When five NFL players in April were suspended for violating league rules by their gambling, the fact that they were identified through the system set in place by the wagering industry could be considered a win.
Two of the players weren’t breaking the law simply by gambling — not in Maryland or Michigan or Virginia — and all were eligible to create sportsbook accounts. It is legal, even for professional athletes, to wager in all three U.S. states, as well as to play iCasino in Michigan.
But all five did violate NFL rules, whether by betting on NFL games or by virtue of their location on team property while gambling.
More recently, the universities of Alabama, Iowa, and Iowa State have been embroiled in sports betting controversies.
At the Iowa schools, the Iowa Racing and Commission has been investigating claims that athletes across multiple sports allegedly placed wagers in violation of NCAA rules. On Tuesday, however, the Iowa Department of Safety said no criminal charges would be filed and the IRGC said it has not found evidence of any integrity issues around either school. Neither agency addressed whether or not NCAA athletes were caught wagering, which would be a violation of NCAA rules.
At Alabama, it’s been reported that now-fired coach Brad Bohannon was either feeding information to or using a proxy to bet in Ohio on his team’s recent series against LSU.
Of the five NFL players penalized by the league, three were suspended for a year for betting on NFL games during the 2022 season. Lions wide receiver Quintez Cephus, safety C.J. Moore, and Washington Commanders defensive lineman Shaka Toney were suspended until at least the end of the 2023 season. The Lions released Cephus and Moore immediately after the league’s announcement. The Commanders did not cut Toney, and coach Ron Rivera said the incident was “unfortunate” and that he’s a “little disappointed” for Toney.
Lions wideouts Jameson Williams — the 12th overall pick in the 2022 draft — and Stanley Berryhill were each suspended for the first six games of the upcoming season. According to the Detroit News, they violated rules by being at a team facility when placing non-NFL wagers.
There appears to be some question about what kind of gambling Williams and Berryhill were engaging in. Some industry sources have suggested the players were betting on college football while others have indicated they were playing cards via an online casino. Either of those examples of gambling would be permitted outside of a league facility.
Sharing information isn’t easy
While it’s unknown publicly how the NFL and college players were caught, the more relevant question might be why their accounts weren’t flagged by operators.
Voluntary and non-voluntary exclusion lists are part of the responsible gambling landscape. Every operator has a list of banned customers, and in some jurisdictions, the regulator is a clearinghouse for such lists. But when it comes to gambling and professional athletes, sharing of names is much easier said than done.
The NFL declined to comment for this story and would not answer questions around its policy for sharing its exclusion list, or if it currently provides exclusion lists to state regulators or operators. But several operators and regulators told Sports Handle that the NFL does not currently provide such lists.
On some level, it seems counterintuitive that an employer would forbid an activity, have an avenue to help its employees avoid engaging in that activity, and then fail to provide key information to the appropriate companies. But it’s not quite that simple.
“You can’t just give out Tom Brady’s personal information,” U.S. Integrity founder Matthew Holt told Sports Handle.
Stakeholders say there are privacy issues and logistics to deal with, and that the NFL or any other professional league or the NCAA can’t just provide personal information to operators (there are, after all, other Tom Bradys in the world). The leagues have a responsibility to protect their players, and that means not putting names, dates of birth, Social Security numbers, or other identifying features out for easy public consumption.
“It’s an interesting conundrum,” B2 Consulting principal Brendan Bussmann told Sports Handle. But Bussmann believes the leagues have a responsibility. “It’s incumbent on the leagues to do two things — to provide the list and to educate all stakeholders, including players, administrators, trainers, etc. and if it’s a college, to also educate donors.”
Players have the right to create accounts
The answer to why any of the players were able to create sportsbook accounts is simple. By state law, anyone over the age of 21 may create an account or gamble. While NFL players in Michigan are prohibited by both the state and the league from betting on the NFL, they are not banned from doing so on other sports or from playing casino games. That’s different from the NCAA, which has a blanket gambling ban for its athletes.
According to the Michigan Gaming Control Board’s regulations, “athletes, coaches, managers, owners, and anyone with sufficient authority to influence the outcome of an event are prohibited from wagering on events overseen by the relevant governing body.”
And according to the NFL’s 2018 Gambling Policy, “All NFL personnel are prohibited from placing, soliciting, or facilitating any bet … on an NFL game.” League personnel other than players are “further prohibited from placing, soliciting, or facilitating bets on any other professional, international, or Olympic sports competition, tournament, or event.”
5 NFL players suspended for gambling and now HC of Alabama baseball. But these are "isolated incidents" and don't/won't affect the "integrity of the game." Hmm. To me, it sounds like this is just the beginning but no one will know the depths because no one's going to look further
— Brian Tuohy (@TheFixIsInTuohy) May 5, 2023
The NFL rules also explicitly state: “NFL Personnel may visit and place non-sports wagers at legally-operated casinos and horse or dog racing tracks on personal time, including during the season.”
That guideline is not unusual. No U.S. professional sports league outright prohibits its players from betting, and most if not all legal U.S. jurisdictions allow pro athletes some kind of gambling.
