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Tony Romo incident reopens NFL's inconsistent stance on gambling

The National Football League and Las Vegas have a rocky relationship. Photo/Las Vegas News Bureau/Darrin Bush

Last week's cancellation of the Tony Romo-backed fantasy football convention scheduled to take place in Las Vegas produced the latest round of accusations of hypocrisy regarding the NFL's often misunderstood -- and sometimes inconsistent -- stance on gambling.

More than 100 current players, including some big names, were expected to participate in Romo's event, slated for mid-July at the Sands Expo. Wind your way through the Sands Expo hallways long enough, and you'll walk right past the bright red sportsbook at the Venetian casino. That is a problem for the NFL, which, after recently learning of the event, was forced to remind the players' union of its long-standing policy prohibiting players from taking part in such events at casinos. Participating could result in suspensions or fines.

The way things went down, just a month before the event, irked Romo, teammate Dez Bryant and New York Jets wide receiver Brandon Marshall, who was scheduled to take part in another fantasy convention in July in Las Vegas. They each took turns taking public shots at the league, but they don't appear to completely understand the NFL's policies.

In the players' defense, the NFL does draw some very thin lines:

• To start, the NFL is not anti-gambling -- it is anti-sports betting. The league participates in state lotteries and accepts sponsorships from casinos that don't have an on-site sportsbook.

• The NFL does not consider fantasy sports, season-long or daily, a form of sports betting.

• The NFL opposes expanded legalized sports betting in the United States. It sees it as a threat to the integrity of the game and believes any association with sports betting increases skepticism of its product. Why the league feels the current environment -- in which greater than 95 percent of all sports betting takes place in an unregulated market run by what the Department of Justice routinely calls organized crime -- provides better protection than a regulated system monitored by licensed officials has yet to be answered.

Ironically, these viewpoints on gambling are now beginning to take a toll on the perception of the integrity of the league.

Romo announced his event, the National Fantasy Football Convention, in March. Despite high-profile promoters, there was very little buzz about it in or outside of Las Vegas.

"There was no awareness. Nobody was talking about it," Marc Meltzer, a Las Vegas-based gaming writer, told ESPN Chalk.

With participating players facing potential fines or suspensions, the NFFC canceled the event. Romo was irked and, in an appearance on ESPN radio's The Herd with Colin Cowherd, insinuated that the league was really interested in a cut of the proceeds from the event.

"It's like when you're in high school and you don't get invited to the party, it makes you feel bad," Romo said on The Herd. "If they really wanted to just be a part of it, all they had to do was just call and ask. ... We understand that these things come about and there's big money involved sometimes from the NFL's perspective. If we had known about the issue of the place or thought that was something that could've been an issue, the NFL could've told us that right away. That's where it makes it interesting."

But the Cowboys quarterback may not have been thinking the situation all the way through. Would he have been happier if the league let the event take place without reminding the union of the policy and then subsequently fined or suspended the more than 100 participating players? Some have suggested that the NFL actually did Romo a favor by handling it this way.

The Fantasy Sports Combine, another event scheduled for July at a Las Vegas casino, also planned to have current players appear, including Marshall and Denver Broncos outside linebacker Von Miller.

Bo Brownstein, founder of Fantasy Sports Combine, communicated with the NFL before removing current players from the roster of guests. Brownstein said he was not aware of the NFL's policy prior to hearing about the cancellation of Romo's competing event. Brownstein added that he didn't get a sense that the participating players at his event were aware of the policy, either.

That's hard to believe. None of the agents of the players were aware of the long-standing policy? Or were the players willing to test the boundaries and see if the NFL would enforce the policy on more than 100 players?

While voicing his displeasure last week, Romo pointed to the Detroit Lions' sponsorship deal with the MGM Grand casino in Detroit as an example of the NFL's inconsistent gambling policies.

Since 2012, the NFL has allowed teams to accept advertising from casinos under certain restrictions, with players receiving a cut of sponsorship revenue negotiated in the collective bargaining agreement. The casino being advertised "must not have a sportsbook and must not otherwise accept or promote gambling on actual sporting events." In a case like the MGM, which does not offer a sportsbook at its Detroit property, but does operate one of Nevada's largest books, the advertisements "must clearly and prominently advertise the locations that do not have a sportsbook."

It's certainly a fine line, similar to the one the league draws between fantasy sports and traditional sports betting. There is a legal distinction. Fantasy sports is legal in the majority of states, thanks to the Unlawful Internet and Gaming Enforcement Act. Sports betting is illegal in 46 states, due to a combination of federal and state laws. In addition to the legality, some claim fantasy sports is a game of skill, while traditional sports wagering is a game of chance. The UIGEA declares fantasy as a skill game, but there are no federal statutes that rule on sports betting as a skill game or chance.

