Opinion: So An NFL Player Walks Into A Sportsbook …

Written By John Holden on April 12, 2022
Ridley

The news that Atlanta Falcons and former University of Alabama star receiver Calvin Ridley was suspended indefinitely for betting on NFL games while away from the team last November for mental health reasons is disappointing for fans of the league.

The same could be said for those hoping that league-wide gambling education programs were effective.

The indefinite suspension comes with a minimum of one year away from the league. Ridley claimed via Twitter to have only bet “1500 total.” However, the wagers will cost him at least $11 million in salary should he be unsuccessful in appealing the NFL’s ruling.

What the NFL said

The league’s press release stated that Ridley would be suspended through at least the conclusion of the 2022 NFL season. According to the league, the bets were placed over five days in November 2021.

Additionally, the NFL notes that Ridley was not only away from the team but was away from the team facilities as well. This conceivably preemptively attempts to refute any allegations that Ridley was privy to inside information about game plans.

Ridley can ask to be reinstated in 2023. However, he did have three days from the announcement of his suspension to file an appeal, which could see the penalty reduced.

Not the first dance

This is, of course, not the NFL’s first encounter with players breaking league rules and placing wagers.

In November 2019, Josh Shaw was suspended for the entirety of the 2020 season after it was discovered that he placed bets in Las Vegas while he was on injured reserve. However, Shaw was not the first player suspended.

Indeed, the NFL has periodically battled with gambling by players and has dealt with the instances somewhat consistently over time despite the evolution of the league.

Dating back to 1963, when the NFL suspended stars Paul Hornung and Alex Karras for associating with gamblers, the league has imposed an indefinite suspension with eligibility for reinstatement after serving one year away from the game. Similarly, in 1983, the league suspended quarterback Art Schlicter indefinitely for his gambling proclivities but granted reinstatement after 13 months, and Schlicter entered gambling treatment.

What is the NFL’s gambling policy?

As LSR reported when the NFL suspended Josh Shaw, the NFL’s gambling policy is broken down into an umbrella policy, and then specific examples are provided.

The 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.

What does it look like?

The enumerated examples then include:

  • 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.

Putting the Ridley pieces together?

The incident was likely detected and reported by the sportsbook to the league. The sportsbook is reported to have been the Hard Rock Digital book that operated briefly in Florida. It appears that the system worked well, at least on the industry side of the system.

The regulated market is supposed to detect and stop impermissible wagering quickly. By most accounts, that seems to be what happened here. If, as Ridley claims, he wagered only $1,500, that should be chalked up as a win for the regulated market.

The NFL, however, is still on the outside looking in at integrity. This is the second failure in three years to educate players effectively about what is permitted by the league. If NFL players still do not know the rules, that is a failure by the league.

An abundance of bad takes

If you spent even moments on Twitter in the wake of the Ridley incident, you were likely inundated with opinions about his actions.

Some of these takes, like NFL players should be able to bet on themselves, are easily debunked. The idea that there is no integrity risk if a player is betting on their own team to win is simply wrong. While the player might do their best, what signal is sent to the world when that player does not bet on his team to win, or bets less than they usually do?

This is the old Pete Rose argument: simply betting on your team to win does not make it better because every time you do not bet, it sends a message that you think the team has a better chance of losing.

What to make of Calvin Ridley news

The system is working, regardless of who reported the betting someone did.

The operators (and perhaps the suppliers too) are doing their job of identifying impermissible bettors.

But the NFL has work to do on educating its players on what is allowable.

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John Holden

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

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