Their lives were always going to change when legal sports betting became a national reality. That gambling rules for pro athletes represented so much of that change was unforeseen.
After the fall of the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act in 2018, state legislatures would make their own decisions on whether sports wagering was an economic and societal fit within their borders. The players competing for teams within those lines, providing the grist for all these future bets, would be held to tighter scrutiny by those placing those wagers.
Some idiot in the fifth row was going to blame them for a bad beat or bad play. Or worse, for throwing the game, as if such malfeasance would be worth the risk of their multi-million dollar contract and endorsement deals.
But there was another facet that — in retrospect, naively — wasn’t as widely considered: a small group of athletes proving as fallible or as semi-informed as the fans in the stands. These professional athletes would imperil preciously short windows of riches to place a bet. They might think it was no big deal.
That these high-profile cases haven’t generated industry-wide scandal in professional leagues or sports betting is a testament to how well integrity-control works. That the majority of the cases where players have been caught betting improperly have happened in the NFL — the staunchest of the anti-gambling pro sports bloc (at least publically) until recent years — is fascinating.
Granted, the NFL — which had undoubtedly benefited from its tangential connection to gambling pre-2018 — had not had a betting scandal in years.
Modern Pros and Not Becoming the New Rose, Black Sox
Pete Rose and the 1919 Black Sox remain both baseball’s and mainstream sports gambling’s cautionary tales, but the travails of Paul Hornung, Alex Karras, and Art Schlichter are so ancient as not to exist for modern football players. Yes, Calvin Ridley, a collection of Detroit Lions and Washington Commanders players, and Indianapolis’ Isaiah Rodgers Jr., should have known better, done better.
But maybe the legalization of sports betting and marijuana are similar after all. All over America right now, at intersections and on sidewalks, citizens flout the laws of their state because they know it’s legal in some fashion somewhere, but never bothered to check their local laws.
This doesn’t excuse Isaiah Rodgers, Rashod Berry or Demetrius Taylor, who bet on NFL games, or Jameson Williams of the Lions who reportedly bet on non-NFL games, but from the team facility.
And it certainly doesn’t pardon Ridley — whose one-year suspension ended at the start of the new league year in March — and Rodgers, Berry and Taylor who were suspended indefinitely on June 29.
Rodgers seemed more likely to become that modern pariah because he allegedly followed Ridley in doing something so obviously wrong that it shouldn’t have required a workshop to explain: betting on his team. But the others might be afforded some latitude.
In an article in The Athletic, NFL players spoke of a general lack of understanding of the league’s gambling policy, with one unnamed among them confessing …
That could have been any of us.”
Maybe now they’ll read that fine print.
Pro Sports Leagues’ Gambling Policies
Here are details of the gambling rules for pro athletes in each of the four major US sports leagues has in place for its players:
National Basketball Association
Active NBA players joined their MLB and NHL brethren in collectively bargaining for the right to endorse sportsbooks this spring, under strict conditions. They will also be allowed to invest in gambling and daily fantasy companies, according to numerous media reports.
Rules concerning possible betting activities among players and staff are as stringent as any league, however, granting Commissioner Adam Silver “absolute and sole discretion” over discipline, which “may include a fine, suspension, expulsion and/or perpetual disqualification.”
From the NBA Constitution:
(f) Any Player who, directly or indirectly, wagers money or anything of value on the outcome of any game played by a Team in the league operated by the Association shall, on being charged with such wagering, be given an opportunity to answer such charges after due notice, and the decision of the Commissioner shall be final, binding and conclusive and unappealable. The penalty for such offense shall be within the absolute and sole discretion of the Commissioner and may include a fine, suspension, expulsion and/or perpetual disqualification from further association with the Association or any of its Members.
Article 35A outlines gambling rules for “Members, Owners, Officers, Managers, Coaches, Referees, employees, agents or representatives of Members, Owners, or the Association, other than Players.”
These persons may not:
- Bet money or anything of value on an NBA game either “directly or indirectly.”
- Leak confidential or non-public NBA information involving “the medical, personal, or other condition of any Player, Coach, or Referee; any Player transaction; any disciplinary action taken or to be taken by the Association or a Team; and Referee schedules, assignments, statistics, and ratings” for the benefit of gamblers.
- “Induce or attempt to induce” anyone to bet on NBA games.
- Engage in any other conduct “related to wagering money or anything of value” on the outcome of any NBA game that is deemed “prejudicial or detrimental” by the commissioner.
