Photo courtesy USA Today.
Calvin Ridley’s gambling suspension should be no surprise to an NFL in league with gamblers.
Somewhere in the great beyond, Bert Bell is folding his arms across his barrel chest and mouthing these words in the direction of his lineal successor, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell: “I told you so.”
Bell was the most powerful commissioner in NFL history and has been widely credited with saving the professional game during the difficult days after World War II. He is the man who created the NFL draft, convinced the owners to share their revenue to prevent the natural dominance of franchises in the largest cities, insisted on schedules that allowed weaker teams to play each other early in the season to allow for competitive balance and came up with the concept of overtime that in 1958 was responsible for the overtime championship game victory of Johnny Unitas’ Baltimore Colts that is credited with catapulting the pro game into the national consciousness.
Yet if you asked Bell what his most significant moment was he would say it was when he suspended Merle Hapes and Frank Filchock for allegedly failing to report an effort by professional gamblers to fix the 1946 NFL Championship game. Hapes never played another down in the NFL and Filchock played less than a full season in 1950 after being reinstated while Bell went on an anti-gambling campaign that resulted in a resolution being written into the NFL Constitution that gave the commissioner the power to permanently ban any NFL personnel found to have bet on NFL games or to have withheld information of an attempt to fix the outcome of an NFL game. He also required teams issue weekly injury reports, thus preventing gamblers from receiving inside information; hired former law enforcement officials to investigate any gambling rumors and personally monitored the weekly point spreads through his wide range of bookmaking contacts around the country in search of unusual or sudden changes in odds or point spreads.
Bell was adamant in his belief that gambling on games by players, coaches or officials would be the death of professional football because it could call into question the legitimacy of the results themselves. That anti-gambling vigilance continued until 2018 when the Supreme Court legalized sports betting throughout the United States, a decision that Goodell and NFL owners saw as legitimizing sports betting and thus turning it into a potential revenue stream.
In short order, Las Vegas, the gambling capital of the country, had an NFL franchise and NFL owners began partnerships with casinos and gaming companies that had launched online gambling and fantasy football betting. A sport that once feared even the implication it was involved with gamblers now embraced them.
In nearly 100 years of NFL football the league had suspended just five players, including Hapes and Filchock, for either betting on games or withholding information on efforts to fix a game. In the past three years alone two players have been suspended for betting on games, the latest coming Monday when it was announced Atlanta Falcons’ wide receiver Calvin Ridley had been suspended for at least a year for placing parlay bets on NFL games in November during a time when he had taken a leave of absence to deal with mental health issues.
In a series of tweets after the suspension was announced, Ridley said he bet $1,500 total and insisted he didn’t have a gambling problem. He also tweeted that he “couldn't even watch football” at the time he made the bets. Maybe not but apparently he could watch the weekly point spreads.
The NFL learned Ridley placed three, five and eight team parlay bets that included betting on the Falcons to win. Those bets were made on a mobile device, the same type of mobile gambling device his bosses in the NFL have partnered with.
Ridley tweeted that he “knew he was wrong’’ but also seemed to make light of the situation in several tweets, including saying “I’m getting a year LOL.” That does not sound like a young man who knows he was wrong. Frankly, why should he?
When the very teams he plays against and for are advertising mobile gambling sites during their games and entering into partnerships with casino gambling, mobile gambling and fantasy gambling, what is the message being sent to kids like Ridley? Certainly not the one Bert Bell was trumpeting in 1946 or that the commissioners that followed him continued to adamantly support.
Even Goodell was a loud opponent of any involvement with even legalized gambling until recently, going so far as to ban then Cowboys’ quarterback Tony Romo from appearing as a paid spokesman at a fantasy football convention in Las Vegas several years ago. Yet Goodell’s opposition to sports betting dissolved the moment the owners realized the Supreme Court had opened up a new revenue stream for them in 2018, so why would Ridley think doing a little business with a league sponsor and partner would be a problem?
It had been nearly 40 years since an NFL player was suspended for gambling. It has now happened twice in the past three seasons. If Goodell and the owners can’t see the connection between their decision to get in league with legalized sports gambling and their young players involvement in betting on games it is because they are choosing blindness not suffering from it.
In a letter to Ridley, Goodell said, “"There is nothing more fundamental to the NFL's success — and to the reputation of everyone associated with our league — than upholding the integrity of the game. This is the responsibility of every player, coach, owner, game official, and anyone else employed in the league. Your actions put the integrity of the game at risk, threatened to damage public confidence in professional football, and potentially undermined the reputations of your fellow players throughout the NFL…For decades, gambling on NFL games has been considered among the most significant violations of league policy warranting the most substantial sanction.”
The NFL said its investigation uncovered no evidence that Ridley used inside information or "that any game was compromised in any way" but how could Ridley NOT have had inside information when some of his bets were placed on his own team? This is absurd on the face of it even though he was in a self-imposed hiatus from the game to work on his personal metal health issues.
Yet the greater danger to the game is not one player’s parlay bets. It is the NFL’s decision to partner with the very gamblers it claims so threaten the integrity of the game. The NFL’s hypocrisy in this regard is obvious, dangerous and frankly confusing to guys like Ridley. If your league endorses the product how bad can it be to use it?
It says in the Bible, in Galatians 6.7, “for whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap.” To put it in more modern slang, if you lie down with dogs, you get fleas. The NFL made a choice several years ago to go into business with the gambling industry, thus sanitizing what Bert Bell saw as the greatest threat to the sport. Already two of its players have been caught betting on NFL games. How long will it be before something far worse happens?
Photo courtesy USA Today.