As NFL invades Las Vegas, NFLPA seizes opportunity to push gambling goal

LAS VEGAS — The landscape had already shifted in September.

After a slew of player suspensions for violations of the league’s broad gambling policy, the NFL and NFLPA collectively bargained in September to reduce consequences for betting on non-NFL sports in exchange for increased consequences for betting on the NFL.

With the first Super Bowl in Las Vegas this week, the league’s stance on gambling is again an inescapable topic. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said Monday that the integrity of the game is “critical” and “our No. 1 objective.”

“We clarified our policy earlier this year,” he said. “It was to put the importance for our players that betting on NFL games or inside information or anything that would negatively impact the integrity of our game is absolutely off-limits.”

The players’ union saw an opportunity there and leaned in Wednesday at their annual media conference.

“The rules are outdated, right?” NFLPA vice president Calais Campbell said. “With technology the way it is, where you can tell exactly that it has nothing to do with the integrity of the game, why not give us the opportunity to be able to do the things that we're making money off of as a league?

“I feel like we have too many smart people who are involved in this process. Why can't we get that fixed?”

Sports betting among NFL players has been a hot topic this week with the Super Bowl in Las Vegas. (Chitose Suzuki/Las Vegas Review-Journal/Tribune News Service via Getty Images)
Sports betting among NFL players has been a hot topic this week with the Super Bowl in Las Vegas. (Chitose Suzuki/Las Vegas Review-Journal/Tribune News Service via Getty Images)

The NFLPA scored what it saw as an initial “fix” for players in late September, when the league dropped the penalty for first-time violators betting on non-NFL sports from a six-game suspension to two games. Players are not allowed to bet on any sport while on NFL premises or during road trips.

The loosening came at a cost: Players who bet on their own teams now face a minimum two-year ban, while players who bet on an NFL game that does not include their team draw a one-year suspension.

Could the policy shift again in the near future?

On one hand, the union seems interested in bargaining away any consequences for betting on non-NFL sports. On the other: At what cost?

The union seems comfortable with players needing to be accountable for betting on games, emphasizing that bets on football are a “double no-no.” Lloyd Howell, who’s in his first season as the NFLPA's executive director, described the sentiment against betting on NFL games as one that draws “no disagreement between the league.” As a result, the players' union's leverage in convincing the league to further shift that penalty is increasingly less viable.

Howell said he views non-NFL bets as more of a “workplace violation” than a legitimate cause for termination.

“I stepped into a role where I have the luxury of saying, ‘I don't get it. Can you explain why betting on baseball in a parking lot is a year-long or six-game suspension?’” he said. “I think over a period of time, there was a recognition that common sense on some of these legacy issues would prevail.”

The union feels similarly about their push for grass over turf. But neither policy is changing during Super Bowl week. And the dynamic for how a next change could come is murky.

But with labor peace until 2030, the union’s handling of gambling restrictions could set the tone for the next collective bargaining negotiations. Howell isn’t starting out with acrimony.

“Where there's an opportunity for a win-win,” he said, “which is the environment I come from, why not do that instead of just a tussle just for the sake of having a tussle?”