The NFL cares more about betting than brains

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell with Jaire Alexander as he is selected for the Green Bay Packers in April 2018.
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell with Jaire Alexander as he is selected for the Green Bay Packers in April 2018.
Image: Matthew Emmons-USA Today via Reuters
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The National Football League has been notoriously slow on the uptake in responding to players’ claims of traumatic brain injuries caused by concussions. But when it comes to gambling, the NFL is Johnny-on-the-spot.

“There is no greater priority […] than protecting the integrity of our sport,” NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said in a statement on May 21. “Our fans, our players and our coaches deserve to know that we are doing everything possible to ensure no improper influences affect how the game is played on the field.” His comments come in response to the possibility that states will soon legalize sports betting in the wake of a Supreme Court decision last week in Murphy v. National College Athletic Association (pdf).

The case, which originated in New Jersey federal court, doesn’t technically legalize state sports betting. Rather, it removes a legal impediment to states instituting such schemes. The high court concluded that a 1992 federal statute, the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act (PASPA), which allowed athletic leagues to sue states for enacting wagering programs of any kind, including lotteries, was a “direct affront to state sovereignty.” States are now free to bet on sports gambling as a source of revenue, and may enact wagering schemes without fear of league lawsuits.

The NFL is ready for whatever comes next, according to Goodell. “We have spent considerable time planning for the potential of broadly legalized sports gambling and are prepared to address these changes in a thoughtful and comprehensive way, including substantial education and compliance trainings for our clubs, players, employees and partners,” he says in the statement.

The commissioner is also calling on Congress to take control of the  situation before states start enacting legislation and raking in the cash. Goodell wants the federal government to create national standards that each state must follow. He asks regulators to force states to pass “commonsense” laws that focus on “at a minimum, four core principles,” including:

  1. Consumer protections;
  2. Protecting sports leagues’ content and intellectual property;
  3. Ensuring fans have access to official, reliable league data; and
  4. Allocating sufficient law enforcement resources to monitoring and penalties, to protect fans and penalize “bad actors here at home and abroad.”

Goodell is not alone in believing that the federal government should play a part in the sports betting game. Quartz spoke with sports law expert Richard Roth, who agrees with the NFL commissioner’s assessment. “The bottom line is that, in light of SCOTUS’s ruling, Congress must enact federal legislation,” Roth says. “Without it, the state systems will be impossible to understand and harder to enforce.”

Paul Martino, of the venture capital firm Bullpen Capital—an investor in the online fantasy sports platform FanDuel—predicts that legal athletic betting could quickly turn into a “Wild, Wild West” or a “50-state Whack-A-Mole.”

To prevent such chaos, Republican Senator Orrin Hatch, one of the original authors of PASPA, announced on May 14 that he’ll soon introduce legislation to standardize state betting and help “protect honesty and principle in the athletic arena.” He told The Hill that the “the very integrity of sports” is at stake. The “rapid rise of the Internet means that sports betting across state lines is now just a click away,” he said. “We cannot allow this practice to proliferate amid uneven enforcement and a patchwork race to the regulatory bottom.”

Goodell says that the Supreme Court ruling doesn’t change his “unwavering commitment” to protecting football’s integrity. Notably, it took the NFL over 15 years of controversy about concussions to call for regulations preventing brain injuries. By contrast, it took only a week after the Supreme Court decision for the league to speak up about legal wagering schemes. Quartz contacted the NFL to ask about its comparatively rapid reaction to the gambling matter but hasn’t yet received a response.

Acting fast to support sports betting standards is a no-brainer, as athletic leagues stand to profit from legal gambling schemes. The NFL in particular could use a boost. A class action lawsuit settlement with players over brain injuries cost the league $437 million dollars. Meanwhile, awareness of the long-term dangers of concussions to players is eroding football’s popularity, forcing even its fans to question why the dangerous game is still being played.