Cameron Heyward, the veteran Pittsburgh Steelers defensive lineman, remembers that when he was chosen in the primary round of the 2011 N.F.L. draft, the most well-liked betting event was the N.C.A.A. Division I men’s basketball tournament, which attracts hundreds of thousands of casual fans in the US through bracket pools amongst friends and colleagues.
The league had policies back then to limit gambling amongst players and others in the game, saying that it will risk damaging the integrity of the sport. But, Heyward believed on the time, the guidance was less of a giant deal because betting was not as widely available.
“I truthfully never really saw it because the gambling policy related to football,” Heyward said last week in an interview at his team’s training camp. “But it surely’s really taken off, and you will have to be sure that you’re up-to-date on what you possibly can and can’t do.”
The Supreme Court in 2018, seven years after Heyward was drafted, struck down a law that prohibited sports betting in most states. Since then, betting has quickly grow to be intertwined with each the game and the league as quite a few states have begun allowing legal sports books.
The N.F.L. has direct sponsorship agreements with three sports betting firms, and it has increased the branding on game broadcasts and other programming. Television viewers are bombarded with ads from sports books, offering promotional incentives and pushing mobile apps. No less than two teams — the Washington Commanders and the Arizona Cardinals — have sports books on their stadium grounds.
However the N.F.L.’s embrace of sports gambling is jarringly different from its heavy-handed discipline of its players who’ve broken the league’s rules against betting.
Since April, the league has suspended not less than seven players indefinitely for betting on N.F.L. games, in violation of its gambling policy. Those players can apply for reinstatement after the 2023 season. It also suspended not less than three players, including the second-year Detroit Lions receiver Jameson Williams, for betting on other sports at their team facility.
The league says the strict approach to players, coaches and staff who bet on games is required to guard the sanctity of the game — the basic proposition that the games contested for the entertainment of fans are real competitions without predetermined outcomes.
But that approach has also raised questions on fairness, the concept of integrity and the league’s policing of athletes who’ve grown up with smartphones and with fewer restrictions of their adult lives than even barely older players like Heyward.
The aftermath has left coaches and players trying to stop more suspensions and questioning the league’s effectiveness at relaying its policy and its consequences.
Coach Sean Payton of the Denver Broncos told USA Today that it was a “shame” to have players suspended for prolonged periods since the league had not communicated its policies well.
“When you will have a bunch of players getting D’s, you will have to start out taking a look at the message,” Payton said after one among his players was suspended in July. “And we’ve had quite a lot of D’s in our league this yr with this policy.”
Some players struggle to distinguish between the league’s prohibition for its employees and its wider institutional acceptance of the sports betting industry. Williams said he was “not aware” of the league’s gambling policy, regardless that it’s detailed within the N.F.L.’s collective bargaining agreement and included in every player contract.
For many years, the N.F.L. shunned affiliations with gambling and lobbied against betting expansion in the US. For the reason that Supreme Court struck down the law that prohibited legalized sports betting, teams have rushed to sign sponsorships with casinos and sports books and, in 2021, the N.F.L. formed partnerships with DraftKings, FanDuel and Caesars Entertainment, reportedly value nearly $1 billion across five years.
After long avoiding Las Vegas due to its betting industry, the league allowed the Raiders to maneuver to a recent stadium there that has since hosted the Pro Bowl twice, in addition to the 2022 N.F.L. draft. This February, the town will host the Super Bowl.
Across the US, legal sports books are operating in 34 states and the District of Columbia, in line with the American Gaming Association, the casino industry trade group.
Heyward said the rapid spread of sports gambling can have forced the league to take a more stern approach with players than perhaps was obligatory.
“At this point, we’re more reactive than responsive, and that’s just the best way the sport is because we’ve not considered every part,” he said. “And so reactive becomes more of a heavier punishment quite learning from it and seeing how we are able to grow.”
The common age of the ten players suspended is just below 25, meaning that many were likely still in college when the Supreme Court issued its ruling. They grew up in a digital era wherein betting became widely accessible and legal via technology.
“It’s very hard for anyone who has worked with people in that age range to explore that nuance, particularly given the variety of changes a young player absorbs when coming into a professional sport,” said Bob Boland, a sports law professor at Seton Hall and the previous athletics integrity officer at Penn State.
The recent suspensions bore similarities to an episode in 1963 wherein Alex Karras and Paul Hornung — two of the largest stars within the league on the time — were suspended for one yr for betting on games.
“The precedent was set then,” said Steelers owner Art Rooney II, who approves of Commissioner Roger Goodell’s hard-line approach.
Karras and Hornung resumed their careers. But returning after a yr out of the league is hard in atypical circumstances. The younger players who’ve been recently suspended may even carry the stigma of getting been suspended.
Within the months for the reason that off-season suspensions, each the league and the players have tried to stop more bets from inside the sport.
The N.F.L. required rookies to attend mandatory meetings on the gambling policy, and it sent officials to groups during off-season practices and training camps to further explain what players could and will not do. Joe Schoen, the Giants general manager, said in an interview that league personnel delivered a presentation concerning the gambling policy on the Giants facility throughout the first day of coaching camp. Though the Giants had no players suspended this off-season, he said he sympathized with those that might need violated the mandates. But, he said, they at the moment are with none excuse.
“Perhaps some guys just made some honest mistakes because they didn’t understand the foundations, however the integrity of the sport is so essential to the league and everybody else,” Schoen said. “Everyone saw the identical presentation, so now in the event that they get in trouble or break the foundations, that’s on them.”
Among the many messengers leaguewide was Tom Brady, the recently retired star whom the league asked to film an anti-gambling educational video message for players.
Chris Lindstrom, a Falcons offensive lineman, said he wouldn’t download betting applications on his phone, and Steelers linebacker Alex Highsmith said he knew of players who had deleted the applications off their devices. Highsmith said he would have less sympathy if a player was found to have violated the policy in the long run.
“For guys to do something at this point, after hearing all this, is just negligence,” Highsmith said.