A crazy week in the NFL began with the news that Falcons receiver Calvin Ridley will be suspended for at least one year for betting on NFL games. Questions still linger about the decision to give Ridley the same punishment that all other players (four of them) have received for gambling on games over the course of more than 100 NFL seasons.
ESPN’s Troy Aikman, whose new better-than-Romo salary is fueled by the influx of gambling money into football, recently weighed in on the situation, with comments to TMZ.com. Aikman said that Ridley’s suspension “seems like an awful lot.”
Aikman added that players are told not to gamble on games and that the league takes these situations very seriously, but that it still seems excessive given the NFL’s current relationship with sports betting.
“It seems like a bit much in today’s climate, primarily because there was a time when the NFL was totally against the legalization of gambling on football games, and now that’s a big part of the revenue stream for the NFL,” Aikman said. “On the one hand, you have the league encouraging everybody to gamble and yet here Calvin Ridley is suspended for an entire season.”
Indeed, it’s far easier for the NFL to stake out moral high ground on gambling not skateboarding on a slippery slope. Before the Supreme Court opened the floodgates to state-by-state legalized wagering, the NFL fought the possibility aggressively. In 2009, for example, when the NFL actively opposed efforts by Delaware to adopt legalized sports betting, Commissioner Roger Goodell declared that its mere existence undermines the integrity of and public confidence in the sport of professional football.
“Normal incidents of the game such as bad snaps, dropped passes, turnovers, penalty flags and play calling inevitably will fuel speculation, distrust and accusations of point-shaving and game-fixing,” Goodell said at the time.
He’s right, and that’s why the league needs to whack players who gamble on NFL games. Still, if the league is going to climb into bed with seven different sports books, earning $270 million in 2021 alone, there needs to be some flexibility and nuance. Ridley wasn’t with the Falcons when he placed his bets; he was on the non-football illness list. Also, there’s no suggestion that he used inside information when placing $1,500 (by his own admission) in parlay wagers.
It’s one thing for the automatic punishment to be a one-year suspension when the law prohibits gambling in all states except Nevada, and when the NFL maintains a staunch, church-lady position when it comes to all forms of sports wagering. But when it’s legal in a growing number of states, when the NFL is earning hundreds of millions from partnerships with gambling interests, when the airwaves are flooded with advertisements for gambling on football, when players are allowed to wager on all other sports (including college football), and when there’s no evidence that Ridley did anything other than place bets with no inside information or other complication to the integrity of the game, discipline requires something less sudden and abrupt than the sanction issued by Yev Kassem for a customer who dared to observe that he looks exactly like Al Pacino in Scent of a Woman, even if he really doesn’t (unless he does).
I’m not saying pro football players should be allowed to bet on pro football. I am saying that, with the league EMBRACING the very evils about which Goodell warned only 13 years ago, what used to be the knee-jerk one-year banishment should perhaps yield to a formula based on the nature of the violation, the extent to which it poses an actual threat to the integrity of the game, and whether the player admits to the infraction and expresses remorse.