Opinion: Josh Shaw Incident A Wake-Up Call
Legal Sports Report

NFL Suspension Of Josh Shaw Shows Where Communication Can Improve In Legal Sports Betting Era

Josh Shaw

With the NFL‘s recent announcement to suspend Arizona Cardinals cornerback Josh Shaw, everyone in the legal US sports betting market should keep their eyes wide open.

The National Football League made the statement over the weekend to suspend Shaw indefinitely, at least through the 2020 season.

What the Shaw incident reveals is a pretty significant failure in “our” legal gambling system. There is a fair amount of blame to go around here; there seems to have been an all-around failure to communicate at multiple levels.

We also know that Shaw likely will not be the last athlete to break league rules and bet on his own sport. It’s not unreasonable to assume athletes have been breaking this rule long before legal sports betting began to spread across the US.

What allegedly happened with Josh Shaw?

Many of the facts are still unraveling; however, as we get further from NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell announcing Shaw’s suspension, the more we are likely to know.

Ian Rapoport of the NFL Network has been at the forefront of the story. He notes that Shaw was in Las Vegas with his friends while on injured reserve.

Shaw purportedly “misinterpreted” the Supreme Court’s decision and placed sports bets for the first time. Rapoport further reports that Shaw used his player’s card and ID when placing the bets.

According to ESPN’s David Purdum, the incident took place at Caesars. It was Caesars staff who notified both the Nevada Gaming Control Board and the NFL of what took place.

After the NFL investigations unit uncovered the incident, Shaw received a notification. He reportedly flew to New York, met with the NFL and has been cooperating in the investigation.

The immediate aftermath

The NFL stated:

A league investigation uncovered no evidence indicating any inside information was used or that any game was compromised in any way. Nor was there evidence suggesting any awareness by teammates, coaches or other players of his betting activity.

Obviously, this is the most important factor here. But there is a reason to be concerned. The NFL seemed to acknowledge that this was not an isolated incident and that Shaw bet on “NFL games on multiple occasions this season.”

So this should be a wake-up call for everyone involved: the leagues, the NFL Players Association (NFLPA), the sportsbooks and the gaming commission.

The NFL rules, among others

All major American professional leagues prohibit players, coaches, and other key employees from betting on league games. This prohibition is not new.

It is unclear how Shaw could have interpreted the PASPA decision of more than a year ago to impact NFL rules on gambling when all players have received education at some point.

The NFL reiterated “its opposition to employees being involved with any kind of gambling” during the 2019 preseason.

A league official reportedly said that all players, coaches, owners and other employees received an email detailing the league’s policy and that the league went out of the way to “cover the bases.”

The NFL gambling policy states:

Gambling, particularly betting on NFL games or other sports, presents risks to the integrity of our competition and team cohesion, and can undermine the confidence and trust of our fans and colleagues in America’s greatest game.

We therefore owe it to our fans and everyone associated with the League to take all appropriate steps to safeguard our game against possible threats from illegal gambling as well as gambling in a legal, regulated context.

The policy then denotes specifically banned wagering activities, including:

  • No illegal gambling, including offshore or in states without legal sports betting.
  • No gambling, in any form, on any NFL games, including through third parties.
  • Players must always give a “best-effort” in any game to avoid any impropriety.
  • Offering inside information or tips on a team or game is banned.
  • Personnel may not visit or enter a sportsbook during the season.
  • No wagering is allowed in any form in any club or league facility.

The disconnect

Despite the NFL’s policies regarding gambling, something did not get through to Shaw.

This fact, perhaps not lost on the NFL, reportedly led to increased education and an attempt to remind players of league policy before the suspension announcement.

The NFLPA’s failure

It is the responsibility of the National Football League’s Players Association to look after the interests of their players.

It appears as though the monitoring did not happen, and it reflects negatively on football. The NFLPA has a responsibility to its members to act in their best interest, and this responsibility includes ensuring that players are aware of league policies and consequences of the breach of said policies.

Is it the sportsbook’s responsibility?

One question is whether the sportsbook that accepted the bets has some responsibility here. Much of this determination depends on what information was provided to the book.

According to Rapoport, Shaw was betting under his name, using his identification and player’s card. Given the facts, it seems like there was a systemic failure, at some point, since Shaw was allowed to wager.

Purdum reported that Shaw listed himself as a “professional football player” when disclosing his occupation.

What did Caesars know?

It is unclear if Caesars, which declined comment about Shaw to Purdum, received any information from the NFL or gaming control board noting that Shaw should be excluded from betting. Listing his occupation as a professional athlete certainly suggests some level of knowledge.

Obviously, if the sportsbook received notification that Shaw should not be allowed to gamble, then this situation is more serious. Some states are passing provisions in their legislation requiring leagues to provide lists of key personnel to sportsbooks.

But this does highlight a potential deficiency in how sports leagues are communicating with sportsbooks. Despite the tension over integrity fees (and other non-integrity enhancing sports league demands), no one wants a scandal.

All in this together

The sports leagues, sportsbooks and gambling commission are all in this together, and they all have egg on their faces after the Shaw incident.

The situation highlights a need to improve communication among the three entities. Unfortunately, there has been an effort to dictate terms, instead of discussing workable solutions that would make excluding obviously prohibited individuals much easier. Still, it involves improving sharing information and education.

It could have been worse

A match-fixing scandal is a worst-case scenario for legal US sports betting.

The Shaw scandal was not that, but it should still serve as a cautionary tale. We know that athletes like to gamble. The risk factor associated with gambling being sought after by people who engage in a risky sport seems fairly intuitive.

We saw the NFL deal with a related incident in 1996 when Jon Stark, a rookie quarterback for the Baltimore Ravens, was suspended indefinitely for purportedly betting on sports. Stark would never take an NFL snap.

Whether Shaw plays another NFL snap is to be determined. However, even with improved education, another professional athlete likely will bet on his or her sport again.

But with better instruction and communication, such incidents will hopefully be few and far between in the future.

John Holden
- John Holden J.D. / Ph.D. is an academic. His research focuses on policy issues surrounding sports corruption.
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