N.F.L.’s Rapid Embrace of Gambling Creates Mixed Signals

Over the next week, the National Football League’s players, coaches, fans and executives will gather for an event that was virtually unthinkable just 10 years ago: the Super Bowl in Las Vegas, the gambling capital of the United States.

Since the Supreme Court struck down, in 2018, a federal law that effectively banned sports betting outside Nevada — a prohibition once backed by the N.F.L.’s commissioner, Roger Goodell — the N.F.L. has embraced the gambling industry. It has forged partnerships reportedly worth nearly $1 billion over five years with sports betting companies, and permitted a sports book to operate inside one of its stadiums. Now it even has a team in Las Vegas, which the league shunned for decades because any affiliation was seen as a threat to the integrity of the game.

Yet the embedding of sports gambling so quickly into the culture of the league has resulted in jarring contradictions. The N.F.L. is pushing to popularize and benefit from sports betting while still guarding against the potential pitfalls that it long condemned. While the league donates money to promote responsible gambling, its broadcasts are peppered with advertisements for sports betting companies. The N.F.L. is part of a growing apparatus that encourages casual fans to regularly place wagers on games, while punishing league employees — most notably players — who might do the same.

The N.F.L. and other sports leagues “have moved into this area quickly, fully considering the revenue-related benefits to engagement in sports gambling, but not necessarily thinking about everything that could go wrong,” said Marc Edelman, a law professor and director of sports ethics at Baruch College in New York.

“Even if it makes complete sense to disallow employees from sports teams from betting on the games,” Mr. Edelman added, “there’s undeniably a level of cognitive dissonance” when N.F.L. players and staff frequently come across content encouraging gambling, including signage in stadiums and betting odds on N.F.L. telecasts, while doing their jobs. The league’s partnerships also give gambling companies the right to use the N.F.L. logo in their marketing and be a part of major N.F.L. events.

The N.F.L. says that its stance on sports betting, which is in step with the other major American sports leagues, changed with the shifting legal landscape, and that working with gambling operators allows it to better protect the game’s integrity. As with many positions the N.F.L. takes, though, the effects are magnified because of the league’s cultural sway. More than simply responding to the landscape, the N.F.L. is helping to shape it.

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