NFL embraces betting. What message is it sending student-athletes?

Matt York/AP
Customers watch sporting events from inside FanDuel Sportsbook in Phoenix’s Footprint Center arena, Sept. 9, 2021. Arizona's first sports betting operations are now open in time for the start of the NFL season with live wagers allowed on college and professional sports.

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Since 2018, when the U.S. Supreme Court overturned a law that largely prohibited sports betting, professional sports leagues have been steadily cutting deals with sports betting partners. The National Football League is a big recent example: NFL revenue from gambling deals is projected at $270 million this year alone.

Although only 14% of Americans find gambling immoral, 63% say operators of legalized gambling venues should have to implement responsible gambling measures, according to surveys reported by the National Council on Problem Gambling.

Why We Wrote This

Legal sports betting has become accepted by many in the U.S. But the public also has ethical concerns – especially about effects on young people.

And the group cites one study finding that 16% of online sports gamblers met clinical criteria for a gambling disorder.

The ethical questions are particularly sensitive when it comes to young people. At H.D. Woodson High School in Washington, D.C., Howard Gilmore coaches receivers and is pondering the message student-athletes are getting. 

“It’s not sending a good signal to them, because now they think this is OK to sports bet,” says Mr. Gilmore. His focus is on preparing the students for “life,” encouraging them to stay level-headed. 

Amber Satterfield, whose son plays wide receiver at H.D. Woodson, worries about the game of football being diminished by the changes. “Everything is about money now,” she says.

The senior quarterback loves the game, his hometown Washington Football Team, and Lamar Jackson – the scrambling sensation he emulates – who plays for the NFL franchise down the road in Baltimore. 

Novaun Lee, who’s ranked near the top of his class academically at H.D. Woodson High School in the District, has played the game since he was five, according to his mother. This year, though, there is something new when he and his teammates turn on the TV to watch the pro game: advertisements for the sports betting companies now in partnership with the National Football League. 

“It’s all very new,” says Keith Whyte, executive director for the National Council on Problem Gambling. “This massive expansion of sports betting, it’s shifted, and it’s become popularized and normalized in our culture.”

Why We Wrote This

Legal sports betting has become accepted by many in the U.S. But the public also has ethical concerns – especially about effects on young people.

With entertainers like Jamie Foxx and former NFL stars like the recently retired Drew Brees appearing on commercials for the NFL’s recently approved sportsbook operators, a betting app has gotten in the teenage quarterback’s line of sight. He downloaded the free FOX Bet Super 6 app, sponsored by Hall of Fame quarterback Terry Bradshaw, last month. 

And while the legal betting age in D.C. is 18, Howard Gilmore, a coach at H.D. Woodson, questions whether the league is sending the right message to high school football players with the sportsbook and gambling partnerships. 

“It’s not sending a good signal to them because now they think this is OK to sports bet,” says Mr. Gilmore, who coaches wide receivers at his high school alma mater. He’s with a large majority of Americans in not labeling all gambling as immoral or irresponsible, but still seeing a need for guardrails. “You do have underaged kids that you’re targeting that look at [these ads] that have a desire to play in the NFL.”

His focus is on preparing the student-athletes that he coaches for “life,” encouraging his players to stay levelheaded. H.D. Woodson associate head coach Rodney Williams also desires to help the student-athletes “get ready for life,” encouraging them to read, and preaching the message of remaining steadfast and focused on the football field.

“When I say, ‘Something good happens,’ they say, ‘keep playing,’ when I say, ‘Something bad happens’ they say, ‘keep playing,’” the sixth-year coach says in an interview before repeating this message to the team at the end of pregame practice.

Dwight A. Weingarten/The Christian Science Monitor
H.D. Woodson High School senior quarterback Novaun Lee stands with his helmet off on the sidelines during a game versus Dunbar High School in Washington, D.C., Oct. 22, 2021. Novaun and his teammates, some of whom aspire to play professionally, are seeing ads for NFL-approved sports betting for the first time this year.

While his message of “keep playing,” taken out of context, could be an advertisement for gambling, Mr. Williams voices ambivalence when asked whether the league should be sponsoring sports betting.

“I don’t know,” Mr. Williams says. “They aren’t going to let their money stop, though.”

The NFL is projected to make $270 million in revenue from sports betting and gambling deals in 2021 alone.

Amber Satterfield, whose son, Omar, plays wide receiver at H.D. Woodson and hopes for an NFL career, also sees money at play in the league’s new stance. “They’re doing it for money,” she says, “everything is about money now.”

In the process, she says, the game of football is diminished.

Problem gambling

When a person’s betting activity tips toward “problem” status, it can have severe consequences for their financial and emotional well-being. Although only 14% of Americans find gambling immoral, 63% say operators of legalized gambling venues should have to implement responsible gambling measures, according to surveys reported by the National Council on Problem Gambling.

And the group cites one study finding that 16% of online sports gamblers met clinical criteria for gambling disorder.

But NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, who once wrote in 2012 that the expansion of sports betting “threatens to damage irreparably the integrity of, and public confidence in, NFL football,” has had a different legal landscape to consider since 2018. 

That year, the Supreme Court overturned the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act, a 1992 law that prohibited sports betting except in Nevada and a few other select locations. Pro leagues have been determining their relationships with gaming ever since, Mr. Whyte says. 

Pro basketball was the first major league to make a deal with sports betting when the NBA announced a partnership with MGM in 2018. The National Hockey League announced a deal for DraftKings to be their official sports betting partner just last month, and Major League Baseball added DraftKings to BetMGM as their co-exclusive sports betting partners earlier this year

The NFL has approved a total of seven sportsbook operators this year.

Seeking a balance

But last month, the NFL announced a partnership of a different kind, this time with the National Council on Problem Gambling, for a $6.2 million grant over three years to address problem gambling.

The NFL wants to make sure they have a “balanced approach” that is long-term and sustainable, says Mr. Whyte, whose organization plans to use the funds to upgrade their National Problem Gambling Helpline and for public service announcements.

He says his organization – which has never taken a position for or against legalized gambling – also has been advising the NFL on branding a “responsible gambling” message. 

The NFL has limited the sports betting ads to six per broadcast, one per quarter with an additional ad pregame and at halftime. The American Gaming Association (AGA), which represents the U.S. casino industry, sets self-imposed restrictions on advertisements geared toward youth through its Responsible Marketing Code

“It’s important to note,” says AGA senior vice president Casey Clark in an email, “legal sports betting offers regulatory oversight and protections for competition integrity, athletes, bets, and consumers that do not exist in the illegal market.”

Distinguishing the game from gaming

With bets now being placed “above the table,” in a legal manner, the question of distinguishing the game from the gaming is surfacing now too, especially as it relates to young people. 

Mr. Whyte says the NFL saw some support “gaps,” including the need to do youth prevention, as a reason for the partnership with the National Council on Problem Gambling.

“We want to keep the game, the game,” Mr. Whyte says. He adds that the first time most student-athletes get a prevention message is when they get to college, while about 90% of NCAA male student-athletes who gambled for money had their first experience with gambling before college. About 5% of adolescents report gambling behavior that rises to the level of harm, he says, expressed in lack of control. 

For the young quarterback, still not old enough to place a bet, he appears to be taking some steps toward keeping the game and gaming separate. Novaun says, in an interview, he learned about probability in his Advanced Placement statistics class that day.

“All it takes is money and probability to bet,” he says. “Nothing requires the same amount of focus as the game.”

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