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NO ONE CARES THE NFL IS RUNNING AMOK — YOU’RE TOO BUSY GAMBLING
The league’s sins — corruption, crime, racism — reflect America in the moment, and as fans continue to embrace the product with unprecedented fervor, the owners and obedient media merrily cash in
Just hours before the NFL launched its annual cash grab, which will exceed $25 billion by 2027 (above the current Gross National Income of more than 100 world countries), one of the league’s major media partners blasted a gambling ad atop its news site. It was so friggin’ massive — “GET UP 7. YOU WIN.” — I thought I’d stumbled onto a sportsbook’s betting page Thursday afternoon.
Well, actually, I had. Nearly pushing all the day’s prominent stories off the bottom of my laptop screen, including the suspension of British sports events after the death of Queen Elizabeth II, ESPN rented out the definitive digital source in sports media to DraftKings. There was comedian Kevin Hart in a video, playing pool like any other bro-dude with disposable betting income. Was it true, an in-character Hart shouted, that he’d win his wager if his team took a seven-point lead at any point?
It was true, very true, with a large button urging gamblers to BET NOW, beside a message in smaller type that left a 1-877 hotline number for those concerned they might have a gambling problem. The takeaway image: the DraftKings logo, “An Official Sports Betting Partner of the NFL,” side by side with the league’s ever-imposing shield.
Consider it a screenshot for the times. If the American people don’t care about brain damage, corrupt and racist owners, players who are too loose with their penises and other ills that stain the sport with numbing regularity, why wouldn’t the league help grow the number of problem gamblers in this country from 8 million to, I dunno, 80 million? Think Roger Goodell and the owners care about the seeds for addiction? Let’s just make this a land of degenerates, why don’t we? At some point, as the NFL and its broadcast servants generate more profits than thought imaginable, there has to be some responsible institutional pullback on the gambling craze. Otherwise, they’re shifting the essence of sports from pure competition on the field to betting action away from it. Otherwise, they’re dangerously subleasing the integrity of our games — and greasing skids for inevitable fixing debacles, assuming they aren’t happening as it is — to the tech dudes and gambling companies, along with media houses riding the coattails of both.
No one is in sports for the right reasons anymore. Everyone is in it for the money. Will any mountain of riches ever be enough for Roger Goodell and the 32 owners who pay him? Do they really need $2 billion in sportsbook partnerships when the league has secured media deals for $113 billion, with more to come, through 2033? The collective embrace of gambling, as a ravenous accompaniment to a vicious and sordid sport, doesn’t speak well for the league, the media and — you don’t want to hear this on Week 1, but whoomp, here it is — the fans who enable the scuzz.
YOU are the problem. YOU let the NFL manipulate you, wave the carrot, do whatever it pleases to use you in feeding its greed machine. So if YOU have no interest in keeping the league honest, you deserve the fallout.
You can’t stop watching the product — by the usual tens of millions on opening night, when the Buffalo Bills arrived in a $6 billion stadium from their humble western New York abode and proved their Super Bowl bona fides with a romp over the defending champion Los Angeles Rams. If you ingested the DraftKings cocaine and bet on the youthful promise of Josh Allen, who looked every bit the MVP favorite with three touchdown passes and another score by land, you cashed in midway through the third quarter. If you took the Rams and a wretched Matthew Stafford, who looked like a quarterback who underwent an offseason procedure on his right elbow and threw three interceptions when he wasn’t sacked seven times, you were the gaming racket’s latest victim. Look, betting on a football game is old news, I realize, especially for those of us who grew up with an Uncle Gumba. What’s new and alarming is the absurd amount of money being wagered since the Supreme Court decided individual states would determine whether sports betting is legal. Since then, 30 states and the District of Columbia have turned The Bet into the real game. The actual event is simply the vehicle to winnings — or, more often, losses — to the tune of a projected $400 billion in annual U.S. sports wagers by decade’s end.
The boom is out of control, disproportionate to reality, a sickness that impacts a 13-year-old kid who flipped on Bills-Rams and immediately saw a FanDuel commercial. When I was a young teen, I was focused on how the Pittsburgh Steelers would win another championship. Today, kids are figuring out spreads, prop wagers and which betting subscription to buy. What will all of this look like in 30 years? Will anyone care when a game is thrown? Will anyone know? The function of who wins the championship — will it be a moot point by then? That’s where we’re headed unless Congress realizes the Supreme Court erred spectacularly and tries to undo moral damage.
