Calvin Ridley’s suspension gives rise to gambling problems

In November, Calvin Ridley violated a sacred rule of professional sports with an ease unimaginable a decade ago. With a few taps on his smartphone while in Florida away from his team, the Atlanta Falcons receiver placed a series of bets, which the NFL later discovered and punished him with an indefinite suspension this week.

Ever since the Black Sox scandal of 1919 nearly destroyed professional baseball, sports leagues have watched with existential fervor from threats from gambling to the integrity of results. That goal has remained even as sports leagues have accepted dollops of sportsbook sponsorship and advertising money since the Supreme Court effectively overturned the federal ban on sports gambling in 2018.

Ridley’s betting and subsequent suspension raised issues that existed before the federal sports betting ban fell. But those concerns have been compounded by widespread legalization and its widespread adoption by sports leagues.

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For some, Ridley’s bets – three parlays that he says $1,500 total – proved the NFL will be challenged to have it both ways, both to capitalize on sports betting and to maintain credibility in the eyes of the fans. For those in the industry, the episode was a symbol of a functioning system; Ridley set off alarms that might not have been detected had he deployed illegally. An advanced digital dragnet caught him and allowed the NFL to impose a hefty penalty, forcing him to be out of action for at least the 2022 season and perhaps longer.

“I don’t think any damage has been done,” said Becky Harris, a professor at UNLV’s International Gaming Institute who previously chaired the Nevada Gaming Control Board. “I think it reinforces that the right kinds of policies are in place. If you look at the rosters and calculate how many athletes are on those teams, times their athletic staff, times coaching, times the owner and all their families, that’s a really big number. And we caught one of those individuals in that ecosystem out of a very, very large number of people who could potentially bet on insider sports. It shows that the system is working.”

Former MLB commissioner Fay Vincent, a senior MLB official when the sport gave Pete Rose a lifetime ban on gambling, sees nothing but disorder in the sports betting landscape. He wondered how Ridley could have been caught if he had simply placed bets through an intermediary outside his immediate family. Banning Rose was relatively easy because he committed an illegal act that baseball had clearly distanced itself from — MLB at one point banned signage to advertise the lottery, Vincent said.

The lack of a federal ban coupled with the NFL’s gambling partnerships, Vincent said, could leave a sports league vulnerable to legal appeals from players violating league rules, even if those rules are clearly stated and collectively negotiated.

“The idea that the NFL can sideline a kid for a year for betting on a football game if there’s no federal policy in that area is a total mess to me,” Vincent said.

On a global scale, match fixing is a bigger problem than ever. Sportsradar, a sports data and integrity services company, recently published an annual study that found 903 suspicious matches — the vast majority in low-level competition — in 10 sports and 76 countries, the highest number in the study’s 17-year history. . It estimated that the match fixing brought in $165 million in profits.

“The lure of huge, poorly earned gambling winnings is one that perpetuates match-fixing syndicates and is why stakeholders in the global sports ecosystem must work together to fight against match-fixing,” the study said.

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Companies such as Genius Sports and Sportradar, which previously worked with the NFL and still do business with MLB, the NHL, the NBA and other leagues, monitor betting patterns and look for inconsistencies. They have technology that can spot unusual patterns, and then a human analyst determines whether they can be explained — say, an altered prediction or reported injury — or whether the league should be alerted, said Andy Cunningham, Sportsradar’s director of global partnerships for Integrity Services. .

The technology can help detect two of the three main potential threats: match fixing and unauthorized insider sharing. Ridley fell into the third problem area – league personnel who weren’t necessarily involved in pure corruption, but still broke the rules.

“That’s where you really need the information from the sportsbook right away,” Cunningham said.

The NFL caught Ridley betting on his Falcons when the Florida Hard Rock Sportsbook noticed that he had bet and alerted Genius Sports, the data and integrity company the NFL has partnered with to monitor suspicious activity. Under state regulations, Harris said, sportsbooks are liable for reporting bets that could reasonably be detected as suspicious.

There are, of course, potential holes. If Ridley had asked a close associate outside his immediate family to bet on him, he might not have been caught. But the technology to stop even that is powerful. The prevalence of online betting has created an “audit trail,” Cunningham said, making it easier to spot potential breaches and review cases that seem suspicious only in retrospect. The technology exists for sports leagues to transfer a database of everyone who falls under their rules — players, staffers, family members, etc. — into a sportsbook so it can monitor those accounts or even prevent them from playing on a particular sport. bet. Cunningham said some leagues have discussed implementing that.