National Football League
The NFL is taking steps to make its gambling policy strikingly clear after the missteps or misdeeds of several players. In a presentation to reporters in June, league officials shared an abbreviated version of the 25- to 30-minute gambling training for players and staff.
Slide 3 said it all:
Jeff Miller, NFL Executive Vice President of Communications, said the widespread availability of legal sports betting and the capacity to wager on phones has complicated compliance and policing.
“Sports gambling has a great deal more presence in people’s lives than it did just a few short years ago, 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,” he said.
NFL rules forbid all players, league, and team personnel from “placing, soliciting or facilitating any bet, whether directly or through a third party, on any NFL game, practice or other event (e.g., Draft or Combine).”
Players, however, are allowed to wager on other sports where it is legal, if on their own time and not in team facilities. This is apparently where the Lions ran afoul of league rules. Strangely, coaches and staff are held to a tougher standard, being disallowed from betting on anything or even entering a March Madness pool if there’s an entry fee or prize.
Broncos head coach Sean Payton, however, expressed his displeasure with the policies and their implementation after defensive end Eyioma Uwazurike (below) was suspended in July, 2023, becoming the 11th player to be caught violating the guidelines. Uwazurike was suspended indefinitely for allegedly betting on Broncos games.
Said Payton to USA Today: “Shame on us. And we’re going to send them home for a year, where they can’t be around. The idea that you just go away, shame on us.”
Earlier, Payton seemed dismayed that players were still running afoul of the rules.
“You can’t bet on NFL football, ever, ever, ever. I don’t give a (expletive) what it is. The other thing is, it’s the same as the gun policy. You can’t bet on nothing if you’re at your facility, your hotel, your airplane. So, wherever you can’t carry a gun, you can’t place a bet.”
National Hockey League
The NHL’s stance is concise.
The NHL constitution goes on to forbid “wagering or the countenancing of wagering” on hockey games only. But open wagering or setting up gambling pools on team premises on presumably any sport is also deemed suspendable or termination-worthy if so determined by a three-quarters vote of league members.
Major League Baseball
In every Major League clubhouse, usually near the lockers but always in a high-traffic area, there’s a poster detailing the deal-breaker rules for player conduct. It’s in English and Spanish.
Key among them and well-positioned on the bill is Rule 21, which codifies oddities such as not giving gifts to teams after beating them or attacking umpires. Though section (a) is crucial in prohibiting the throwing of games, the key proviso is section (d):
(1) Any player, umpire, or Club or League official or employee, who shall bet any sum whatsoever upon any baseball game in connection with which the bettor has no duty to perform, shall be declared ineligible for one year.
(2) Any player, umpire, or Club or League official or employee, who shall bet any sum whatsoever upon any baseball game in connection with which the bettor has a duty to perform, shall be declared permanently ineligible.
(3) Any player, umpire, or Club or League official or employee who places bets with illegal bookmakers, or agents for illegal bookmakers, shall be subject to such penalty as the Commissioner deems appropriate in light of the facts and circumstances of the conduct. Any player, umpire, or Club or League official or employee who operates or works for an illegal bookmaking business shall be subject to a minimum of a one-year suspension by the Commissioner.
For purposes of this provision, an illegal bookmaker is an individual who accepts, places or handles wagers on sporting events from members of the public as part of a gaming operation that is unlawful in the jurisdiction in which the bets are accepted.
Put in place in 1927 in the wake of the Black Sox scandal, Rule 21 was right there for Pete Rose to see every day of his 30 seasons as a player and manager, but still, he chose to bet on his Reds while managing them, according to the Dowd Report released in 1989. It’s why — in conjunction with a ponderous drip-drip of allegations of malfeasance — that Rose remains outside the Baseball Hall of Fame despite being the game’s all-time hits leader.
Rob Manfred says that #MLB's relationship with gambling has no effect on Pete Rose's suspension.
"Pete Rose violated what is Rule 1 in baseball, the conseuqences of that are in the rule. We continue to abide by our own rules.''
— Bob Nightengale (@BNightengale) July 11, 2023
Oddly, America’s most gambling-traumatized major pro sport now allows active players to endorse sportsbooks. Only one has, and that sportsbook went out of business. The White Sox are among the MLB teams with an official sports betting partner. There are sportsbooks inside major league ballparks, and legal bets can be made on a cellphone next to Kenesaw Mountain Landis’ plaque in Cooperstown.
The rules for the leagues have changed, absolutely.
For the players, no. It’s all right there in the fine print.
And even though the leap from leagues’ gambling allegiances to players throwing games is a disjointed one, it’s one fans have already begun to make. Neither players nor owners can afford for that perception to grow.