Before the NFL loved gambling, the NFL hated it. And for good reason.
In 2012, when the NFL vehemently opposed legal efforts to scrap the federal law that prevented the spread of sports betting beyond Nevada, Commissioner Roger Goodell said this: “If gambling is permitted freely on sporting events, normal incidents of the game such as bad snaps, dropped passes, turnovers, penalties, and play calling inevitably will fuel speculation, distrust and accusations of point-shaving or game-fixing.”
On Tuesday, the NFL conducted a video conference call "to discuss legalized sports betting, its leadership position to support responsible gambling, and the league’s return to Las Vegas after successful events there with the NFL Draft in 2022 and Pro Bowl Games in 2023." During the call, I posed a question to NFL executive V.P. of communications, public affairs and policy Jeff Miller. I read the Goodell quote from 2012, and then I asked this: "Does the NFL believe that speculation is currently happening, and what is the NFL doing to counter it or prevent it?"
Here's Miller's full response:
"I testified to something similar by the way before the Delaware legislature early in my NFL career when that state was trying to legalize sports betting," Miller said. "And I think . . . your point goes to the entire thesis that I think we discussed at the outset, at least I did and [NFL sports betting manager] David [Highhill] did, which is to say in a world with legalized sports gambling and the proliferation of the opportunities for people to sports gamble, we have to think about the problem differently because the challenge is the same, and you outlined it well when you quoted the Commissioner, which is to say we have to make sure that people see the game and value the integrity of the game in the same way that they had before.
"And so, it goes to a number of different ways to go about doing that, and David's talked about some of them. First of all, we educate thoroughly 17,000-plus people, everybody associated with the game, and I think you know that well and many people do now and we need to keep repeating it and we need to get better at it, if we're not good enough now. We have to work with partners in the legalized sports betting space that provide us an opportunity to understand it better and see where potential weaknesses are.
"We were active and continue to be active in advocating for state laws with consumer protections against them, because we need regulatory environments and enforcement in those states, so if there are problems that there are more eyes watching it like any other legalized business that has limitations. And where there are state regulatory environments and enforcement mechanisms. And we're going to continue to do all of that. And part of it too is the discipline, which I think is fair because we want to send the right message and I would tuck that under the educational aspect of this, but the last point that I raised — and Mike, you know, it's this sort of thing now that we're doing and talking to as many people as we can about it. There's a transparency element to what we're doing so that I hope that it generates trust among our fans or even casual observers who raised the same question that you just raised to make sure when they look at the game a week from Sunday, that there isn't a doubt in their mind that the integrity of the game is the foremost concern in the NFL’s approach in a world where sports gambling is legal, and there shouldn't be. And so, this kind of conversation where we have to face questions like yours are exactly the reason that we do it and get the benefit of people asking tough questions, so we can think even further about the work that we're doing to see if we need to improve it."
Miller said a lot. One thing he didn't say was whether the NFL is witnessing "speculation, distrust and accusations of point-shaving or game-fixing." (I tried to ask a follow-up question, but the process had moved on to the next participant. I have since sent multiple emails to the NFL raising that point. The league has not responded.)
Whether the NFL is noticing "speculation, distrust and accusations of point-shaving or game-fixing" arising from "normal incidents of the game" is a critical question. At the most basic level, it shows whether or not the efforts to counter or prevent such speculation is working.
It also shows whether the league is truly connected to the fans and followers of the game. If the league were to say, for example, that it is not noticing "speculation, distrust and accusations of point-shaving or game-fixing," some (like me) would say that the league is hopelessly out of touch.
We're noticing it everywhere. While there were plenty of folks with tinfoil hats before legalized sports betting, it's much worse now. Everyone has a conspiracy theory about the outcome of football games and/or the motivation for "normal incidents." The ability to wager on games — and the NFL's decision to grab every dollar flowing from partnerships with sportsbooks, only makes it worse.
Goodell was right. Speculation, distrust, and accusations of game-fixing are happening. Even if the NFL is successfully safeguarding the reality of integrity, that's not the universal perception.
Apart from whether the NFL will admit that it is noticing "speculation, distrust and accusations of point-shaving or game-fixing," Miller's answer included nothing about improving or enhancing officiating. It will be impossible, frankly, for the league to properly counter "speculation, distrust and accusations of point-shaving or game-fixing" without creating the impression that it is doing more to improve the officiating function.
The first step for the league is to acknowledge whether, nearly since years since the state-by-state gambling floodgates opened, the NFL is noticing "speculation, distrust and accusations of point-shaving or game-fixing," as Goodell feared a dozen years ago. As of now, that question remains unanswered.
The next step is to throw a little more meat into any and all word salads aimed at getting through a tough question and hoping the next one will be a slow-pitch softball.