Behind the Bets

The NFL doesn't see its lottery bet as a contradiction in philosophy. Getty Images

NFL owners, already life's biggest winners, want to try their luck with the lottery.

That was the news out of their meetings last week, where team bosses voted unanimously to allow stamping state and local lottery tickets with franchise logos, if, ahem, any governments wanted to do a deal.

A shocker: Within days the Pats announced they'd be sponsoring the Massachusetts state lottery, the Skins said they'd slap their sticker on Virginia scratch-offs and the Ravens admitted they were talking to Maryland lottery bosses. In all likelihood, it won't be long before every team is a presenting sponsor of scratch-offs or just plain old pick fives. "The change in policy was approved 32-0," said NFL spokesman Greg Aiello. "So you can expect to see more deals soon."

It's a branding opportunity too big for the owners to ignore, and one a couple of dozen baseball franchises have enjoyed for years. The fact the NFL has been slower to act than those slack-brained Seligites is indicative of its complicated relationship with all forms of gambling. Consider this: Last Thursday, as the Pats and the Redskins finalized their new lottery deals, a lawyer representing the NFL argued before Delaware's Supreme Court that the state's newly signed sports betting law should be repealed.

The NFL is the face of opposition to sports gambling. And as much as it would like to share that responsibility with other leagues, that's not going to happen as long as more than 40% of all money legally wagered on games is bet on football. That's why the Brewers can do a multi-million dollar deal with a local casino, or the Celtics can make their own pact with the Mass lottery, and the response is, "Sweet, let's play." But when the NFL does it the stakes are higher, and everyone from NPR's Frank Deford to the Associated Press to the guys blogging at Deadspin will line up to play gotcha.

So I asked Aiello, who surely knew there'd be piling on, how the league can rail against being bait for sports bettors, then allow its franchises to be just that for lotteries, the most insidious and addictive form of gambling around. He emailed me this response: "We are not moral crusaders. NFL personnel are permitted to engage in legal forms of gambling, except for betting on NFL games. We are making a distinction here between the spread of gambling on the outcome of our games and supporting state lottery scratch-off games, that have nothing to do with the outcome of our games."

Here's where I should rip him. But, the thing is, he's right. Not to get Obama on you, but this is a complicated, nuanced issue. As much as lotteries are considered a tax on the poor, the NFL isn't a socially obligated government program -- it's just a business. Scratch-off's help the bottom line, sports betting doesn't.

Now, it's okay to call the league hypocritical when it releases injury reports, which players have told me only helps bettors. And it's okay to mutter something obscene when the league pretends gambling doesn't help drive TV ratings and fan interest and put money in owners' pockets. But when it supports other forms of gaming? Big Deal. The Bears should put an orange "C" on every deck of cards dealt at Harrah's in Joliet; the Eagles should slap their logo on roulette wheels at the Borgata in Atlantic City; the Dolphins should hold training camp at the El San Juan in Puerto Rico.


The NFL's problem, when it comes to the gambling world, isn't hypocrisy, it's worse: The bosses lack vision. That's why the league is picking unwinnable fights in Delaware and taking pot shots from critics after making smart sponsorship deals. Roger Goodell and his gang are acting and thinking locally rather than globally, which is rare for them, especially compared to their professional (and amateur) counterparts.

The NBA held its All Star game in Las Vegas and David Stern's kingdom didn't crumble (although the town did bring plenty of players to their knees.) I'd say it's 6 to 5 and pick 'em that Lebron will make a road swing through Sin City before his career is over.

Even the NCAA is more progressive on this issue than the NFL. Several years ago Rachel Newman Baker, college sports' gambling czar, opened a dialogue with Vegas bookmakers to learn about how they do business. She's visited Nevada sports books, studied their operations and listened to how they regulate action. Now she knows she can expect a call from bookmakers, who lose money when sports are fixed, if they think something sketchy is going on in NCAA games. She's not in favor of sports betting, but, as she once told me, "I know it's not going away, either."

The NFL can't seem to accept that. And until it can find peace with the idea, it'll get flack, even when it's right.

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Chad Millman is a Senior Deputy Editor at ESPN The Magazine, and once wrote a book called The Odds. His column takes a close look at the culture surrounding the bet.