Pardon the National Football League if, when it comes to gambling, the league instructs its players to “do what I say, not what I do.”
The NFL, which just overwhelmingly approved a move of the Oakland Raiders to the gambling mecca of Las Vegas, is investigating the participation by a group of NFL players in a charity arm-wrestling tournament at a Las Vegas casino over the weekend.
Steelers linebacker James Harrison was a co-host of the event, which also included teammate Maurkice Pouncey among a reported 20-30 former and current NFL players.
Their presence at the Pro Football Arm Wrestling championship at the MGM Grand Casino violated an NFL policy.
“We just became aware of the event and will look into it further,” said Brian McCarthy, the NFL’s vice president of communications. “This is a longstanding policy.”
None of the players are likely to be suspended, but a league source told the Post-Gazette those involved likely would be fined. Apparently, commissioner Roger Goodell or whoever else he instructs to take such action would do so with a straight face, even though the NFL has gotten into bed with gambling more and more in recent years.
The most obvious came two weeks ago when NFL owners approved by a vote of 31-1 the Raiders’ move to Las Vegas, a city built on gambling. No gambling interests are directly involved in the move after casino billionaire Sheldon Adelson pulled out of a deal to help build the Raiders new stadium.
But does anyone believe the Raiders are moving to Vegas because it is a quaint desert city of 583,756 people? Without gambling, there would be no NFL team moving to Las Vegas, which seems contradictory to the league’s long-standing philosophy.
As a close friend of Harrison’s said, “The casinos own everything” in Las Vegas. “If an NFL player plays golf at one of the casino golf tournaments, it’s a violation.”
But it’s not just the Raiders’ move; Draft Kings, the fantasy football gambling site, has been an NFL sponsor for years, along with individual teams. The Steelers are one of them — Draft Kings advertises on the scoreboards at Heinz Field.
Andrew Brandt, NFL business analyst for ESPN and former vice president of the Green Bay Packers, blistered the league for getting in bed with fantasy gambling sites.
Brandt wrote that “the walls between the NFL and gambling are being broken down, in large part due to new monetization angles and revenue streams flowing from Daily Fantasy Sports.”
League's stance: The league’s stance is that besides games of chance, casinos in Las Vegas also have legal bookies that accept bets on sporting events. Betting on its games remains a strict no-no, and the NFL wants to avoid any association between its players and legal — or illegal — sports books.
The league currently is fighting New Jersey in the courts over that state’s attempt to legalize gambling on pro sports games. A 1992 federal law bans sports betting, but that is being challenged. The next step could be the Supreme Court after the leagues won their case in the lower courts. If New Jersey would win, other states surely would follow.
Three racetracks in Delaware permit betting on NFL games, but each gambler must pick a three-game parlay and win them all to cash in.
The most famous case of gambling in the NFL came when commissioner Pete Rozelle suspended Green Bay’s Paul Hornung and Detroit’s Alex Karras for the 1963 season after finding they had gambled small amounts of money on NFL games.
Former Steelers running back Jerome Bettis drew the league’s ire in 2004 when it emerged he owned a stake in a partnership that sought to build a $500 million horse racing track, slot machine casino and residential development in Hays. And several of Dan Rooney’s brothers, who had financial ties to horse and dog tracks, had to sell their financial interest in the team to comply with league rules.
The policy: The NFL’s anti-gambling policy, distributed to each player in a manual he receives from the league, prohibits all NFL personnel “from engaging in any advertising or promotional activities that reasonably can be perceived as constituting affiliation with or endorsement of gambling or gambling-related activities including, without limitation, the following:
►Making promotional appearances at casinos or other gambling-related establishments.
►Making promotional appearances at events that are sponsored by or otherwise marketed or advertised in connection with casinos or other gambling-related establishments.
►Using or allowing others to use one’s name and/or image to promote, advertise, or publicize casinos, other gambling-related establishments, or events sponsored by or otherwise marketed or advertised in connection with casinos or other gambling-related establishments.”
The tournament: Harrison promoted the arm wrestling tournament on his Twitter and Instagram accounts over the past several days.
He showed a photo of him and pro arm wrestler Travis Bagent about to compete on Sunday with the words, “Lockin up with the Champ.” He also posed for various photos he posted on social media. Marshawn Lynch also participated. Lynch, who retired from the Seattle Seahawks after the 2015 season, reportedly wants to return to play for the Raiders this year.
The tournament was taped by CBS and will be broadcast by the network May 27, according to Harrison.
Neither Harrison nor his representatives responded to requests for comment, but a close friend of the linebacker said he never gave it a thought that he was violating any NFL policy.
“This is one of those things you don’t even think about,” he said.
NFL not always consistent: The NFL has stopped its players from participating in other casino events, but has not always been consistent in that regard.
In 2015, the league warned Tony Romo, who retired last week as Dallas Cowboys quarterback, and other players not to participate in the National Fantasy Football Convention at a Las Vegas casino and that event was canceled as was another in 2016.
The league has been sued by various entities over the cancellation or relocation of such events under threats that the players would be either unable to attend or would be disciplined if they had.
One such suit was filed last year by the nonprofit Strikes for Kids after the charity said the NFL pressured it into moving its 2015 event out of a Las Vegas casino bowling alley. A reported 25 NFL players were to participate.
“There’s no consistency with what the NFL does in regards to these policies,” Strikes for Kids attorney Julie Pettit told the Legal Sports Report. “The NFL has a tendency to selectively enforce their own policies when it’s convenient for them or when it makes sense for them.”
Fan Expo LLC also sued the NFL in October for more than $1 million in damages over the canceled NFF convention in Las Vegas last summer, according to ESPN.
Other events involving NFL players at casinos reportedly have not come under scrutiny by the league, including a 2014 Strikes for Kids event held at a casino, according to the Legal Sports Report.