The NFL Has a Gambling Problem
The NFL likes to say it opposes gambling. But the league also banks millions thanks to the increased interest from betting and fantasy sports.
Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports
No pro sports league in America has stood stronger against gambling than the NFL. Commissioner Roger Goodell has stated and restated his opposition to legalized gambling. Legalized gambling could throw into question the integrity of football games, especially if people start thinking that gamblers have cut a deal with players.
Not only that, but it also could smudge the NFL's image. After all, this is a league that frequently wraps itself up in the American flag.
And yet, while it has insisted for years that it has not, is not and never will be in favor of making sports wagering legal, it has actually been doing all it can to keep the gambling interest up. It has lived on that interest.
This past week, ESPN.com reported that a search of public documents revealed examples of NFL lawyers making the claim in legal proceedings over the past 12 years that gambling on sports is a game of skill, not chance. That sounds like no small thing, a technical difference, but it's also a crucial one.
If sports gambling is legally determined to remain a game of chance, then it will remain illegal. But if it is found to be a game of skill, as NFL lawyers have claimed, then it has a path to being legalized. So why is the NFL, which ostensibly hates gambling and all its sordidness, making this claim?
"The NFL used to argue that gambling would screw up the integrity of the game,'' said Arnie Wexler, a compulsive gambling counselor who is a former compulsive gambler himself. "This whole country is turning into a gambling state and the NFL can just smell the money. It's all about the money.
"They just want a piece of the action. Where's the integrity? The hypocrisy has been going on for years; now they just have the balls to be more upfront about it.''
The NFL, after all, has been profiting on interest in gambling. The league knows how many people bet on its games, and how all that wagering draws viewers.
"They've been doing it for years," said Benjamin Eckstein, a longtime Vegas oddsmaker. "The people who yell the loudest about anything—politics, religion—always get my antenna up. The NFL yells the loudest about gambling. Hypocrisy is a very kind word for what they've done.
"But they've done a very good job. They're a multi-billion dollar product and they've done a good job of hoodwinking the public into thinking they're so anti-gambling. They've spent millions of dollars reinforcing it.''
The NFL isn't the only one talking a game they don't believe in. The other leagues are doing it, too. Politicians, too. It's just that football seems to be made for gamblers, even down to teams playing just once a week, setting a perfect, regular pace for gamblers. As a result, the NFL's popularity is propped up, more than other sports, by all the interest in gambling.
Eckstein said that August all the way through the Super Bowl is Christmas for sports books and oddsmakers.
But the winds are shifting around the country on sports gambling, much in the same way they shifted for marijuana. One example of the shift is the new attitude leagues are taking toward Las Vegas.
"David Stern (former NBA commissioner) said for years he wouldn't put a team there,'' Wexler said. "Now they play their summer league there.''
The NHL is considering putting a team in Vegas.
This past year, new NBA commissioner Adam Silver said it was time to legalize sports gambling. Doing so would allow the leagues to face the reality: that it's already happening. Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban loudly agreed with Silver, saying it was time to end the hypocrisy of publicly opposing sports wagering while promoting it. (For example, leagues talk about the dangers of gambling, but allow teams to put up casino advertising in their stadiums).
MLB has fallen in line. So has the NHL. And all three—the NBA, NHL, and MLB—have struck sponsorship deals with daily fantasy sports websites.
But the NFL has not given support to sports gambling or DFS. Not publicly. The NFL did not respond to two email requests for this story that asked if they had changed their stance on gambling. But Goodell told a conference of sports editors this spring that not only has the NFL not changed its stance, but that he also doesn't envision it happening.
Then again, if you call up NFL.com, you'll see that the first thing listed, on the upper left of the page, is a tab that says "Fantasy.''
Now, the league doesn't actually hold the money bet on these Fantasy leagues or encourage gambling on them at all. In fact, Goodell once said in a press conference that he considers Fantasy leagues to be family-building operations, like a father and daughter spending quality time together.
See? The NFL approves family time, but opposes gambling. The NFL would be shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here.
Gambling on fantasy leagues, however, is legal. Because fantasy leagues are deemed by the federal government to be games of skill, rather than chance. The reality, of course, is that one does not require more or less skill than the other. But the legal difference is what allows the NFL to take a moral stance, while also gleefully reaping in the benefits of increased interest that comes by way of fantasy sports.
Which brings us back to that story from ESPN. Why is the NFL arguing now that gambling is a game of skill in an attempt to stop a football-based lottery in the state of Delaware?
This could be a breakthrough, according to Eckstein, who said it is now a matter of reading the tea leaves to see that gambling will be legalized in at least some states other than Nevada. New Jersey has been trying to get it legalized for years
Wexler, whose new book is called "All Bets are Off'', said he isn't 100 percent opposed to gambling. He's just worried about the potential for compulsive gamblers "to get sucked in.''
He would prefer the NFL be upfront about it, which would allow things to be regulated. That could include posting phone numbers for addicted gamblers needing help. (Wexler's is 888-LAST-BET).
And this, too, is not to pass judgment on whether gambling should be legal or not. But let's just be real about what's happening.
For example, casinos have ATM machines, Wexler said, to lure in compulsive gamblers who might not be able to stop themselves.
Wexler pointed out that if the NFL truly had any desire to stop gambling, and thought it was dangerous and a threat to the integrity of the league, then it would strong-arm its business partner, ESPN, to stop running point spreads on the scroll at the bottom of the screen when it lists NFL games.
And why is the NFL giving out injury reports, Wexler asked? To inform gamblers.
"The NFL brings in the FBI every year to talk with players about gambling,'' Wexler said. "It's not about competitive gambling, they just don't want players talking to people in a bar because they might give out information. But then why does the NFL give out an injury list? Isn't that a joke?
No, not a joke. Just the NFL casino doing business.