The NFL Inconsistency Few Are Talking About

It’s been evident for quite some time that the NFL does plenty of nonsensical things.  The disciplinary policy is the one that’s getting the most face time currently, but it’s far from the only one.  However, as the title implies, there’s something lurking that’s been bugging me enough to the point that I need to call the NFL out on it.

It regards daily fantasy football.

As you watched football over this weekend, it was utterly unavoidable to hear about FanDuel and DraftKings.  Both companies, of course, have been very aggressive in getting the word out on their daily fantasy services via traditional commercial placements.  But this year, I’ve noticed that they’ve taken it to a new level, taking out sponsorships directly during TV programs.  By my count, CBS, Fox, and NBC all had some portion of their pre-game shows sponsored by either FanDuel or DraftKings on Sunday, and the same held true for ESPN on Monday. (Their campaigns are not limited to major media either–for example, and in the interest of full disclosure, FanDuel has also partnered with Over The Cap.)

If you pay attention to the fine print in the commercials, you’ll see the daily fantasy sites proclaim something along the lines of “This is not a gambling site”.  But as this excellent Bloomberg article from last Thursday illustrates, daily fantasy is very analogous to poker: while both games require much more skill than other forms of betting, they are both forms of wagering in which there are more losers than winners. (The usage of poker terms such as “sharks” and “fish” is quite interesting.) By the dictionary definition of gambling, there is little difference between the two.  But by the legal defintion, there’s a huge difference: fantasy sports have long been exempted from federal anti-gambling laws, while poker is well known as a gambling classic.  But importantly, there are a few states that do not recognize that federal exemption, and consider it just another form of illegal gambling.

Here, I wish to make something very clear: I have no problem at all with what FanDuel and DraftKings are doing.  I think they’re being a bit disingenuous suggesting that they are something above traditional gambling, but that’s marketing for you, and it’s far from the most egregious example in advertising. I also believe that not only should betting on fantasy sports be fully legal, but so should all forms of gambling.  Yes, gambling addiction is a very serious problem of which its risks need to be made fully aware, but I’ve long had a strong belief that such risks should not infringe upon the freedom of the majority of responsible parties in transactions.

But here’s what’s really grinding my gears.  The NFL has long had a draconian policy against traditional sports betting, and has strictly held its broadcasters to that standard.  You will never hear any direct mention of point spreads or over/unders on networks serving the NFL, and excessive parsing is needed to simply explain that the Broncos are heavily expected to defeat the Raiders. (Al Michaels is always reliable to beat around the bush in this regard.)  They joined a lawsuit against New Jersey defending a ridiculous federal law when that state tried to legalize sports betting. And you will probably never see an NFL team in Las Vegas in your lifetime, even when the always litigious Al Davis was in his prime. (And let’s be honest, there is perhaps no better city for the Raiders than Vegas.)

Yet here we are, with the NFL not only allowing the networks to have daily fantasy sites sponsor them, but to give those sites prominent airtime.  Perhaps the most blatant examples are the displays of suggesting starting lineups that are associated with FanDuel and DraftKings.  (Adam Schefter got in on the action just as I was in the process of drafting this article yesterday.)  The hypocrisy gets only thicker when the NFL clamps down on players like Tony Romo for appearing at a fantasy football event just because it happened to take place on property owned by a casino.

I have no problem with the NFL disallowing its players, coaches and executives from betting on sports–or fantasy football for that matter.  But it’s long past time for the NFL to accept the fact that yes, there are many, many people that enjoy wagering money on sports, and many enjoy the far simpler traditional betting lines than convoluted fantasy rosters.  The fans should be able to participate in it freely, and the broadcasters should be able to discuss it freely.

I’ll conclude with the observation that while the NFL has this excessively strict policy, the NCAA seems to have no problem with allowing its broadcasters to discuss the lines that Vegas has set. This has been a recent addition to College GameDay’s selection segment, in fact.  But this makes no sense whatsoever. I think the risk of gambling infiltrating the outcome of college football games is far higher than that of NFL games.  Thanks to the increasingly high salaries of NFL players, they have far too much to lose in such a scheme. In contrast, think about a star college quarterback whose skills are evident to all that won’t translate to the NFL, and as such likely won’t make any money off his football talents in his life.