5,000 to help support Strikes for Kids’ recent Las Vegas All-Star Bowling Classic at Brooklyn Bowl.’”
According to Pettit, the NFL had agreed to help cover the costs of relocating Strikes for Kids’ event, but did not send Strikes for Kids the money beforehand. Pettit said that when that happened, Strikes for Kids’ view of what the money constituted changed.
“It’s our view that they were trying to keep [Strikes for Kids founder] Joe Allen and the non-profit organization from causing any sort of uproar or rocking the boat so that they would move the event,” Pettit said.
According to the NFL’s letter, the money constituted a donation to Strikes for Kids.
Strikes for Kids says on the Las Vegas All-Star Classic website that the 2016 iteration of the event will take place at the Bali Hai Golf Club on the Strip. The course is located directly across the street from the Mandalay Bay Casino.
But LSR has learned Strikes for Kids has put on hold any future scheduled events in Las Vegas involving NFL players, and is instead planning an NBA event in Las Vegas on Labor Day.
Strikes for Kids partners NFL players with youth organizations, and coordinates charity bowling, golf and softball events where players, community members and kids can interact.
The original event allegedly concerned the NFL because it was to be held at Sunset Station Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas, where there is a sportsbook. Although The Strike Zone, the 72-lane bowling alley where the event was originally scheduled to take place, is separate from the casino and accessible from the outside without having to pass through a sportsbook.
Photos from the relocated event at Brooklyn Bowl appear to show players like Jacksonville Jaguars wideout Allen Robinson and then-Oakland Raiders wideout Josh Harper signing autographs and taking photos with kids.
Brooklyn Bowl is roughly one block from the Sands Expo and Convention Center, the site of Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo‘s ill-fated National Fantasy Football Convention that the NFL reportedly forced the relocation, and subsequent cancellation, of last year. Romo’s NFFC was supposed to take place from July 10-12, 2015, the final day of which is when the Strikes for Kids event took place.
The Romo lawsuit sought over $1 million in damages and alleges that Gardiner again placed calls to the Dallas Cowboys saying that members of its team who attended Romo’s event, including Romo and Dallas wideout Dez Bryant, would be either fined or suspended.
If some of the circumstances of Romo’s event (and his subsequent lawsuit against the NFL) sound similar, it’s because they are. (Although it’s worth noting that Romo’s event did not involve a non-profit, and did not involve allegations of any sort of “hush money.”)
In fact, the legal team behind Romo’s case, which is still winding its way through the Dallas County Court system, is the same team behind the Strikes for Kids case. Pettit and attorney Michael Hurst represented Romo in his 2015 petition against the NFL.
That suit accused the League of “blatant and premeditated sabotage of an event designed to bring together the very people who are the backbone of the NFL — the players and the fans.”
There are now two pending cases involving Tony Romo’s NFFC against the NFL: the 2015 case, as well as a new case involving the 2016 NFFC.
On April 27, Romo’s camp filed for a temporary restraining order against the NFL, seeking monetary damages of $10 million and accusing the NFL of tortious interference that caused the event’s 2016 sponsor, EA Sports, to back out of the event. The NFL answered the suit in court by categorically denying all charges against it.
The 2016 NFFC is scheduled to be held in Pasadena, California.
The Strikes for Kids lawsuit represents the latest strike against what its attorneys call the league’s hypocritical stance on gambling-related matters. It also calls into question just how “evolved” its stance on gambling really is.
Appendix A, Article 15 of the NFL’s Collective Bargaining Agreement, titled “Integrity Of Game” reads:
“Player therefore acknowledges his awareness that if he…knowingly associates with gamblers or gambling activity…or is guilty of any other form of conduct reasonably judged by the League Commissioner to be detrimental to the league or professional football, the Commissioner will have the right, but only after giving Player the opportunity for a hearing at which he may be represented by counsel of his choice, to fine Player in a reasonable amount; to suspend Player for a period certain or indefinitely; and/or to terminate this contract.”
The NFL Player Personnel Policy Manual also reportedly states that players are prohibited from engaging in any type of promotion that constitute an affiliation with, or endorsement of, gambling or gambling-related activities.
Players are not prohibited from entering casinos or placing non-sports casino wagers on their own time.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell made waves in April after saying on ESPN Radio that he thought “all of us have evolved a little bit on gambling.” Presumably, “all of us” included the NFL. This characterization has been widely adopted in recent weeks, but is not necessarily backed up by specific action.
The characterization includes recent articles that have all vaguely hinted at some sort of change when it comes to gambling and the NFL:
In reality, the NFL has not evolved at all on literal sports gambling, but instead on the optics surrounding the periphery of the gambling issue.
If anything, the NFL appears to have evolved in its stance on Las Vegas as a city, not on fans engaging in sports wagering.
The NFL could end up having a franchise in Las Vegas in near proximity to sportsbooks and casinos. That is no different than the NFL pushing for a franchise in London (something it’s done for years), which would also exist in close proximity to casinos and in a jurisdiction where sports betting is legal inside stadiums.
While it’s true the NFL has been forced to discuss its position on DFS internally, it has not come out in favor of or against any of the dozens of pieces of DFS legislation that have been introduced or passed in various states this year.
The league remains an integral party in the New Jersey sports betting course case. Goodell’s previous comments on DFS distinguish it from season-long fantasy sports, but keep it at arm’s length and are neither unequivocally supportive or unsupportive of DFS.
NBA commissioner Adam Silver has specifically called for legalized, regulated sports gambling for 18 months.
Even if that rhetoric hasn’t been backed up by specific action — and even if the NBA continues to be a party to a federal appellate lawsuit involving New Jersey’s attempts to bring wagering to the state– the NFL hasn’t come close to this type of public support for wagering.
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