This week, the NFL had a conference call with reporters to unveil both a re-focused emphasis and a few new policies when it comes to their gambling guidelines for employees. In an effort to improve their own communication to players and simplify the message, the NFL is focusing on a six “key rule” policy:
- Don’t bet on the NFL
- Don’t gamble at your team facility, while traveling for a road game, or staying at a team hotel
- Don’t have someone bet for you
- Don’t share team “inside information”
- Don’t enter a sportsbook during the NFL playing season
- Don’t play daily fantasy football
On an NFL conference call discussing the league gambling policy and education, here are the 6 key rules for players: pic.twitter.com/Fg5yFMVbek— Ian Rapoport (@RapSheet) June 20, 2023
In addition to this, the NFL will now make it mandatory for NFL rookies to attend educational sessions on the league’s gambling policy. The league will also be sending representatives to team facilities to help clarify—in person—what is and what isn’t allowed under the NFL’s gambling guidelines.
Without a doubt, these new policies are more thorough, direct, and clear than what the league had previously had. But within these changes is a subtle admission that the previous communication of the policy was inadequate and, therefore, the punishment of violations was unfair. In short, Jameson Williams got screwed.
I’m not here to argue that the Detroit Lions receiver didn’t break NFL policy. He did. Betting on a non-NFL game while on a team facility was, by the book, a clear violation of the league’s rules. But the league certainly didn’t put him in the best position to follow those rules.
A few weeks ago, The Athletic anonymously surveyed five players, highlighting just how poorly the league had educated its players on the policy. Here’s how one player described the NFL’s previous educational program on the gambling policies:
“Each day, they talk about new rules, so I’m assuming they talked about that, but there’s so much shit that they just cram in front of our face that it’s easy to get lost. After a long day of camp, then we have to have these evening meetings and go over this stuff. Do you think everyone’s minds are in the right place of like, “Oh, wow, I’m really thinking about gambling?” No, I’m thinking about practice and how I hope they don’t cut me.”
And Williams was obviously not the only player caught in this overload of information during training camp. This year alone, four other Lions were suspended for gambling, one Washington Commander was busted, and a second wave of investigations is underway, with at least one suspension (Colts’ Isaiah Rodgers) likely to come down and another unnamed Lions player potentially facing punishment.
The sports betting landscape is rapidly changing. Prior to a 2018 court ruling, United States sports gambling was only taking place in Nevada, but now it’s legal to place sports bets in over 30 states. And while just five years ago, it required a trip to Las Vegas to place a legal sports bet, you can now do it in seconds with a swipe on your phone.
While the gravity of sports betting is clear to those who have witnessed this drastic change, younger NFL players are growing up in an era where immediate sports gambling is the norm. Their perception of sports gambling is entirely different, and the NFL knows it.
“So, sports gambling has a great deal more presence in people’s lives than it did just a few short years ago,” Jim Miller, the NFL’s executive vice president of communication, public affairs and policy told ESPN this week. “Which means for us as [a] sports league—where integrity of the game is the highest single principle—that we have to be thoughtful and careful and scrutinize how we share information and educate people around the rules that govern it.”
This is the kind of forward, proactive thinking that the NFL needed when they introduced their gambling policies in 2018. Instead, the NFL followed their typical operating procedure: be reactive, not proactive—collateral damage be damned.
The NFL says their policy has always been “pretty straightforward,” but that clearly wasn’t true, particularly when it comes to betting on non-NFL games—which is both legal and allowed for NFL players. The sticking point is where a bet on a non-NFL game was placed. The league has banned gambling on non-NFL games while in the workplace, which seems like a simple and self-evident rule. However, tucked away in the fine print of that policy is the fact that the “workplace” extends to team flights, bus rides, and even while in your hotel room during a road trip. Those details both don’t make much sense and are not intuitive when defining “workplace.” Players can listen to music, watch movies, or enjoy any other type of entertainment in most of those environments. Why should gambling—a legal activity—be any different?
This would normally be the part where I put out a call to action. “The NFL HAS TO remove or reduce the the suspensions of Williams and any other player who placed a legal bet on a non-NFL game.”
But I’m not stupid. The NFL will absolutely never do that for two reasons. One, they would never publicly admit they messed up—even if they are essentially admitting that now with the changes in educational policies. Two, reducing a gambling suspension would make it look like they’re easing up on punishment for violating this policy when they want to send the opposite message. They know it’s a messy situation with owners pocketing gambling money while the league simultaneously punishes players for partaking in that activity. They want to sweep that hypocrisy under the rug as quickly as possible by making an example of Williams and others to ensure it doesn’t continue to happen.
Obviously, there is a certain level of personal responsibility that falls on Williams, and the Lions are certainly at fault for not emphasizing the rules enough to their own players (and other employees who were also fired amidst the league’s investigation). It’s not like everyone in the NFL fell victim to this policy, but it’s also clear that the league did not put its young players in the best position to follow the rules in an ever-evolving landscape, and it sucks that the Lions—once again—are the ones to feel the hurt of the NFL’s inadequacy.