The NFL and other sports leagues are headed towards a major scandal over sports betting influencing the outcome of a game. It's more of a matter of "when," not "if" at this stage. I used to believe the NFL would eventually have to deal with an era of performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) impacting the integrity of the game, just like baseball. That seems quaint as the legalization of sports better has ratcheted up the stakes involved with every game.
My focus here is the NFL, but the same could be true of any sports league. America has never had a time in its history when sports betting was as easy and prevalent as it is now. In the past, you had to deal with bookies, casinos, and shady people to place bets. Now, all you need is a smartphone located in a state that allows sports betting.
Currently, 25 states have legalized online sports betting. Another four states allow in-person sports betting but not online betting. Other states are watching these developments and lining up their own laws. Legalized sports betting of some form is the majority position in the United States, and it's been a rapid shift since the Supreme Court opened the doors to this in 2018.
Before the 2023 season, the NFL had only suspended, banned, or taken disciplinary action against five total players in its history for violating the league's gambling policy. In the 2023 off-season alone, the NFL took various forms of disciplinary action against ten players across the league.
That ban likely hit an eleventh player, named Will Compton, in 2022. Compton is a defense and special teams player and had gotten cut by the Las Vegas Raiders earlier in the season. Compton talked about the process as he's also one of the hosts of the highly popular Barstool Sports podcast "Bussin' with the Boys." When the Atlanta Falcons tried to sign Compton to a contract, the NFL blocked the agreement.
As part of his podcast, Compton talks about sports betting and pitched the now-defunct Barstool Sportsbook, which was run by Penn Gaming (Penn recently switched their relationship to ESPN to run that betting app instead of Barstool Sports). Compton indicated that these "business dealings" were why the NFL blocked his return to an NFL roster. The NFL even barred Compton's podcast from Radio Row during the Super Bowl.
The NFL's stance makes sense, if you analyze it from the "integrity of the game angle." And if you look at absolutely nothing else, everything looks good. But the hypocrisy is so easy to see. The NFL signed exclusive agreements with Caesars Entertainment, DraftKings, and FanDuel to become the "Official Sports Betting Partners of the NFL." The NFL even has in-stadium betting stations for fans. In other words, the NFL has the same kind of agreements that Will Compton had through Barstool Sports.
This is all the past, though. And while you can point out the inconsistencies of the NFL dropping the hammer on players while cutting deals with sportsbooks, that's all there is.
All this resurfaced for me over the weekend watching NFL Redzone. The 49ers had beaten the Rams, but there was still time left. The 49ers led 30-20 with 1:34 left on the clock. The Rams needed a miracle and didn't get one. With four seconds left on the clock, Rams coach Sean McVay sent his field goal unit onto the field to complete a meaningless field goal.
But that decision wasn't purposeless. As Outkick notes, "But that field goal wasn't meaningless for everyone. The Los Angeles Rams entered the game as 7-and-a-half-point underdogs." By cutting the 49ers lead from ten points to seven, the Rams covered the spread, flipping the bet on the game's last play. If you bet on the 49ers, you lost because an NFL coach kicked a field goal for no reason other than seemingly covering the spread.
People naturally wondered a very simple thing: did Sean McVay base his decision to kick a field goal to ensure his team covered the spread with the NFL's official betting partners?
We may never know the answer to that. But it seems plausible for anyone watching the game. And if it seems reasonable, it also seems likely that we'll get an NFL scandal at some point where a coaching staff has money riding on a game they're involved with.
We've already seen a version of this in college sports. The University of Alabama's baseball coach got fired after suspicious bets were made relying on his knowledge of his players. In professional leagues, the NBA dealt with the fallout from the Tim Donaghy game-fixing scandal before online betting.
The point is that a scandal here seems highly likely. I'm not saying one is present. But I can point to things like the Rams-49ers game, where an unusual coaching decision directly impacts sports gambling and has no other real purpose. Sports gambling has exploded across the United States in only a few years. We don't know the long-impacts yet, that's impossible. The NFL has scrambled to sign exclusive deals with the big names to make even more money while depending on old rules to hold things in place.
There's a level of hypocrisy here, where the league sets expectations for the players that it is unclear apply to coaches, referees, or league officials themselves. The money involved in everything involves tens of billions and growing. Players have already felt the temptation and gotten hit as a result. There are humans in all the other areas of sports. It's not just players.
It's a matter of "when" this all goes down, not "if."