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The NFL Is Struggling to Walk the Ethical High Wire of Sports Betting

The league is raking in money from sports gambling while continuing to punish players, including the Detroit Lions’ Jameson Williams, for any betting policy violations—even seemingly innocuous ones

AP Images/Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The NFL on Friday suspended five players, including four members of the Detroit Lions, for violations of its sports betting policy. The decision represents the league’s largest batch of gambling penalties since the 2018 Supreme Court ruling that enabled states to legalize online sports gambling. The most notable player on the list is receiver Jameson Williams, the Lions’ 2022 first-round draft pick, who will miss the first six games of the 2023 season for reportedly betting on non-NFL games from the Lions’ practice facility. But three other players have been suspended indefinitely and may never play in the league again.

Now-former Lions Quintez Cephus, a receiver, and C.J. Moore, a safety, and Washington defensive end Shaka Toney will miss the entire 2023 season, after which they will be allowed to apply for reinstatement. The league announced that all three of those players bet on NFL games, though it’s unclear whether they bet on games involving their own teams. All three were reserves who will now miss an entire season and have a reputational red flag. The Lions have already released Cephus and Moore; the Commanders are apparently holding on to Toney in the hope that he can return in 2024.

The situation with Williams, as well his teammate Stanley Berryhill, who also received a six-game suspension, is a bit more technical. They didn’t bet on NFL games, but did place bets on college football while at the Lions’ facility. The NFL outlaws betting of any kind while at a team facility; Williams’s agent released a statement noting that Williams would have been allowed to place these bets if he simply hadn’t been at work.

The NFL had seemed to send a strong message with the season-long suspension of Calvin Ridley last season. I guess the constant stream of ads for sports betting everywhere—including during NFL games and your favorite podcasts on the Ringer Podcast Network!—is sending an equally loud message that gambling is fun and good, which somehow got five players to make a disastrous mistake.

The NFL has eagerly welcomed the gambling industry into every nook and cranny of its product; last year’s NFL draft was held on the Las Vegas Strip, and the league has formal partnerships with four online sports betting companies. Williams was punished for placing a college football bet from inside the Lions’ training facility, but Lions fans can gamble during games at Ford Field at the WynnBet sports bar inside the stadium. The average NFL game probably has a 3-to-1 gambling-ad-to-touchdown ratio. If you could gamble on how many gambling ads there were per game, you’d want to take the over.

But for the NFL to keep its newfound gambling revenue flowing, it has to absolutely ensure that none of its games is affected by match-fixing. A gambling scandal could cause massive issues for the league and its new sportsbook partners: Nobody wants to watch—or wager on—games that could be fixed. Still, it feels as if there’s a huge gap between the type of conduct the league needs to prevent—players fixing games, which is capital-I Illegal, or using insider information to bet against teams—and players participating in the same sort of casual gambling advertised in commercials.

It’s a distinction illustrated by the NFL’s two previous gambling suspensions. In 2019, the league suspended Cardinals cornerback Josh Shaw for more than a season for placing a parlay bet against the Cardinals, essentially ending his NFL career. Last year, the league suspended Falcons receiver Ridley for the entire 2022 season for placing bets on the NFL, including bets on the Falcons to win.

The Shaw suspension was barely noticed by the NFL world, since he wasn’t a particularly notable player and he’d placed his bets the old-fashioned way—by going to Las Vegas, since gambling wasn’t yet legal in most states in 2019. It was also the type of clear impropriety that should obviously be banned: No athlete should be allowed to bet against their own team. But Ridley was a star, and his suspension last year told a more ethically gray story: He was away from the team at the time, but said in a first-person piece for The Players’ Tribune that he saw a gambling ad on TV and made a spur-of-the-moment decision “to root on my boys.” His $200 bet, made with no ill will and no potential impact on the game’s competitive product, cost him millions. (Ridley has since been reinstated and traded to the Jaguars.)

Ridley and Williams didn’t seem to realize they were breaking any rules and had no intent to fix games. It’s fine and completely understandable for the league to have different standards for acceptable conduct by players—the NFL can run ads showing how fun it is to drink a Bud Light, The Official Beer of the NFL, while watching a game, but also take steps to prevent players from getting drunk during games. But this is more like punishing a player for drinking on a Tuesday night.

The league could easily have warned Williams and told him, “Don’t do it again … or else!” But the NFL seems to feel the need to hyper-aggressively punish gambling-related missteps to show it’s taking this seriously. In doing so, the league looks hypocritical for raking in cash from gambling companies while taking millions of dollars from players and cutting large swaths out of their already too-short careers.

The big takeaway is this: Every NFL player should immediately delete every gambling app from their phones—not necessarily because an NFL player throwing $100 on a college football game is wrong, but because the league is coming down hard on anything related to gambling. The league has allowed franchises to put sportsbooks inside its stadiums—but as Williams just learned, players specifically aren’t allowed to bet in those same stadiums.

The NFL is gambling that it can pull off an ethical high-wire act. The biggest losers so far seem to be players who didn’t even realize what they were wagering on.