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Calvin Ridley gambling suspension raises questions about NFL’s sports betting partnerships

The NFL is raking in money hand over fist from partnerships with sportsbooks while Ridley is suspended indefinitely for making bets on NFL games totaling $3,900.

NFL: Atlanta Falcons Training Camp Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Unless you’ve been hiding away somewhere without internet access, you’re probably aware that Calvin Ridley has been suspended for betting on NFL games while away from the team during the 2021 season. There’s a lot to unpack here.

First of all, it’s a historic situation. It’s not the kind of history we’d like to see our favorite team make, but it is historic. Only five NFL players in history have been disciplined for gambling on NFL games. Prior to Ridley, only one player had been disciplined for gambling on NFL games in the past 39 years.

That player was former Cardinals cornerback Josh Shaw back in 2019. Prior to that, then-Baltimore Colts quarterback Art Schlichter was suspended in 1983 for betting on NFL games, and Paul Hornung of the Packers and Alex Karras of the Lions were each suspended for the entire 1963 season. Schlichter, Hornung, and Karras were all reinstated after serving a full season’s suspension.

This is also historic because it marks the first time an NFL player has been suspended for betting on NFL games in a year when the NFL developed partnerships with a number of US sportsbooks and reportedly expected to make about $270 million off of those partnerships in 2021, according to the Washington Post back in Aug. 2021.

Let’s dig into what we know and what we don’t about Ridley’s suspension and the NFL’s relationship with the sports betting industry.

Did Ridley know the risk he was taking by gambling on NFL games?

We don’t know. But we do know that his contract forbids betting on NFL games, and we know the discipline is so harsh because the league wants to protect the integrity of the game.

In the current collective bargaining agreement between the NFL and the NFLPA, Appendix A is a standard NFL player contract. Section 15 is entitled Integrity of Game, and it reads as follows:

Player recognizes the detriment to the League and professional football that would result from impairment of public confidence in the honest and orderly conduct of NFL games or the integrity and good character of NFL players. Player therefore acknowledges his awareness that if he accepts a bribe or agrees to throw or fix an NFL game; fails to promptly report a bribe offer or an attempt to throw or fix an NFL game; bets on an NFL game; knowingly associates with gamblers or gambling activity; uses or provides other players with stimulants or other drugs for the purpose of attempting to enhance on-field performance; or is guilty of any other form of conduct reasonably judged by the League Commissioner to be detrimental to the League or professional football, the Commissioner will have the right, but only after giving Player the opportunity for a hearing at which he may be represented by counsel of his choice, to fine Player in a reasonable amount; to suspend Player for a period certain or indefinitely; and/or to terminate this contract.

According to Ridley, who absolutely decided to tweet through it, he bet a total of $1,500.

We know from early reporting (h/t Lindsay Jones of The Athletic) that Ridley placed three bets on eight, five, and three-game parlays, and at least one of the legs of one of those parlays involved betting that the Falcons would beat the Jaguars in Week 12. The Falcons were favored by one point in that one and covered the spread with a 21-14 win. We don’t know what the other legs of those parlays involved.

But on Friday, March 11, Brett Smiley of SportsHandle reported that Ridley bet quite a bit more than that. Smiley says that according to documents obtained by SportsHandle, Ridley actually bet $3,900 on six different bets that included Falcons games. Five were parlays (with one $300 11-game parlay), and one was a $1,300 in-game wager on the Falcons’ total vs. the Jaguars in Week 12. Smiley reports that all of the wagers Ridley made on the Falcons were losses. Ridley also placed two $100 bets on games that didn’t involve the Falcons, winning a total of $654. And Ridley wasn’t just betting on football. Per Smiley:

According to investigative records, Ridley also placed 33 additional wagers on other sports and leagues for a total of $32,733, with a profit of $2,744.

We know that Ridley placed these bets through the Hard Rock Sportsbook app, which was legal in Florida (where Ridley lives outside of the NFL season) at the time. The activity was flagged and it was reported to a company called Genius Sports, which handles monitoring of these types of issues for the NFL.

And we know that Ridley’s suspension is indefinite, but he is permitted to apply for reinstatement in Feb. 2023.

How does the league reconcile this with its lucrative sports betting partnerships?

That’s a great question, and I don’t really have an answer. Here’s everything we do know.

The NFL announced on Apr. 15, 2021 that it had established exclusive sportsbook partnerships with Caesars Entertainment, DraftKings, and FanDuel.

From that release:

Finally, in support of the NFL’s commitment to protect the integrity of the game and its fans, all three partners have agreed to adhere to the NFL’s core integrity policies, and will collaborate with the NFL on intelligence sharing, advocacy efforts, and responsible gaming education.

“As the sports betting landscape has continued to evolve in the United States, we have been thoughtful with our strategy and are excited to announce three partners who share the NFL’s vision and goals,” said Renie Anderson, Chief Revenue Officer and Executive Vice President of NFL Partnerships. “Working closely with Caesars, DraftKings and FanDuel, we will provide fans new and different ways of interacting and engaging with the sport they love.”

