Atlanta Falcons receiver Calvin Ridley is the biggest name to be suspended for gambling since legal sports betting began spreading in the United States four years ago.
It seems unlikely that he'll be the last.
Preventing players, coaches, officials and anyone from betting on games in which they participate is a massive challenge for stakeholders in the new sports betting landscape. No one -- not the leagues, bettors or bookmakers -- want participants betting on an event on which they may have inside information or could impact directly.
The NFL said it found no evidence that any games were compromised or that Ridley used inside information to make his wagers that were placed online in November 2021. At that time, Ridley was away from the Falcons on the non-football injury list and had announced that he was stepping away from football to work on his mental health.
Ridley is the second NFL player to be suspended for betting on league games since a 2018 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court opened a path for states to authorize sports betting. Since the ruling, 30 states and the District of Columbia have launched legal betting markets. The legal market is what identified betting by Ridley and then-Arizona Cardinals defensive back Josh Shaw, who was suspended in 2019 after an NFL investigation found he had wagered on league games. Shaw was reinstated in 2021, but has not been picked up by a team.
Ridley will forfeit his $11.1 million salary next season while suspended.
What did Ridley do?
Ridley violated the league's gambling policy by placing three multi-leg parlay bets that included at least one NFL game in November 2021.
The bets were made online with the Hard Rock sportsbook.
He placed a three-team, five-team and eight-team parlay, risking $500 on each. His parlays included the Falcons "to win," according to sources. The Falcons were small road favorites over the Jacksonville Jaguars on Nov. 28. Atlanta covered the spread in a 21-14 win. It has not been revealed to ESPN if Ridley bet on the Falcons on the money line (to win straight up) or with the point spread.
Ridley bet on multiple sports, including the NBA, for much larger stakes than his $500 parlays, upwards of $10,000, according to sources. The NFL gambling policy allows players to bet on other sports besides football with legal operators.
On Friday, gaming industry site SportsHandle.com, citing undisclosed betting records, reported that Ridley bet $3,900 across six bets that included the Falcons: Five parlays and a $1,000 in-game wager on the Atlanta's team total (the amount points scored in the game by the Falcons).
Additionally, according to the report, Ridley also bet two $100 bets on NFL games not involving the Falcons.
How did Ridley get caught?
According to multiple sources familiar with the event, Ridley placed the bets on his cellphone but used a betting account not registered in his name with Hard Rock's Florida sportsbook. Ridley was outside of Florida when he placed the bets, triggering a geolocation violation and leading the sportsbook to investigate further, according to the sources.
Online sportsbooks use geolocation services to track where bets are being placed. The geolocation service collects data, such as IP addresses, from the device being used to place the wager.
After receiving the geolocation notice, the Hard Rock sportsbook notified Genius Sports, an NFL partner that monitors the betting market for the league, prompting the investigation that ultimately led to Ridley's suspension. Genius Sports is a London-based company that distributes data from leagues, including the NFL, to sportsbooks around the world, while also looking for unusual betting patterns.
"GeoComply would like to clarify that any out of state attempts on the wagering system were effectively blocked and denied," Lindsay Slader, GeoComply's Managing Director of Gaming, told ESPN. "Geolocation systems functioned as intended to block any attempted wagers from out of state, and its analytics capabilities were used to successfully investigate this scenario further."
What can sportsbooks do to prevent players and other prohibited personnel from betting on their leagues?
Sportsbooks face a significant challenge in preventing a player, coach or referee from placing bets on their leagues. The professional sports leagues successfully lobbied many states to include regulations prohibiting players, coaches, trainers and other personnel from betting on their sports. New York's sports betting rules, for example, prohibit wagering by "any person whose participation may undermine the integrity of wagering on a sports event or the conduct of such sports event itself." Sports agents, players unions personnel, team owners and employees of sports governing bodies are among those prohibited from betting on events they are associated with in New York.
Jeff Ifrah, a prominent gaming attorney in Washington, D.C., said it is difficult for sportsbooks to identify prohibited bettors, especially if a sports league hasn't provided a comprehensive list of personnel and identifying data.
"It may be the case, for example, that a football player is betting, but if the NFL hasn't given their database and integrated it with [a sportsbook] then the sportsbook isn't going to be able to identify the player," Ifrah told ESPN. "And they're not going to just blacklist someone because their name matches a football player somewhere. It's difficult to do that if the league isn't providing that list."