Accountability is a hopeless aim as long as people keep watching pro football in record numbers — and as long as only a few of us in the non-compromised media are holding truth to NFL power. The fact ESPN would sell out its once-proud journalistic real estate to a gambling company is all you need to know why betting is hellbound to careen out of control. Media sites should be focused on keeping the NFL and the rest of a wagering-mad industry on the straight and narrow. Instead, beyond a sacred few, a day doesn’t pass without another supposedly reputable news source — Sports Illustrated, Gannett, Associated Press, Boston Globe, Philadelphia Inquirer — climbing into bed with a betting partner. So much for those sites doing investigative work on sports and gambling. Author Brian Tuohy, who has written four books examining the NFL gambling stench, says “60 Minutes” wasn’t interested in his content. Never mind the program’s decades-long reputation for supreme journalism.
More important to CBS, the parent network, is its long-term relationship with the NFL. To hell with “60 Minutes” when Jerry Jones and Bob Kraft are calling. “Tick, tick, tick, tick …” Get this: CBS Sports chairman Sean McManus told the Athletic that his division never would “go out of our way to unearth dirt on NFL owners or players.” Somewhere, McManus’ father — the great Jim McKay, who anchored coverage of the terrorism massacre during the 1972 Munich Olympics — might like a word with Sean about serving the public trust at all times. If the networks were honorable about gambling coverage, they might save lives and families. But that’s not possible when NBC extracts Bob Costas, who performed on McKay’s journalistic level for decades, so company puppet Mike Tirico can nod at Cris Collinsworth for three hours about football junk.
When you think about it, the league’s problems — corruption, crime, racism — reflect America in the moment. If fans continue to embrace the product with unprecedented fervor, the owners and their obedient media will merrily cash in and ignore social responsibilities. The NFL has been touched by almost every imaginable scandal. An owner (Dan Snyder) is facing multiple workplace harassment allegations. Another owner (Stephen Ross) illegally tampered with Tom Brady and Sean Payton and flouted competitive integrity by suggesting his team tank games to obtain a top draft pick. Another owner (Jimmy Haslam) relinquished six draft picks in a blockbuster trade for Deshaun Watson, who was rewarded with a record $230 million in guarantees after he was accused by more than two dozen women of sexual misconduct during massage therapy sessions. Jones and Kraft are being called dirty old men after unsavory episodes. A longstanding coach and TV analyst, Jon Gruden, resigned after his racist and anti-gay emails were leaked. One of his players in Las Vegas, Henry Ruggs III, was driving drunk at 150-plus mph when he crashed and killed a woman in another vehicle. A rookie punter, Matt Araiza, was accused of participating in the gang rape of a woman who was 17 at the time. Alvin Kamara allegedly punched a man eight times at a nightclub. Britt Reid, son of future Hall of Fame coach Andy Reid, was driving while intoxicated when his car collided with another vehicle and left a child with serious injuries. The Rooney Rule, intended to facilitate the promotion and hiring of Black head coaches, continues to falter.
Hell, the most accomplished player in the sport’s history, Tom Brady, appears to be having marital problems. Isn’t that uniquely American? “I think your life ebbs and flows, through the clouds and the sun, and through the rain and through the beautiful days, and you appreciate the moments and you find joy in the little things,” Brady rationalized on his podcast. “I spoke with my dad the other day. He said, ‘All you can do is the best you can do with the circumstances that are presented in front of you.’ ’’ Stafford faced his own turmoil on the eve of the opener, catching grief on social media for cropping his wife out of a photo in which he showed off his championship ring. Kelly Stafford responded by posting her own photo, a racy shot that didn’t require her to wear a top. Did the drama only serve to further distract the Rams in a 31-10 loss?
“When you look at a lot of the ways this game unfolded, (I) feel a huge sense of responsibility to this team. We weren’t ready to go,” said the celebrated coach, Sean McVay, who might regret rejecting a reported $100 million to join Amazon’s broadcast booth. “There’s no other way to put it, I didn’t do a good enough job. I feel a sense of letting a lot of people down that I care about. I’m not going to run away from the mistakes I made tonight. That’s on me. It was a humbling experience.”
Has Stafford lost it already, after one eye-wink in a phone commercial? “I can try to get the ball out quicker, get it to them in better spots … play within myself as much as I can ... keep leading, keep fighting,” he said. Maybe he and his wife should stay off social media, if that’s possible in 2022. Know how bad Stafford was? Tirico torched him about the picks, saying, “He’s always going to give the other guys one or two a game.”
We are left to wonder, every hour of every day, what possibly is next. Yet YOU can’t pull yourself away or even get mad. You’re hooked, beyond help.
The National Football League — bigger than the rest of sports, bigger than Hollywood and the rest of show business, bigger than any place of worship, sometimes seemingly bigger than America itself — simply shrugs off every indiscretion and soap opera … and moves on to the next 10-digit, three-comma direct deposit.
And why wouldn’t it? If you don’t care, why would the NFL do anything but cut another deal with an official sports betting partner?
Jay Mariotti, called “without question the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes general sports columns for Substack while appearing on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts and shows in production today. He is an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and talk/podcast host. Living in Los Angeles, he gravitated by osmosis to film projects.