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Ridley’s Pending Return Spotlights NFL’s Delicate Betting Dance

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Jacksonville Jaguars wide receiver Calvin Ridley became eligible today to apply for reinstatement after serving a season-long suspension for gambling. Ridley was suspended indefinitely last March after he was popped for betting on NFL games during the 2021 season while he was with the Atlanta Falcons.

The Falcons traded Ridley to Jaguars ahead of the trade deadline last year during a time as the player was taking time to address his mental health. While Ridley soon could get the green light to join the Jaguars, the star receiver’s potential reinstatement offers a peek at the NFL’s multifaceted relationship with gambling. The league, the players’ association and individual players are allowed to strike endorsement and sponsorship deals with gambling outfits. Players are allowed to gamble on other sports (while in compliance), but team employees, coaches and other NFL personnel cannot, per the policy.

The NFL’s sports betting revenue continues to see double-digit growth, and there were 100 million sports betting transactions during Super Bowl LVII weekend, up 25% from last year, according to GeoComply. It was the league’s first finale hosted in a legal and live state with an in-stadium sports book. That’s just the beginning as the NFL further embraces the lucrative revenue stream. It has inked official partner deals with DraftKings, Caesars Entertainment, FanDuel and other companies.

Meanwhile, last year Las Vegas Raiders wide receiver Davante Adams became the first active NFL player to sign an individual endorsement deal, linking with MGM Resorts International. The NFLPA had previously struck a deal with DraftKings, and last month, the players association approved a multiyear deal with BetMGM that allows players to negotiate individual ambassador contracts.

“There’s a very fine thread that’s being woven,” responsible gambling policy expert Brianne Doura-Schawohl said. “I do worry about the mixed messaging, especially with the fact that there’s a large and vulnerable consumer base watching athletes promote [gambling products] that they cannot engage in.”

Attorney Bill Deni also has concerns with the rules. “The NFL gambling policy is inconsistent between players, staff and coaches,” Deni said. “The league should consider aligning the policies to avoid any confusion.” 

Deni is representing former New York Jets wide receivers coach Miles Austin, who was suspended last year for violating the league’s gambling policy. Austin allegedly bet on a non-NFL game, but that’s still a violation, per league policy. Austin and Ridley are the latest to be punished; former Arizona Cardinals cornerback Josh Shaw was suspended for gambling in 2019.

“Examples such as this are a healthy reminder of the value of having consistent and continual [gambling] education and training for athletes,” said Doura-Schawohl, who also serves as an outside consultant for fantasy sports operator Underdog. “There are responsibilities that they now face as their sport is aligning with gambling … What are the expectations?”  

Companies like U.S. Integrity have been deployed to assist the NFL and other major sports leagues to enforce their policies. CEO Matt Holt says that while Ridley gets a lot of attention, the problem isn’t uncommon, as his company caught nine other athletes last year from a wide range of sports. He believes the policy banning players from betting on NFL games is important.

“The rule is really good, but that doesn’t mean people won’t continue to do it,” Holt said. “Sometimes they don’t understand the rule, and sometimes they just think they won’t get caught.”  

As it enjoys the new revenue stream, the NFL has taken some steps to promote responsible gambling, launching a $6 million comprehensive campaign alongside the National Council on Problem Gambling two years ago. The Manning family was also featured in a responsible gaming commercial through Caesars Sportsbook last year.

The Supreme Court’s major 2018 decision to allow states to legalize sports betting spurred leagues and operators to capitalize on the lucrative opportunity, and gambling is now legal in 33 states, while eight others have active legalization bills. But the drawback has been how the NFL and others keep the game’s integrity intact, operating in a state-by-state structure, while players want their own slice of the overall revenue pie.

Gambling industry analyst Chris Grove says clear language and policies were needed long before the landmark decision. There has always been gambling around the game, despite sports betting previously being illegal in most states, he said, and legalization has merely brought the issue to a head.

“Legal betting just raised awareness of the dangers of the lack of protections and protocols,” Grove added.

After being sidelined for the last 16 months, Ridley aims to get cleared for the 2023 season. He’ll look to help the AFC South champion Jaguars reach next year’s Super Bowl, which will be hosted in Las Vegas—the country’s gambling epicenter.

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