Calvin Ridley gambling, Stephen Ross allegations unsettling

Late Sunday night, as the NFL’s annual scouting combine was being packed onto moving trucks in Indianapolis, a longtime team executive reflected on the league’s evolution over the past 20 years. As the conversation turned to the NFL’s drive to monetize seemingly every proton and neutron, the executive made a declaration about his many years inside the laboratory.

“Nothing will be like the 180-degree turn on gambling,” he said. “Nothing. There was a time it was taboo to even say the word ‘gambling’ out loud. Now I go to the Pro Bowl [in Las Vegas] and there’s a statue of Caesar in front of Caesars Palace, and he’s got a Pro Bowl jersey on. They’ve sold out to it completely and I don’t even think they’ve grasped what they’re really getting into.”

Less than 24 hours later, the NFL suspended Atlanta Falcons wideout Calvin Ridley one year for gambling on league games during the 2021 season — including a Falcons game — while Ridley was on the team’s non-football injury list.

The development prompted one more poke from that same longtime executive.

“NFL made this bed…” he texted.

Indeed it did. A bed that’s already on the verge of being lit on fire when it comes to the integrity of wins and losses, thanks to a lawsuit from former Miami Dolphins coach Brian Flores, who is alleging that team owner Stephen Ross offered him $100,000 for every loss he piled up in 2019. Now you add in Ridley’s sledgehammer suspension, which occurred after he used a mobile betting platform — the kind widely promoted by the NFL’s multiple gambling sponsorship partners — to place three parlay bets on NFL teams over a five-day span in the state of Florida last November.

If you’re ranking uncrossable boundaries when it comes to the integrity of the NFL, two are unquestionably near the very top: a franchise owner allegedly offering a head coach cash for losses, and a star player caught betting on his own team (even if he’s not playing in that game). The incidents are not the same, but both are extremely precarious when it comes to the league’s pursuit of revenue through a widening gambling pipeline, especially considering what’s at stake for the people involved.

For Ross, if it can be proven that he did indeed offer Flores pay for losses in an effort to improve the Dolphins’ draft position, the cost will likely be his ownership perch. As for Ridley, he alleges that he bet a total of $1,500. His losses will now amount to just over $11.1 million, which is the salary he was set to earn in 2022. Not to mention the remainder of his playing career if the NFL never reinstates him.

Calvin Ridley's gambling suspension is all sorts of uncomfortable for a league that's cozied up with sports betting companies recently, and whose bedrock includes competitive integrity.  (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

Calvin Ridley’s gambling suspension is all sorts of uncomfortable for a league that’s cozied up with sports betting companies recently, and whose bedrock includes competitive integrity. (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

Few would have believed these kinds of massive risks would ever be taken by those with so much to lose. And yet, here we are, with one allegation hanging in the balance and one admitted violation now aired out for the world to see.

It brings us to the damage incurred to the NFL’s suddenly passionate embrace of gambling. The price is indeterminate. For now, anyway. But there’s little question this is a frightening moment for the NFL. Not just because a starring young player was foolish enough to take a bite out of the league’s endorse-but-don’t-touch forbidden fruit, but also because the NFL became aware of it only because Ridley used his own phone and account to wager . And the entity that took the bets, Hard Rock Sportsbook in Florida, recognized Ridley’s name and alerted the league.

What it ultimately means is that Ridley did something he wasn’t supposed to do — violate the league’s rules for betting on NFL games — then got pinched by a sportsbook that was doing precisely what it is supposed to do: protect the integrity of sports wagering by keeping participants from engaging in what amounts to insider trading.

Not that the league wants it viewed through that lens, of course. According to the NFL, Ridley made the bets with no inside knowledge, no help, and no awareness of potentially important actors. Not from teammates. Not from coaches. Not from executives or team owners.

The NFL reeeeeeally wants you all to be aware of that. Straight from an investigation that, like all NFL investigations, is completely opaque when it comes to the granular details of how the NFL determined all the facts.

In other words, we have to take the league’s word for it that this was completely isolated. The same league that needs this to be completely isolated, lest it raise more suspicion that this gambling embrace might be akin to a long-term love affair with a cactus.

Because here’s the thing about a player gambling or a club owner allegedly offering pay for losses. You can paint a picture that this isn’t insider corruption — wall off the individuals from everything but their own personal choices — and then try to convince everyone you’ve contained the problem. But there’s no getting away from the simple fact that franchise owners and players are the insiders.

Their inside knowledge is being a part of the franchise. Controlling, participating, watching, understanding — all creating significant value to anyone who wants to use that data or influence on the gambling stage. That’s why this is all bad for the league because it’s focused on the problem from the outside to the inside, worrying about gamblers and bookmakers, when the thing that destroys credibility is an inside-to-outside concern. If the people inside the system are engaging in something that violates serious rules, little else matters.

That’s why this Ridley suspension (and the Ross investigation) will be presented as one-off, limited windows of horrible judgment. Any suggestion that there’s an institutional or foundational issue with gambling creates nothing but scenarios the NFL doesn’t want to think about.

Take Ridley, for example, since his violation of league rules has been proven. There are certainly some questions worth asking NFL commissioner Roger Goodell. Something along the lines of… What if Ridley hadn’t used his own phone or account? How does the NFL know for certain this was the only instance with a player gambling? If the sportsbook hadn’t reported this incident, would the NFL have ever known about it? And perhaps most important, Who’s to say this isn’t the tip of an iceberg?

There aren’t any good answers to those questions, particularly when their existence signals the league just ran into the first nightmarish gambling violation of this new era. Some will roll their eyes at that suggestion, but they fail to recognize that a portion of the NFL’s bedrock is the belief that games aren’t vulnerable. Not to franchise owners. Not to players. And certainly not to sports betting, which has the significant financial power to help deliver the NFL to that $25 billion annual revenue target that Roger Goodell laid out in 2010.

If the NFL is going to hit that mark, it needs this gambling pipeline. For the gambling pipeline to be legitimate, fruitful and lasting, the underlying integrity of players and team owners and all league employees needs to be unimpeachable. Right now, it’s certainly not feeling that way. Worse yet, it’s even feeling uncomfortable. But as that longtime team executive put it, the NFL made this bed. Now it has to manage it.

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