However, traditional sports betting does have a surprising advocate in the skill argument -- the NFL. According to legal documents from a 2003 proceeding involving the NFL and State of Delaware obtained by ESPN Chalk, NFL attorneys argued that the state could not adopt sports betting as a lottery, "because of the significant role that skill would play in such sports gambling."

Regardless, the Romo incident wasn't about fantasy football. This was about the NFL sticking to its relentless quest to protect the integrity of the games, while at the same time, absorbing more accusations of hypocrisy.

As of Monday morning, the NFLPA had not provided a response to multiple ESPN requests for comment.

The Fantasy Sports Combine is moving forward and will take place, albeit with no current players, July 17-18 at the Wynn resort and casino in Las Vegas; Romo's event has been rescheduled for 2016 in Los Angeles.

In the meantime, the NFL's battle over its integrity continues.

More news

A scathing Sunday editorial in the Las Vegas Review-Journal began with the line, "Hypocrisy, thy name is Roger Goodell."

"It's the biggest hypocrisy in sports," sports and entertainment lawyer Scott Andresen told The New York Times in article with the headline, "NFL's Unsteady Stance on a Tricky Gambling Landscape." "The N.F.L. and other leagues are in opposition to legalized sports gambling because they haven't quite figured out how to monetize it. Once they do, they'll all be on board."

That day could be sooner than later. A decision from the Third Circuit Court of Appeals in the New Jersey sports betting case vs. the NCAA and four professional sports leagues is expected any day. If New Jersey were to pull off the upset, any alleged hypocrisy could end quickly.


What else is happening in the gambling world?

• The NBA Finals have lived up to their billing at the betting window.

"No complaints here," Ed Salmons, assistant manager at the Westgate SuperBook, said.

Game 2 of the NBA Finals, when the Cleveland Cavaliers upset the Golden State Warriors 95-93 as 7.5-point underdogs, produced the biggest win of any NBA game all season for the Westgate SuperBook, Salmons said.

Sunday night's Game 5, when Stephen Curry fueled a late Warriors push in a 104-91 win, wasn't too shabby for the books either. Four times more bets and 2.5 times more money was bet on Cleveland than on Golden State in Game 5 at the SuperBook. At the MGM, vice president of race and sports Jay Rood said he took three mid-five-figure moneyline wagers on the Cavaliers on Friday. The Cavs were around 3-1 underdogs to win straight-up. After leading early in the fourth quarter, Cleveland faded in the fourth quarter and failed to cover as 9-point underdogs.

"It's been a little choppy," Rood said of the betting on the NBA Finals at his shop. "We've had some pretty steady play on Cleveland, so when they win it's been a big loss, because they've been hitting us on the money line on them a lot."

• The Stanley Cup finals have been a boon for the SuperBook. Salmons, a 20-plus-year Vegas veteran oddsmaker, said the handle on the Chicago Blackhawks-Tampa Bay Lightning series has been comparable to the amount wagered on the NBA Finals, which is unusual.

"We've been writing a ton [of tickets] on the NHL," Salmons said. "We have a house player who bets a lot on these games. From our end, I can't remember ever writing more on hockey."

• One of Nevada's largest sportsbooks is poised to go mobile with a vastly expanded menu of betting options.

MGM race and sports officials recently traveled to Europe, splitting time between Serbia and London, to put the final touches on a mobile sports betting application and a new core system for the company's bookmaking operation.

The plan is to have mobile sports betting up and running in November, with the upgrade of the core system in place after March Madness, according to Rood.

MGM officials also met with multiple European sports data providers to discuss a potential partnership that would increase the betting menu significantly.

"It's going to give us the opportunity to put a lot of in-play on a lot of stuff," Rood told ESPN Chalk. "A lot of soccer and some basketball from different areas and different leagues."

William Hill, CG Technology, Station casinos, South Point and Boyd Gaming are among the books offering mobile sports betting in Nevada.

• NHL commissioner Gary Bettman remains concerned about what impact legalized sports betting in North America may have on the environment inside arenas and stadiums. I can confirm that the current atmosphere at arenas includes fans who also are betting on the games.

"You don't want people rooting for anything other than the team that they love and the players that they think the world of to win," Bettman added during the radio appearance. "We don't want there to be another agenda."

Another agenda, like rooting for and against players on both teams for daily fantasy purposes instead of the outcome of the game, for example?

• Great line from espnW's Kate Fagan on betting on the Women's World Cup: "Translation: Knowing a little about women's soccer goes a long way in Vegas."

This is the first year that odds have been offered on every women's World Cup match in Las Vegas. The Westgate SuperBook said handle on the Women's World Cup has surpassed expectations.

• Odds to win the U.S. Open as of Sunday at the SuperBook: Rory McIlroy 7-1, Jordan Spieth 8-1, Dustin Johnson 15-1, Justin Rose 15-1, Phil Mickelson 15-1, Rickie Fowler 20-1, Tiger Woods 50-1.