In every NFL team locker room, a sign warns players not to gamble or accept bribes: “YOUR JOB IS FOOTBALL. PROTECT THE INTEGRITY OF THE GAME,” the banner reads. But those words didn’t stop Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Calvin Ridley from betting $1,500 on his team.
On Monday, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell suspended Ridley “indefinitely”, but at least through the end of the 2022 season for wagering on NFL games last year. “There is nothing more fundamental to the NFL’s success—and to the reputation of everyone associated with our league—than upholding the integrity of the game,” Goodell wrote in a letter to Ridley, explaining the suspension. “Your actions put the integrity of the game at risk, threatened to damage public confidence in professional football, and potentially undermined the reputations of your fellow players throughout the NFL.”
In November 2021, Ridley, who was on the non-football illness list to address his mental health, placed eight parlays through the Hard Rock Casino app while in Florida. (Mobile sports betting was legal briefly last year in Florida before a Supreme Court decision closed the market.) In a tweet on Monday, Ridley said: “I bet 1500 total I don’t have a gambling problem.” In another, he wrote: “I know I was wrong But I’m getting 1 year lol.”
Ridley tried to place another bet after leaving Florida and his activity was flagged by Hard Rock and Genius Sports, the U.K.-based tech platform that distributes play-by-play statistics and data for the NFL to sports betting companies. Genius’ integrity services arm monitors betting across all football games and events, says Brian McCarthy, spokesman for the NFL.
Gambling is one of the worst offenses a player or an NFL coach or staff member can commit, according to the league and its suspension guidelines. Players who are caught betting are usually sacked for an entire season. But players who get caught beating their spouses or significant others usually get suspended for a few games. McCarthy says that the NFL spoke with domestic violence experts to come up with their policy, deciding banishment after a first offense “could cause unintended consequences that could negatively impact the family.” (A second domestic disturbance would result in lifetime banishment.)
As in Major League Baseball, the NFL believes gambling is the greatest threat to the game itself. For years, Goodell had been against sports betting. “I think we still strongly oppose [among ownership] legalized sports gambling,” the commissioner said at a news conference in March 2017. “The integrity of our game is No. 1. We will not compromise on that.”
Now that sports betting is legal in 31 states, and the NFL has official business partnerships with several sports betting companies, including Caesars, FanDuel and DraftKings, the league went all in on gambling. One can hardly turn on a TV these days and not see the Manning family joking with Caesar himself to support the Caesars gaming app. Peyton and Eli Manning even hosted a special VIP viewing party for Super Bowl LVI at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, site of this year’s big game.
“The one thing that hasn’t changed is our policy and our procedures to protect the integrity of the game,” says McCarthy. “Fans need to know what they’re watching on the field is nothing more than the product of hard work, and fair play. Once they begin to doubt that what they’re seeing is legitimate and there could be outside influences on the game, that becomes a serious issue for any sport and all sports leagues.”
The specter of gambling has always haunted and threatened the NFL. But the list of players caught for gambling is suspiciously small. Ridley is the first player to have been suspended for gambling since 2019, when Arizona Cardinals cornerback Josh Shaw was caught wagering. In 1983, Baltimore Colts quarterback Art Schlichter was suspended for gambling by then-commissioner Pete Rozelle. Schlichter eventually descended into gambling addiction and fraud, landing in prison for nearly a decade. (He was released in August 2021.) Twenty years earlier, Green Bay Packers halfback Paul “The Golden Boy” Hornung and Detroit Lions defensive tackle Alex Karras—both future Hall of Famers—were suspended for an entire season for betting on NFL games.
“It’s a rare occurrence,” says McCarthy. “But we strive for perfection.”
But an underground bookie, who runs a multi-million-dollar sports betting operation, says pro athletes frequently use the illegal books to bet on their own teams. McCarthy says that legalization helps bring everything above ground and pointed to how Ridley getting caught as an example of how NFL partnering with sportsbooks and tech companies like Genius Sports “protect the game.”
As for legal books at the casinos, like the Superbook at Westgate Las Vegas, director John Murray says that if a recognizable athlete like Tiger Woods or Aaron Rogers were to walk in and try to bet on their own sport, they’d be turned away. But the sportsbook doesn’t have a specific policy to refuse pro athletes. “It’s up to the [NFL] to self-police these things,” says Murray.
Is the legalization of sports betting a growing threat to the integrity of sports games? “I’m a little cynical, but I find it hard to believe that athletes weren’t betting on sports prior to the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act being repealed,” says Murray, citing the law that was stuck down in 2018 to allow states to legalize sports betting. “People are pretty naïve if they think this is the first time something like this has happened.”