Conscious Gaming, a Nevada-based company, believes it has technology that can assist in identifying prohibited bettors. The company's "PlayPause" platform, which creates a multi-state self-exclusion and impermissible bettor list, is in the early stages of launching with state regulators and operators, according to Anna Sainsbury, trustee of Conscious Gaming and CEO of GeoComply, a company that provides geolocation services to most U.S. sportsbook operators.
Adding impermissible bettors, like athletes and coaches, to a shared database would allow sportsbooks to cross-reference with their customer list, similar to what they do with problem gamblers who have self-excluded.
"With the significant growth of sports betting across the U.S. market, we see the opportunity to leverage more innovative and reliable methods to mitigate problem gambling and ensure impermissible bettors are indeed restricted from wagering based on league policies and regulatory requirements," Sainsbury told ESPN in a statement. "Any individual whose participation may undermine the integrity of the wagering or the sports event could have significant consequences. Only with player safeguards, fraud detection and effective age and identity verification are we able to create a regulated market we're proud of. This means whether a player has self-excluded or if they are prohibited from betting due to regulatory restrictions, operators have confidence that they are compliant."
Sportsbooks also use "know your customer" or KYC protocols, which vary by state and often are defined broadly with terms like best practices or measures and risk assessment. KYC is designed to combat money laundering, but it also is a tool for identifying prohibited bettors. Typically, the amount wagered triggers enhanced procedures, including random auditing of deposits, asking for personal identification data and running background and credit checks through services like LexisNexis and Experian.
In New York, licensees are instructed to identify customers and types of play that "potentially possess the greatest risk of money laundering." Gaming operators are required to file currency reports with the appropriate federal agency on any transactions of more than $10,000. Bets totaling at least $5,000 also could receive additional scrutiny in New York.
What is the NFL's policy in regards to players betting on sports?
Players and all league personnel -- owners, coaches, trainers, officials, league office employees, security personnel, consultants, club employees and game-day personnel -- are prohibited from betting, whether directly or indirectly through a third-party, on NFL games and events, like the draft, for example.
What can the NFL do to prevent players and other prohibited personnel from betting on the league?
The NFL provides gambling education to players and personnel. Signage warning of the consequences of betting can be found in team facilities, and the league distributes educational videos, some featuring Shaw, that teams are required to watch.
In addition, the NFL has partnerships within the sports betting industry with established lines of communication between sportsbook operators and the league.
Ultimately, though, there is no definitive way to stop players or prohibited personnel from placing bets on the league. If a player or personnel chooses to violate league policy and bet on the NFL, it is difficult to stop them. The use of proxy bettors -- having another person place a bet for you -- is against many states' regulations but is a common practice within the sports betting community.
Deterrence may be the league's biggest weapon and, in Ridley's and Shaw's cases, it didn't stop them. Shaw, who bet on NFL games while on injured reserve for the Cardinals, also received a suspension of at least one year. He was reinstated March 20, 2021, but has not been acquired.
Is a one-year suspension for betting on a player's team to win when the player is inactive too harsh?
It's up for debate. Some pundits have tried to compare the penalty to other off-field violations, but gambling is unique and can damage the integrity of the entire sport. And, again, deterrence may be the NFL's biggest tool in trying to discourage players and personnel from betting on the league.
EPIC Risk Management, an international company with a U.S. headquarters in Delaware, works with athletes and leagues to educate on the dangers of gambling. John Millington, director of sports partnerships for EPIC Risk Management, said he saw Ridley post on social media that he only wagered $1,500 and that he does not have a gambling problem.
"It might be a different story if we look at the situation through the lens of gambling-related harm," Millington told ESPN on Wednesday. "Research in Australia has found that up to 85% of the harms caused by gambling came from those who were not categorized as problem gamblers, and it could be considered that a sports wager that could potentially cost Calvin the best part of $10 million and a prime year of his NFL career, could and should be viewed as harmful gambling activity."
Millington disagrees with the arguments that Ridley's one-year suspension is too harsh.
"Sanctions are an essential and necessary deterrent," Millington said. "But if a 12-month sanction is not already enough to deter a player from betting on their own sport, then I fear simply increasing those sanctions would likely be futile.
"Equally, the idea that a 12-month sanction for gambling on your own sport is too harsh, whilst I understand the disproportionate nature in comparison to some truly condemnable actions, has the potential to severely challenge the integrity of the sport whilst also presenting greater potential for harm for any athlete who might be struggling with problematic gambling," he added. "For a player whose gambling is becoming problematic or harmful, placing money on an event where they can directly influence the outcome is unfortunately inevitable if the sanctions don't act as a significant deterrent."