The National Football League dropped the hammer on Falcons wide receiver Calvin Ridley this past March, suspending him for at least a year for placing a couple of online bets from his phone on league games.
The NFL is also currently deliberating on what to do with Browns (almost Falcons) quarterback Deshaun Watson, who has been credibly accused of 25+ instances of sexual harassment and assault stemming from massage appointments.
If he gets even one game less than Ridley received, the league’s discipline apparatus will once again look like broken machinery. At the very least, the NFL should revisit its Ridley punishment in wake of Watson’s pending one, so as not to be making the case that what Ridley has done and what Watson has been accused of doing to multiple women are on equal footing.
The suspension Ridley received is for “at least a year,” meaning that he has to be reinstated by the league before he can step on a field again. If the NFL wanted to be draconian, it could refuse to ever let the former Alabama receiver ever play again for the grievous crime of using a sports betting app that is likely airing commercials during NFL games.
The league at the time of the punishment used Ridley as an example in this new day-and-age of online betting, one that should strike fear in the hearts of any NFL player who even thinks of going near a parlay while they’re part of an NFL team. To the league, it is nearly unforgivable to even vaguely taint the “integrity” of the game, something that looks a bit funny given that this is a game that has historically been terrible at punishing domestic abusers, has a horrifying legacy of CTE building amongst its alumni, and saw a once-prominent quarterback blackballed for protesting for equal rights. If you want to stick to the on-field integrity, this is a sport with a long history of officiating that threatens the product, knee jerk rule changes that muddle everything, and naked pursuit of profits regardless of how players feel about it. From the “protecting the shield” perspective, it makes a certain amount of sense to make Ridley’s punishment harsher, but the NFL has long claimed to be a league that cares about more than just the on-field results of its games.
Ridley is now the prime example of what happens if you really get on the NFL’s bad side. While what he did was silly and extremely avoidable—nobody here argued he should not be punished for it at all—it should have never necessitated more than a month or at most two to send that all-important message. The wideout admitted what he did was wrong, and is now having to pay the ultimate price for something that any of us could do legally in a state where it is permissible. Sports gambling is extremely common now thanks to the rise of sites like FanDuel and DraftKings, and the league is going to have to buck up one day and recognize that players are probably using those sites all of the time to bet on other sports and games in which they are not participating in the NFL. Ridley just made the honest mistake of making his usage too easily found by an investigative force and betting on his own team, even if he wasn’t playing. To win, which last year in particular has a certain amount of doomed faith to it.
Ridley’s punishment is likely intended to be strong enough to scare the league off ever doing this again, but the initial doling of the punishment should be enough to send the message the league wants to send. While it’s admittedly a self-righteous message primarily backed by financial interest, it’s one received loud and clear, and one that wouldn’t be tarnished by lessening it. If (hypothetically) Ridley’s getting a month or two once the dust settles for a relatively minor transgression, it’s still going to be clear to everyone that betting heavily or on the outcomes of games you’re directly involved in will mean the sort of indefinite suspension the NFL initially handed down.
Watson’s pending suspension, rumored to be a year and one that could easily be appealed by the NFLPA, being even in the same ballpark as Ridley’s continues to seem incredible. If more recent reports prove correct, Watson’s suspension could be significantly less than Ridley’s, which is absurd on its face.
While the most legalistic-minded among us would note Watson has vehemently denied his actions and Ridley has owned up to his, there is still something baffling about betting on a legal app on a sport you play in being even vaguely comparable in length of punishment to serving time for a historic number of sexual harassment and assault allegations.
Again, the league has been trying ever since the initial and wholly inadequate Ray Rice suspension to make it clear it takes even allegations of crime against women and the vulnerable seriously and can be trusted to respond accordingly. It’s difficult to make that case convincingly if the punishment for Watson clocks in as equal to or less than the punishment the league handed out to a suspended player making $3,900 in bets on his own team, and the NFL surely understands that.
Let’s be real. Ridley probably won’t play anymore for the Falcons, and the second his suspension ends, he’ll likely be traded elsewhere. It’s plausible the team will see what he’s got with the way the receiver room needs talent, but with trade talks brewing pre-suspension, his time in Atlanta is likely already over. This is not about stumping for a player because I’d like to see the team add draft capital or win more games by adding to their receiving corps. Whether it’s in a Falcons uniform or in the uniform of another team, I just believe Ridley should be playing in 2022.
Cutting his suspension in half and making him sit out until midseason feels like an easy concession that Ridley could be granted, with the full understanding that this happened during a difficult time in his life and the full knowledge that any future transgressions in this vein would lead to a permanent suspension. If Watson gets a year, simply put, Ridley needs to be immediately granted far less than that. It sets yet another ugly precedent for the league, though given the NFL’s track record they’re likely to shrug it off and keep Ridley where he is, drawing the same sort of condemnation and questioning the next time a situation where its inability to mete out punishment consistently comes under scrutiny. The league has long been able to bank on its popularity ensuring it can bulldoze its way past controversy and outright incompetence, after all.
In a just world, Ridley sees a lessened suspension, is given the opportunity to talk to other teams about why players need to be careful about online gambling, and moves on with his career sometime in November. Though, that would make too much sense. Ridley messed with the shield, and now he’s paying for it.
Whether it’s in Atlanta or elsewhere, a football field without Ridley this season is another sign the league has no idea how to enforce its code of conduct justly, particularly if his punishment winds up being harsher than Watson’s. Unfortunately, that’s just the outcome we’re expecting.