The NFL suspended Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Calvin Ridley at least through the 2022 season for betting on NFL games during the 2021 season. In a tweet, Ridley appeared to plead guilty, confirming that he “bet [$]1500 total.” The 27-year-old former first round pick added that, in his view, he doesn’t “have a gambling problem.”
Whether or not Ridley has a “gambling problem” is not at issue. By betting, Ridley broke NFL rules. He stands to lose $11 million in salary in 2022, as his salary for the year is pushed back to 2023. The salary reflects the final year of Ridley’s rookie contract.
An NFL investigation found that Ridley, who caught 90 passes in the 2020 season but missed much of 2021 with health issues, placed bets while away from the team in November 2021. He was on the non-football illness list.
In a letter sent to Ridley and released to the public, Goodell stressed, “there is nothing more fundamental to the NFL’s success—and to the reputation of everyone associated with our league—than upholding the integrity of the game.” Goodell admonished Ridley, finding that his “actions put the integrity of the game at risk, threatened to damage public confidence in professional football, and potentially undermined the reputations of your fellow players throughout the NFL.”
Under the collective bargaining agreement, Ridley can appeal the suspension. Given that he tweeted an admission to the underlying act, his grounds for an appeal are not immediately clear.
ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported that Ridley “placed multi-legged parlay bets involving 3, 5 and 8 games that included the Falcons to win.” The league, however, is confident that “there was no involvement from any team players, coach etc. placed via his mobile device out of state.” The NFL seemingly is making an example out of Ridley with a full-season suspension despite a league investigation uncovering that he didn’t use inside information on his bets.
The NFL has done an about-face in its relationship with legalized sports betting, partnering with some of the biggest gambling brands including FanDuel, DraftKings and Caesars Entertainment. In this new era of embracing gambling and finding new avenues of fan engagement, the league continues a delicate dance where it aims to avoid undermining the game while cashing in on this new and lucrative revenue stream.
The league, which reportedly used data provider Genius Sports to flag Ridley’s bets, is likely to continue to monitor how its business dealings with a bevy of gambling companies fuels mobile betting, not just with the community at-large but its players specifically.
Ridley is the second NFL player suspended for betting since the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2018 ruling in Murphy v. NCAA, where the Court held that the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act of 1992 (PASPA) was unconstitutional. PASPA, which the NFL had defended in court, made it illegal for 46 states to authorize sports betting. Four states—Nevada, Delaware, Oregon and Montana—were exempt from PASPA on account of those states having already adopted sports betting practices.
Former Arizona Cardinals cornerback Josh Shaw was suspended for the 2020 season after he was found to have made parlay bets on NFL games, reportedly including those played by his team, at a casino in Las Vegas. He has since been reinstated, though the 29-year-old remains a free agent.
In 1983, the NFL commissioner at the time, Pete Rozelle, suspended Baltimore Colts quarterback Art Schlichter for betting on games during the 1982 season. Schlichter had lost hundreds of thousands of dollars on wagers and owed a substantial amount of money to bookies. After being physically threatened for failing to pay his bookies, Schlichter contacted the FBI for protection. Schlichter would later become entangled in other legal problems connected to a gambling addiction. Detroit Lions defensive tackle Alex Karras and Green Bay Packers halfback Paul Hornung were also suspended for gambling in 1963.
NFL player contracts contain an integrity of the game provision through paragraph 15. In it, players recognize they are forbidden from engaging in activities that would jeopardize “the honest and orderly conduct of NFL games or the integrity and good character of NFL players.” To that end, the clause makes clear that the commissioner can suspend a player for a definite or indefinite period, along with terminating the player’s contract, if the player accepts a bribe or bets on games.
Betting is currently legal in more than 30 states, though states vary on how bets can be lawfully made. Some states require betting in person while others permit mobile and online betting. States also use different age limits.
Although it appears the NFL doesn’t believe that Ridley’s betting impacted games, betting that does impact games could run afoul of criminal law. The Sports Bribery Act of 1964 makes it a crime to “influence, in any way, by bribery any sporting contest,” so long as the scheme crosses state lines. Sportico has discussed the Act in the context of Brian Flores’ allegations against Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross, whom Flores says offered to bribe him to lose games while Flores coached the Dolphins.
The Ridley announcement comes three days after reigning NHL MVP Connor McDavid became the first active pro athlete in one of the four major North American leagues to partner with a U.S. sportsbook.
—With assistance from Eric Jackson.