SAN DIEGO — Joe Briggs knows he might sometimes sound a little crazy. But he’ll do whatever it takes to keep his athletes safe.
“Members of the NFLPA have come to us with concerns about how gambling will affect their lives on and off the field,” Briggs said during a panel last week at the National Council of Legislators from Gaming States. “If you saw an athlete who missed a couple of catches and said, ‘I am going to punch you in the face,’ that might be considered sports heckling. But if you add to that, ‘and I bet $10,000,’ well, it becomes a bigger thing.
“A player might have to think more about what they do on the field that could put themselves or their families at risk. I know I might be talking about the bogeyman that might never materialize…”
But in the end, it’s Briggs’ job, as counsel for the NFLPA to consider all of the what-ifs. The panel, which also included representatives from the NCAA and Major League Baseball, was titled “Sports’ Role in Sports Betting,” and all three panelists were focused on finding ways within new legal sports wagering frameworks to maintain their athletes’ privacy, give them some level of comfort about their safety, and otherwise help both college and pro athletes to understand what expanded legal U.S. sports betting will mean to them.
Key concerns: Impact on students, integrity
None of the three were more passionate in their plea than Briggs, a former big-time college football player at Texas Christian, who has testified at sports betting hearings in multiple states over the last few years. As the professional leagues themselves lobby in state houses across the country for money, either in the form of a “royalty” or via an official league data mandate, Briggs and fellow panelists really just want peace of mind.
“We have two primary concerns,” said Naima Stevenson Starks, vice president of Hearing Operations for the NCAA. “The impact on students, and integrity in competition. Our student athletes, who are competitive in nature, are involved in sports wagering, and that can have a detrimental affect not only on themselves, but on their eligibility. We’re (constantly) educating our athletes.”
Protecting college athletes developed as a national theme since the Supreme Court struck down the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act in May 2018. Since then Purdue, St. Joseph’s and Villanova have all taken additional measures — banning sports betting by athletes, employees and contractors that work on their campuses. All of this is an effort to protect athletes from Briggs’ “bogeyman.”
MLB attorney Marquest Meeks tells #nclgs audience here in San Diego that “you cannot have sports betting without the underlying sports.” Joe Briggs of NFL Players Association one-ups with “you can’t have the underlying sports without the players.”
— John Brennan (@BergenBrennan) January 10, 2020
But on the professional level, Briggs has really been the sole voice on this topic. At state hearings, including in Missouri, Illinois and New York, Briggs has introduced lawmakers to yet more wrinkles in the legalization of sports betting, from keeping players safe, to developing some sort of whistleblower policy to keeping the mountains of biometric data that the league collects private.
“You cannot have the underlying sports without the athletes,” Briggs said in San Diego. “What if someone shows up at a player’s house with a bag of cash and says, ‘I know you might have dropped a couple of passes, and I want to make sure you’re well compensated if that happens again.’ Who should my player report that to?”
Detractors of this position, echoed by the pro leagues (“You cannot have sports betting without sports”) dismiss this position as akin to a schoolyard dispute where an aggrieved player threatens to take the ball and go home if he doesn’t get his way. And critics have asked, why should leagues get a “royalty” or some direct cut, merely for existing?
Players need direction, protection, privacy
Briggs suggests that the answer to athlete concerns is that states include a whistleblower policy in sports betting laws or regulation. In the current climate, if someone were to drop a “bag of cash” at a player’s doorstep, the player would likely to report that to the NFL or NFLPA. But operators and state regulators would need that information too in order to intercept potential threats. No policy yet exists in which a typical NFL player would know who to call outside of the league or players’ association.
In addition, Briggs pointed out that there is no clear indication of where an investigation would be opened if tampering was suspected. Would it be in the player’s home state? In the state in which his team is based? Or in the state in which a particular game was played?
Another key issue is biometric data. Today’s technology may allow the NFL to track everything from heart rate to sweat rate to how fast an athlete can run, some of which is shared as “Next Gen Stats.” NFL uniforms are covered with sensors, and while the league takes precautions to keep that data private, the truth, concerns remain.
“Our players have to wear trackable devices to track biometric data,” he said. “Our players think they should have a say in what happens to that data. If I know that XYZ player misses field goals when his heart rate is 98 or higher, I could potentially look at his biometric data on one app on my phone, and place a sports bet on another app on my phone.”
Maybe Briggs doesn’t sound so crazy after all. The proliferation of sports betting brings with it many layers of concern, some that only special-interest groups — like players’ associations or the NCAA — would consider. While all four of the major professional sports leagues have embraced sports betting — it is, after all, a huge driver of engagement and presents other opportunities for new sponsorships and monetization — they’ll also do their best to educate lawmakers in the hopes that the very people providing the entertainment don’t get lost in the process.
“To what perspective are you, as legislators, going to consider the needs of athletes,” asked Marquest Meeks, Major League Baseball’s senior counsel on sports betting and investigations. “You should be considering putting that in your laws.”