Exclusion questions arise in sign-up process
Surprisingly, state regulators aren’t necessarily involved directly with how or even if exclusion lists from sports teams are distributed. Such lists are generally provided directly to operators, while states like Michigan and Iowa require operators to take “reasonable steps” to make sure players, coaches, officials, and other banned individuals don’t wager.
“Right now, we’ll look at the books and ask, ‘What are they doing to employ reasonable steps?’” Iowa Racing and Gaming Commission Administrator Brian Ohorilko told Sports Handle. In Iowa, which does not have any professional sports teams, Ohorilko said the only professional sports league that currently provides any kind of exclusion list is the NBA. Professional sports leagues and the NCAA are not required to be licensed in Iowa.
Ohorliko went on to say that “reasonable steps” by operators would include checking public websites like NFL.com and MLB.com, and pulling player rosters and using “that information to screen against their patron lists. It is, however, very difficult if a player tries to conceal their identity.”
It’s also labor intensive, and it’s possible that operators would have to manually match those lists to their own databases on a regular basis.
Among the things a sportsbook can do is include language in its sign-up process that calls out people who should be excluded. Most also have a “prohibited persons” section in their house rules, which consumers are encouraged to take the responsibility to read before opening an account.
“We and other operators have in our terms and conditions a section about exclusion,” one industry source told Sports Handle. “It’s really one of the only tools we have.”
While the MGCB declined to comment on the current NFL situation, a spokeswoman told Sports Handle more generally by email: “Our rules require that sports betting operators and internet sports betting platform providers make reasonable efforts to prevent a prohibited person from establishing an internet sports betting account and not permit the prohibited person to place an internet sports betting wager.”
One possible solution
There is one potential solution in the works to the conundrum of how leagues share exclusion lists. ProhiBet, a joint venture between U.S. Integrity and Odds on Compliance, has plans to launch at the start of football season. Its technology will ultimately provide an encrypted clearinghouse for non-voluntary exclusion lists and solve the problem of privacy issues that leagues are now grappling with.
U.S. Intergrity’s Holt told Sports Handle that new technology will encrypt exclusion lists at a league server, send the encrypted list to operators, and “as people sign up for accounts, then the encrypted list is matched against the operator’s database.” The end-to-end encryption would keep sensitive information safe, and in addition, the platform would be customizable enough to layer league rules on top of state rules in every one of the legal U.S. jurisdictions.
Attempting to make sense of the NFL's policy on sports gambling….
What’s the harm in an NFL player placing a bet on an MLB game after a training camp practice?
@BennettConlin considers NFL policy in light of recent suspensions.https://t.co/ch8GU0b4Hk
— Sports Handle (@sports_handle) April 25, 2023
“It can be customized to any of it,” Holt said, “But if it was easy, someone else would have done it.”
Holt said the platform is currently being beta-tested, and while he can’t disclose which entities will sign on with ProhiBet, he did say that “we’ve talked to every pro league.”
Whether it would be via ProhiBet or if the pro leagues and NCAA were providing exclusion lists directly to operators, there is a fair amount of work involved. In light of roster changes, leagues would have to be continuously updating and sharing their personnel lists. In the NFL, not just the regular season but the weeks ahead of it and following the draft are particularly busy with players being signed, cut, or shuffled from team to team.
Holt said that operators would want the lists updated more frequently, rather than less.
“How often do we update the lists? Daily, weekly, monthly? There is a lot of debate about that,” Holt said.
The self-exclusion options
It’s important to note that there is a clear difference between non-voluntary and voluntary exclusion lists, particularly when it comes to whether or where an excluded person could be able to bet. The non-voluntary lists from the leagues would, in theory, help an operator to ban a pro athlete from a certain type of wagering or gambling, but a self-excluded player could be subject to stricter standards.
PENN Entertainment has what it calls a “Exclude One, Exclude All” policy, which essentially means if you sign up for an exclusion list, you can’t gamble at any PENN property or via any PENN platform, including Barstool Sportsbook or theScore Bet.
“We’re really proud of it,” Chris Soriano, a PENN Entertainment vice president, told Sports Handle. “If you decide to exclude yourself in Maryland at a retail casino, then you are excluded everywhere.”
Consumers can self-exclude at any retail casino, via any gaming platform, or through a state regulator. Self-excluding with an operator would mean no gambling with that operator, at least in the state in which a player self-excludes. Self-excluding with a regulator would mean no gambling with any operator anywhere in the state.
Nearly every operator is heavily engaged in responsible gaming initiatives, and most are constantly tweaking their know-your-customer systems, juggling how to integrate exclusion lists, and responding to inquiries from other stakeholders about potentially prohibited persons wagering.
One stakeholder told Sports Handle that investigators from professional sports leagues will show up at a retail location unannounced with a list of names to run against an operator’s database. The checks are random — and could have been a way that the NFL or college players were caught — but they lack the consistency needed to improve how prohibited players are kept out.
“This is an acceptable kind of entertainment, and the leagues need to understand that this is part of the continued education of being in this sector,” Bussmann said. “Being in this sector, they need to be enforcing and educating, not just internally, but with stakeholders, too.”