Discover more from The Sports Column
WHAT ONCE WAS NFL MEDIOCRITY NOW FEEDS AMERICA'S GAMBLING EPIDEMIC
A diluted postseason picture is exactly what the league, sportsbooks and TV networks want — 8-8 Fever only tempts the habits of bettors who’ve ruined the dynamic of competitive integrity
There was a time when people — smart people, people with portfolios, people with college diplomas on the wall, people with a Range Rover and a Porsche in the garage, people who don’t watch “Emily In Paris” — knew the look and smell of mediocre football. They would see the current NFL playoff picture and either wince or retch. They were discriminant consumers, demanding aesthetic rewards and valuing competitive integrity.
Today, too many are giddy with 8-8 Fever.
Wow! Tom Brady and the Buccaneers have won their division and, we’re told, already have Jerry Jones wearing his Depends as he contemplates a first-round scare. Never mind that Tampa Bay is 8-8 and has won only once when allowing more than 16 points, meaning Brady is having such a dismal, divorce-withdrawal season that the four Oscar-winners starring in the new movie, “80 For Brady” — Sally Field, Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin, Rita Moreno — are looking younger than him.
Gee! Aaron Rodgers and the 8-8 Packers will slide into an NFC wild-card berth if they beat the 8-8 Lions, who will get in if they win in Green Bay and another 8-8 wonder, Seattle, loses at home to the Rams. The scenario has returned Rodgers to his lying ways, this time about faux camaraderie instead of COVID vaccination. “I had faith,” he said, forgetting how he was throwing tantrums and disowning teammates at 4-8.
Boy oh boy oh boy! Two more teams sans winning records, the 8-8 Jaguars and 7-9 Titans, are playing for a division title, with the possibility Tennessee could win the AFC South at 8-9. This in a conference where the 8-8 Steelers still could make the playoffs if they win and the 8-8 Patriots and 8-8 Dolphins lose. The Patriots get the final wild-card berth with a victory. If all four 8-8 teams lose, the Jaguars advance at 8-9, leaving the AFC with a whole lot of fugly: two sub-.500 postseason teams. If the Jaguars win that barnburner in Jacksonville, the Patriots would survive a three-way 8-9 clog, whereupon Bill Belichick would do his legacy a disservice if he didn’t resign on the spot and take the next frozen ferry to Nantucket. This sentence appeared Monday in the Boston Globe: “We expected the unexpected, and that’s what we received — a game-clinching drive that gives the Patriots hope.” Hope? I need dope. Didn’t they once expect nothing less than the Super Bowl in New England?
This Happy New Year slog, of course, is exactly what the league and the sportsbook giants and the broadcast beasts want. If parity used to be the enemy of the NFL experience, an absence of quality only feeds the national gambling illness that now qualifies as an infectious disease. When the lines blur between praise and pity, when the gap is narrow between reaching the postseason and being miserably inadequate, the condition only fosters a craze that compels smart people to bet and watch Week 18 games by the tens of millions. Not long ago, these .500-bogged showdowns would have meant nothing, relegated to a dumpster by higher competitive standards.
But then the league stopped caring about standards and, for that matter, detecting concussions in games and protecting Tua Tagovailoa from himself. A perfectly sound system — 12 total teams reach the playoffs, six from each conference — was fertilized by greed. A 14-team field was adopted, diluting the demands on good football and expanding hope for the unwashed into the final weekend. When 43.75 percent of the 32 teams reach the playoffs in a regular season expanded to 17 games, it hastens the frenzy that excites fans about crappy teams and stupid games. The Bucs and Jaguars should not be atop divisions at .500. The sub-.500 wild-card contenders should be ashamed and relinquish their Shield privileges.
The league had a chance to feature the Bills and Bengals, two Super Bowl contenders, before Damar Hamlin collapsed to the turf in Cincinnati. It became a Monday night to remember for the saddest reasons. Beyond those distraught teams and the Chiefs in the AFC and the 49ers in the NFC — the Vikings are point-differential frauds; the Eagles are banged up at the worst time; the Cowboys are doomed to mortify an 80-year-old Jones again — the true elite doesn’t have many members these days. Thus, eyeballs turn to wannabes.
And gamblers reach for their devices and deploy casino apps in 32 states and the District of Columbia.
And networks jam more sportsbook commercials into game coverage, six per broadcast, waving point-spread fentanyl into the faces of millions.
And I have difficulty distinguishing between the actual competition on the field and the odds, over-unders and prop bets that increasingly threaten the lives and families of problem gamblers everywhere.
Which is exactly how the NFL, ESPN, FOX, CBS, NBC and, unfortunately, one in every five Americans want it. That’s how many people in a nation of 332 million gambled on sports in the last year, much of it involving pro and college football. An average of $8 billion-plus a month was placed on legal sports bets in the first half of 2022 — and that was before football season — activity that has spiked forecasts of $20 billion a month by 2026. That’s $240 billion a year. When the Supreme Court opened a padlocked door five years ago for states to legalize gambling, the justices couldn’t have known the magnitude and power of the uncontrollable monster they were unleashing.
They should take the resulting rager under advisement, at least. Just as the wagering numbers grow, so will the number of Americans living with a gambling addiction: an estimated 15 million and counting. The Court didn’t realize that the NFL, which only recently viewed gambling as taboo, no longer would care about inevitable fixing scandals and only occasionally bust a middling player or assistant coach — receiver Calvin Ridley was made an example with a one-year ban when he gambled on his own team to win. Nor did the Court realize ESPN, FOX and other all-caps moral failures would woo gamblers with suitcases filled with money, segments called “Bad Beats” and compromised housemen delivering “inside information.” Who is Doug Kezirian and why does he have a job at a sports network? Because he’s an ESPN “betting insider,” a plague that could end if the Disney Company savior, Bob Iger, downsizes the gambling element as he should. Better, it could end completely if Iger spins off the network and finally puts the “Worldwide Leader” out of its misery.
The NFL also could ramp down the casino ads and order networks to de-emphasize their emphasis on betting. Roger Goodell could tell FOX to enlarge the shrunken fine print on gambling hotline ads — I’ve been to eye doctors whose bottom line of letters was easier to decipher — and tell ESPN to stop rushing radio-ad voices who race through similar ads. Sure. Right. Yeah. They are partners in slime, for the next decade, and they’re all too busy counting billions to care about the guy in the heartland whose family is headed to a tent encampment because Kenny Pickett rallied the Steelers to another day.
So get jacked, Pittsburgh, about that Cleveland game. DraftKings already suggests betting $10 on the Browns, who are getting three points, and winning $23. Steelers fans will ignore the tip. After a series of fraught zeroes are added, the wager will define how far the NFL has devolved in an unchecked and unwell America.
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.