No Gambling on the NFL? That's One Wild Fantasy
It doesn’t want you to gamble so much that it bars gambling-related ads during broadcasts of games and reserves the right to ban players and owners who so much as associate with dice-tossing scoundrels.
It doesn't want you to gamble so much that it sued the state of Delaware twice—first in 1977, then again this year—to kill proposed sports betting laws.
It doesn't want you to gamble so much that it has a link to gambling news and tips on the front page of its Web site, right next to the league stats and standings.
Just like Captain Renault, I'm shocked—shocked!
Sure, the folks over at NFL.com don't come out and advertise as much. They don't label the page in question "gambling resources."
Instead, they label it "fantasy football."
If you listen to the league, fantasy football is "a great way to follow NFL action while also competing with your family, friends, co-workers or even strangers for bragging rights."
A friendly competition with Mom, Pop, and your buddies, all for fun? It's just like Scrabble!
Before I go on, let me be clear: I'm all for fantasy football. I'm in four different leagues this season. I love ranking players. I love drafts. I love cursing when things go wrong. Fantasy is right in my wheelhouse.
Do I play for fun? Absolutely. But sometimes that fun comes in the form of a check at the end of the season.
Whether Roger Goodell says so or not, fantasy football is a great way to follow NFL action while angling for some cold, hard cash. If you pay a league fee and gun for the prize money, you're gambling.
Think of it as a complex proposition bet that unfolds over the course of the season. When you draft, you're betting that your team will put up more points than the other guys. If you're right, you win. The execution is heck of a lot more complicated than laying $50 on the Jets minus three, but the big idea is the same.
Like I said, I'm all for it. Frankly, without a few greenbacks to grease the wheels, deliberating between Hakeem Nicks and Tashard Choice in Round 13 isn't all that interesting. A modest fantasy wager gives a few thrills to otherwise unremarkable players and games.
From the NFL's perspective, though, picketing against legalized sports betting with one hand while drumming up support for fantasy football with the other sends a strange message.
Maybe the league believes factors that make traditional gambling so toxic—namely, ties to crime and the risk of fixed outcomes—don't apply to fantasy football. Maybe the NFL can't picture a crooked official throwing a few flags to influence Peyton Manning's passing totals or a crooked player nailing a star in the knees to sideline him for the year.
But while it may not be as easy to tilt a fantasy league as it is to doctor a point spread, it's hardly out of the question. Corruption follows money—and there's plenty of money in fantasy football.
We're not talking about a hobby where some friends throw in $10 here and there. We're talking about a thriving gambling industry. Tens of millions of people play. Conservative estimates put the amount of fantasy football prize money at stake at about $500 million per season.
There are insurance policies to recoup league fees in case your fantasy studs get hurt. There are million-dollar leagues. And unlike point shaving, shady figures don't need to alter the outcome of a game to change a fantasy result—they just need to alter an individual performance.
I'm not suggesting that we pull the plug on fantasy football as part of a gambling crackdown. The NFL couldn't stamp out sports betting if it tried, and there are plenty of reasons to believe that keeping gambling illegal and unregulated does more harm than good.
The best the league can do is keep its eyes open and take care of its officials and players, so that no one in a position to influence a game for nefarious purposes is desperate enough to do so.
You can't fault the NFL for trying to keep gambling off the field. But a crusade against sports betting alongside a marketing machine for fantasy football? That's a sign of a league in need of a reality check.
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