You’ve probably seen plenty of stories right now about NFL players gambling and subsequently getting suspended. A while back, our first brush with the NFL’s recently implemented player gambling policy came back in 2019, when Cardinals CB Josh Shaw missed 21 games after being suspended for betting on games (a parlay that included a bet against his Cardinals). Former Falcons WR Calvin Ridley was also suspended indefinitely for betting on NFL games. This offseason, five players (four Lions) were suspended for various gambling policy violations. Most recently, Colts CB Isaiah Rodgers came under investigation just this week for betting on games (including Colts games).
At this point, you’re probably wondering: why are these players being suspended? Why are some being suspended longer than others? SHOULD they be suspended at all? We’re going to dive into all of these questions now. We’ll go through what the policy says, how discipline is decided, and whether gambling is the horrible offense the league makes it out to be. Any opinions stated here are my own, and you don’t have to agree depending on how you feel about gambling. The first two sections will be purely factual though, and the information provided comes straight from the NFL.
Why are Players (and a Coach) Being Suspended for Gambling?
Let’s start with the basics: what DOES the gambling policy say about players betting on sports? Briefly, the number one thing to know as a player is that it is prohibited to bet on NFL games no matter what. Additionally, players may not place wagers within team facilities or while traveling with their teams, regardless of what sport they’re betting on. From my reading of the policy, it appears that other gambling arenas (video poker for example) are exempt. Moreover, the league does not view paid fantasy sports leagues (including football) as gambling (though there are prize limits). The players who have been suspended all broke one of these two rules.
It is important to note that NFL personnel such as coaches and team/league staffers are not allowed to bet on ANYTHING. Jets WR coach Miles Austin was suspended indefinitely (at least one year) in December 2022, though he is appealing. His violation was betting on table games and non-NFL sports. He was NOT in a team facility when he bet. Due to the rules distinction between personnel and players, this fact did not protect him. This probably only serves to make things more confusing, as several people in the same WR room (for instance) might be playing by different rules.
What is Causing Some Players to be Suspended Longer than Others?
Now that we’re clear on what the policy prohibits, the obvious question is why some players are getting 6-game bans while others are receiving indefinite suspensions. The reason is that all violations of the gambling policy are not considered equal.
No violation was worse than Josh Shaw’s. He bet on his own team to LOSE. Betting on NFL games is bad enough to the league because they consider it a potential threat to the integrity of the game. Clearly, betting on a game that you’re a part of is a conflict of interest. Wagering on your opponent is a MAJOR problem, as you could theoretically influence the outcome. Perhaps a player “happens” to have a “bad day” during a game in which losing would cash their ticket. The optics of that alone are awful, even if the player acts in the team’s interests and not his own.
Calvin Ridley also broke the cardinal rule: he bet on games, including some involving his Falcons. That earned him an indefinite suspension, but he was reinstated (and traded) after one full missed season. It is unknown whether he bet for or against Atlanta, but the signs suggest that he bet for them. Additionally, he was away from the team at the time working on his mental health, so he could not have impacted the outcome.
The five-player batch at suspensions was more interesting because they didn’t all commit the same violation. Lions WRs Jameson Williams and Stanley Berryhill III were each suspended 6 games for betting on other sports at a team facility. WR Quintez Cephus, DB CJ Moore, and Commanders DE Shaka Toney were all suspended for a minimum of 1 year for gambling on NFL games, as Ridley was. Berryhill, Moore, and Cephus were released almost immediately.
Is the NFL’s Gambling Policy Appropriate? Should These Players be Suspended?
Some view this question as the most complex one, but I find it pretty cut and dry. Parts of the policy make sense, while others are foolish. The easy part is the rule about betting on other sports in a team setting. That is something any citizen in this country can do if their state allows it. Making a legal bet but doing so in the wrong place feels inconsequential. These are policy violations based on the letter of the law. They in no way impact the integrity of the NFL. Had Williams or Berryhill made the same bets but two blocks away, they’d be fine.
Ironically, the league makes a fortune on gambling, but the players can’t take part. Betting is promoted in countless commercials and on sports shows, so players are bound to be tempted. I think it’s clear that players betting on other sports or on table games should not be suspended no matter where they do it. Betting on NFL games is a murkier issue. When I saw Ridley’s suspension, I immediately thought of Pete Rose, who bet on his own team to win. Given that the goal of a team is to win and that these interests are perfectly aligned, why should betting in favor of your team be an issue?
I’d argue that the players who bet on their own teams only should be unpunished. Betting against your team, however, is worthy of a suspension. That puts you in direct conflict with your team’s objectives. This probably amounts to a contract violation, but it at least violates the integrity of the game and is one of the most serious offenses. The tricky part concerns betting on games where you’re not involved. Could you influence a friend/associate to influence an outcome on your behalf? Maybe, but no regular payout makes that worth doing. For the sake of caution, that should probably be outlawed but with a smaller penalty.
Some may argue that even if you don’t agree with the policy, it’s there and thus should be followed. I can completely understand that. If you play for the league, you should follow that league’s rules regardless of whether they make sense. Still, rules change all the time. Even in the NFL, the competition committee changes rules that are outdated or aren’t working as they’d hoped. This leads us to our final point…
Where Do We Go from Here?
If you’re a player, coach, or staff member, it’s probably best not to gamble at all. For the latter two groups, you should DEFINITELY never bet. However, if you’re a player and are going to do so, make sure you’re away from any team facility when you bet. Also, NEVER bet on any NFL game. Period. As of right now, the NFL is cracking down on violators of this policy, and the suspensions are longer than those received for using PEDs in many cases.
From a practical perspective, we need to update the policy itself. For starters, the league can make betting on table games and non-NFL sports completely allowable for players located in states that permit such gambling. Nobody has been able to explain to me why these actions are considered so terrible. We should also have coaches, staff, and players on a level playing field. Yes, coaches are role models who can and should be held to higher standards, but only if they make sense. Placing a $20 bill on a game of blackjack is nothing that should have any of those groups miss a full season.
I believe we can also find some room for compromise on NFL games. The one action that I think should be unequivocally allowed is for any NFL personnel to bet on their own team to win. That maintains the competitive integrity because nobody placing such bets would have an incentive to tank. So much data can be obtained from sportsbooks that we can be specific in our rules; it is simple enough to flag a player who bets against their team with such tracking. Additionally, it’s already against the rules to bribe referees, so that part is taken care of (and rightfully so).
Lastly, we can reduce the penalties for violating the gambling policy in cases where players bet on NFL games (and not for their own team). PEDs violate the integrity of games just as much or more than betting does. If the punishment for a first PED offense is 6 games, then full season/indefinite bans for betting should be tossed out the window. Six games feels impactful enough for these offenses as well if not overkill. Right now, teams are trying to educate their players on the policy so these suspensions stop. Maybe we should be taking a look at whether they should all be suspended in the first place.