A few months later, on Aug. 30, 2021, the NFL announced more partnerships with FOX Bet, BetMGM, PointsBet, and WynnBET. From that release:

We are pleased to announce this select group as Approved Sportsbook Operators,” said Nana-Yaw Asamoah, Vice President of Business Development for the NFL. “Along with our three Official Sports Betting Partners, this group of operators will help the League to engage fans in responsible and innovative ways this season as the sports betting landscape continues to evolve.”

In support of the NFL’s commitment to protect the integrity of the game and its fans, all operators have agreed to adhere to the NFL’s core integrity policies, collaborate with the NFL on information sharing and advocacy efforts and support the NFL’s responsible gambling efforts. All operators will also license Official League Data from the League’s Official Data provider, Genius Sports.

These partnerships gave the partner sportsbooks the right to purchase premium advertising during NFL broadcasts. NFL broadcasts generated $3.7 billion in advertising revenue in 2020 according to AdWeek, and the league expected that number to surge in 2021.

Does Ridley deserve league discipline for betting on NFL games?

The short answer is absolutely. NFL players are aware they cannot bet on NFL games, and the reason for that has been communicated to them. Ridley was still under contract with the team while on the Non-Football Injury list. He wasn’t physically with the team at the facility, and according to the league, he had no knowledge of the team’s game plan or anything that might have given him a competitive advantage in his bets. But he should have known better than to bet on NFL games. Period.

Is Ridley’s suspension too severe?

It’s a fair question to ask. Again, the NFL determined Ridley did not use any inside information to get an edge in these bets. Reporting suggests he wagered a total of $3,900 on NFL games. And I have a really hard time reconciling that against the $270 million the NFL expected to generate off of sports betting partnerships in 2021.

I have some questions in general about the NFL embracing sports betting. For one thing, as of 2016, approximately 2.6% of the US population (or about 10 million people) suffered from an addiction to gambling, according to the North American Foundation for Gambling Addiction Help. Those are the most recent numbers I could find, but it’s reasonable to expect those numbers have probably risen as sports betting has become legal in more states. The NFL opening up advertising and the use of their logos and marks and statistics for these sportsbooks could contribute to those numbers increasing.

Not only is it difficult to process Ridley’s indefinite suspension against the league’s willingness to make money for itself off of sports betting, but I’m also having a hard time reconciling this suspension length with the lighter suspensions handed down to players facing allegations of domestic violence, sexual assault, and other actions that cause harm to people other than the player involved.

Everyone remembers Ray Rice and the two-game suspension he was issued after video was released of him knocking out his then-fiancée in an elevator. After that fiasco, the league announced that it would impose a minimum six-game suspension on players who committed similar transgressions. The NFL hasn’t followed through on that and still seems to apply discipline arbitrarily when it comes to violence committed by players.

The argument can be made that the only individual who was truly harmed by Ridley’s decision to bet on NFL games was Ridley. Should his punishment really be more severe than, say, a player who allegedly sexually assaulted an Uber driver or a player who terrorized and abused his wife for several years or a player who allegedly threw his girlfriend on a futon covered with guns? That’s really difficult for me to accept.

Why didn’t you mention Calvin Ridley’s mental health?

Because I believe we can discuss Ridley’s actions and suspension on their own without speculating about anyone’s mental health, and I think it’s inherently wrong to speculate about anyone’s mental health under any circumstances. If you’d like to know my thoughts on Ridley’s mental health, here you go.

What will the NFL do if Ridley appeals his suspension?

Per the CBA, Ridley has three days after notification to appeal his suspension. We’ll certainly keep readers here updated about anything we hear on that front.

In my opinion, Ridley didn’t do himself any favors with his tweets if he does decide to appeal.

But it’s worth pointing out that, according to the letter Roger Goodell sent to Ridley notifying him of the suspension, that Ridley did cooperate with the league and took responsibility for his actions.

“For decades, gambling on NFL games has been considered among the most significant violations of league policy warranting the most substantial sanction. In your case, I acknowledge and commend you for your promptly reporting for an interview, and for admitting your actions.”

If anything might incline the NFL toward leniency, Ridley cooperating and admitting what he did may help.

Because of the importance of preserving the integrity of the game (even though that’s, at best, a bit hypocritical coming from a league that’s making money hand over fist from sports betting partnerships), I personally don’t see this decision being reversed or the suspension shortened to any less than one full season. The precedent with the four other players in league history who were caught betting on games plus Goodell’s statement that “gambling on NFL games has been considered among the most significant violations of league policy warranting the most substantial sanction” suggests that one full season may be the minimum suspension the league will consider.

How does all of this impact the Falcons?

Well, they won’t have Ridley on the field this season. Ridley, who essentially bet $3,900 to lose $11 million, won’t be paid for the 2022 season, and his contract will toll to the 2023 season.

At this point, I’ll be shocked if the team doesn’t choose to part ways with him, but for now, at least he’s not costing them anything. A trade is extremely unlikely considering the suspension, and any interest other teams had in Ridley has likely evaporated for the time being.

Why does this stuff always happen to the Falcons?

I wish I knew. I really do.