In the early 2000s, the rules of the fantasy league between Green Bay Packers front-office executives and scouts were straightforward: No money was involved. Coaches were not allowed to play, and you could not draft any Packers.
Still, despite the seemingly harmless nature of the league, a team executive was a little bit concerned and thought he should call the NFL office. "I knew [the NFL] had this mantra of 'gambling affects the integrity of the game,'" recalled Andrew Brandt, then a vice president for the Packers. "Back then, I didn't know if fantasy was gambling. I didn't know how they would view it.
"The response I got was either 'We didn't have this conversation' or 'Just do it and don't tell anyone that you're doing it.'"
A decade later, Brandt, now a columnist for TheMMQB.com on Sports Illustrated, has a better understanding of the NFL's stance on fantasy sports and gambling. But, as discussions heat up about expanding legal sports betting in the U.S., he believes the league needs to be more proactive on the issue. Brandt, ESPN NFL Business Analyst, visited with Chalk about the league's stance on sports betting as part of our series on the future of sports betting in the U.S.
Q: How well do you think the NFL's gambling policy was understood back then, and how well is it understood now?
A: People understand the general concept that gambling flies in the face of integrity in [the] sense that it has associations with fixing games. It has associations with casinos. It has an association with a negative element that goes against this mantra of competitive balance and integrity. But drilling down, I think it's not that deep of [an] understanding, because there are some contradictions, and there are some questions as to how things apply.
Q: How would you characterize the divide among NFL owners when it comes to the league's opposition to expanding legal sports betting?
A: I think the stance generally is more evolved. I say that because we haven't had owners standing up on the table beating the drum against the possible relocation (of the Oakland Raiders) to Las Vegas. But even before we get to Vegas, I think there's a more evolved view. I can't name names, because I don't know which is which, but I do think there is an old guard that continues to hold up their hands in a stop sign to anything associated with gambling. But there's a newer version of ownership that's much more flexible when it comes to that.
Q: What is the biggest concern from those who oppose sports betting?
A: I think there's always the concern of competitive balance. It drives everything the league does. In my expertise, it drives the reason for restrictions on free agency. It drives the reason for a salary cap. It drives the reason for a draft in inverse order. And you can apply it to gambling. There is a concern that, if we allow [gambling] in, players, coaches, referees, executives will be subject to potential influence that could influence the outcome of these games. Every time Roger Goodell speaks about fantasy, the clear distinction is outcome of games versus outcomes of player performance. That's the fear: that [gambling] could affect the competitive balance of the league. It could affect outcomes of games.
Q: Why does the NFL believe the current environment, where the majority of bets are placed in an illegal, unregulated market, better protects the integrity of the game than a legal market overseen by licensed officials?
A: It's a fair question. I think it's the fear of the unknown. It's stepping into new territory, and again, I think the NFL isn't the most progressive sports league and not the one that you would see jumping into previously taboo areas. You have (NBA commissioner) Adam Silver writing an op-ed in the New York Times about exactly what you said in terms of bringing gambling out in the light. You have the NHL all-in, moving a team to Las Vegas. So before the NFL dips [its] toes in the water, I think they want to see it happen in other leagues. They don't move as nimbly as others.
Q: You've written about the need for the league to be proactive on sports gambling and possibly hiring a new executive position, a "gambling czar." What would that position's responsibilities be, in your opinion?
A: I do think that it's a position that makes sense. It sort of follows the path of concussions and brain health. Because what's happened over the years is a positive trajectory toward concussions, a better understanding, better science, better rules, better governance and the hiring of a chief medical officer. I think that is a good path for the gambling issue. As they understand fantasy, as they understand the issues with Las Vegas, as they look into consequences for gambling, why not have the same strategy in hiring a chief gambling officer, what I've called a gambling czar? So in this area that is incredibly changing and moving quickly, lot of legislation, lot of issues, lot of litigation and a potentially lucrative revenue source, which will get their attention as much as anything, why not hire this person?
This person would have two primary responsibilities. One is regulation and enforcement, which is upholding the integrity of the game. First of all you'd create the rules that prohibit players, coaches, referees, team personnel from placing bets in any way on any aspect of the game. The czar would be the clearinghouse that I've talked about in terms of 'Can we do this? Why can't we do this? What are the limitations to play fantasy football? What are our limitations on aligning with a casino, whether sponsorship, advertising or marketing, etc.?'
Then I think there would also be the investigatory process that we hear so much about, with Roger Goodell and player conduct. There would be the same kind of policy, discipline, procedure and regulations in this area. Now, would Goodell want overarching authority? That's another issue. But this czar would be the one deciding, notifying, investigating all these issues within this area.
Q: The czar would have been the person you would have called regarding the Packers' fantasy league?
A: Absolutely. It would have been this person, and the answer would have been clear, concise. A general lawyer, who was the person that I called, is working on 50 different things, and gambling was probably not even on his radar.