“Of course you can’t cover up every eventuality,” Cunningham said. “But that’s the power of the system. We could see if someone got particularly greedy and started posting more amounts. An individual sportsbook would have steps to link accounts. A lot is possible with today’s technology.”

The desired outcome for sports competitions is, of course, that no staff place bets in the first place. The ban on betting on your league has been the No. 1 rule in sports for over a century. As the laws and general attitudes towards gambling have relaxed and the availability and ease of placing bets have skyrocketed, educating players has become more imperative than ever.

Signs in NBA locker rooms and MLB clubhouses prominently display the league’s ban on players and staff betting on games. Harris credited the NFL for bringing in Josh Shaw, a cornerback who was banned for 21 games in 2019 for betting against his own team while injured, to talk to players about the pitfalls of gambling in the NFL.

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“Player education is key and the message – don’t bet on your sport – should be constant,” Khalid Ali, director of the International Betting Integrity Association, said in an email. “Players should not only know the rules, but also be made aware of the consequences of not following the rules. If there is one positive point from this case, it is that it has made many players in all sports aware of the dangers to their careers.”

The biggest threat, experts said, comes at the university level. The sheer number of college athletes increases the likelihood that one of them could bet on their own game, provide unauthorized information to gamblers, or improperly influence an outcome. Unlike their professional counterparts, they also lack the financial incentive not to compromise the integrity of their games.

“Our athletes most at risk are those college athletes who are good enough to play in college but not good enough to play professionally,” Harris said. “Besides a strong moral code, what prevents them from match-fixing?”

In that case, Harris said, the NCAA’s best defense is the relationship it has forged with sportsbooks and regulators. They can spot irregular betting patterns and share that information with the NCAA, which can then investigate.

The NCAA recently partnered with EPIC Risk Management, a gambling damage prevention company, to “provide a comprehensive gambling damage educational program and student-athlete protection,” said NCAA spokeswoman Saquandra Heath. However, the program will not be available on campuses until later this year.

“The potential problems for American sports are no different in the age of widespread legal betting than when it was banned,” Ali said. “Now American sports are working with reputable gambling companies to highlight potential risks and take mitigating measures. The reality is that no one knows what happened under the ban; it was a head in the sand mentality that masked potential problems instead of covering them. It’s now out in the open, and [while] unfortunately there will be some cases like Ridley, we will be able to identify them and take steps to address that.”

NFL critics have labeled Ridley’s suspension as hypocritical given its links to sports betting. Last summer, the NFL reached agreements with seven sports bettors as approved league partners, and the league limited sportsbook ads to six per game. The NFL is far from alone. The NFL is far from alone. MLB, the NHL and the NBA also have official partners, and individual teams in all leagues have their own sponsorship deals with gambling companies. At Capital One Arena in Washington, home of the Wizards and Capitals, William Hill operates a sportsbook. Other teams plan to follow the model.

The NFL’s partnerships with gambling companies draw new attention to potential conflicts between gambling and players, coaches and staffers. A curious and seemingly unchecked example is the work of Warren Sharp, an analyst who owns and operates Sharp Football Analysis, which sells sophisticated data, information and betting choices to customers. A postseason package cost $374.99 this year, according to the website.

Sharp also does consulting work for a handful of NFL coaches, going so far as to suggest specific staffing packages and play through conversations. In a February article in the New Yorker, an unidentified coach confirmed that he had used a game that suggested Sharp for a touchdown and that he talks to Sharp “at least once a week.”

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The two sides of his business raise obvious questions. Does he collect inside information from NFL coaches and pass it on for profit? Can coaches share privileged information – which is then passed on to gamblers – in exchange for Sharp’s insights? Does the NFL Allow Coaches to Consult Betting Sites?

NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy did not respond to multiple emails. Sharp reached out this week for comment and referred a reporter to his agent, Matt Olson of CAA. Olson did not respond to multiple emails.

For players at least, Ridley’s suspension offers the clearest lesson possible. If they bet on games, they can lose a lot more than a bet.

“It is reported that Ridley’s $1,500 in betting will cost him $11 million in salary,” Ali said. “That in itself is a pretty strong message.”

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