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Does the gambling policy apply to players not under contract?

Mike Florio and Myles Simmons explain why the gambling policy issues have emerged as the most surprising narrative in the offseason, along with the Cardinals dysfunction and Tom Brady developments.

As we learn more about the NFL’s gambling policy -- and as we learn more about the clunky, ineffective efforts of the NFL to properly educate players regarding the gambling policy -- new issues and questions emerge.

Here’s one. Does the NFL’s gambling policy apply only to players currently under contract with teams, or does it also apply to free agents?

It’s a potentially critical distinction. If it doesn’t apply to free agents, players not under contract aren’t bound by it. Most importantly, free agents would be allowed to bet on NFL games and NFL events.

On Saturday, the question of whether the gambling policy applies to free agents was posed to the NFL.

“The policy applies to NFL Players, which the union defines as players that are under an NFL Player contract or are seeking employment as an NFL Player (i.e., have signed a contract in the past and are currently trying to find a new contract or are undrafted free agents who go to a tryout),” Chief NFL Spokesman Brian McCarthy said via email.

The gambling policy doesn’t put it that way, and it definitely doesn’t incorporate by reference the union’s definition of player.

The gambling policy expressly applies to “NFL Personnel.” That term is defined by the gambling policy as follows: “Unless otherwise limited, this Policy applies to all full-time and part-time personnel including League office employees, club employees, players, owners, coaches, athletic trainers, game officials, security personnel, game-day stadium personnel and other staff, consultants, and temporary contract workers.”

That definition implies that the personnel are currently, not formerly or potentially, employed by the league and its teams.

Also, there’s nothing in the gambling policy that expressly incorporates anything from the Collective Bargaining Agreement.

In extending the definition of “players” in the gambling policy to non-player, the league relies on the preamble to the CBA, which defines the bargaining unit to include: (1) all professional football players employed by a member club of the National Football League; (2) all professional football players who have been previously employed by a member club of the National Football League who are seeking employment with an NFL Club; (3) all rookie players once they are selected in the current year’s NFL College Draft; and (4) all undrafted rookie players once they commence negotiation with an NFL Club concerning employment as a player.

But the gambling policy isn’t part of the CBA. The league and the union have agreed that the gambling policy flows from the Commissioner’s inherent authority to preserve the integrity of the game. The union has no say in the crafting of the gambling policy, unless the NFL chooses to extend that courtesy.

The CBA never even mentions the gambling policy. Whenever pressed for any evidence in the CBA to support the authority to restrict the ability of players to gamble, the league cites paragraph 14 of the standard player contract.

Which, obviously, applies only to players who have signed a contract. (Paragraph 14 also says nothing about gambling; instead, it generally focuses on the integrity of the game.)

Beyond the question of whether the gambling policy applies to free agents is the question of what the league is doing to educate them. The information from the league about the gambling policy seems to trickle down largely if not exclusively to the teams.

If a player isn’t on a team, what kind of information is he getting? Is the league even telling a free agent that the gambling policy applies to him as long as he is seeking employment with a team? And what if he decides he’s not seeking employment with a team, but is simply waiting for a team to seek out his employment?

It’s an odd, vague, fuzzy point under a policy that should be in all respects black and white. There should be no ambiguity. There should be no misunderstanding. There should be no confusion.

Everyone should know where they stand. Everyone should know what they are and aren’t allowed to do.

Take Cam Newton, for instance. He wasn’t in the league last year. He has expressed interest in playing, but at some point he quite possibly stopped actively seeking out employment. Was he able to bet on NFL football games without possibly getting himself suspended for a full year?

The same reasoning applies to any player who becomes unemployed by any team at any time. While he fits within the bargaining unit, does he fit within a gambling policy that is unilaterally applied by the NFL, with nothing in the CBA even addressing it -- other than one paragraph from the contract a player signs with a team?

It all adds up to something that has become more and more clear in recent weeks. The league seems to care about educating players on the gambling policy primarily so that the league can say, “Hey, don’t blame us. We told them.” The league doesn’t seem to be as interested in truly educating the players, so that they fully understand the rules and are completely equipped to comply with them.

The approach is foolish, and reckless. Beyond potentially ensnaring unsuspecting players via missteps that could have been avoided with proper education (and then losing their services for six games or a full season or longer), the failure to focus less on harvesting signatures on acknowledgment forms and more on planting seeds of true knowledge sets the stage for the kind of scandal that will cause many problems for many people -- and that could change the league in many ways.

The league seems to be sensitive to the criticism of its educational efforts. Good. But instead of complaining about the criticism, the league’s reaction should be to get its act (or another word ending in “t”) together.

Put as simply as possible, if the league is as concerned about the integrity of the game as it claims to be, the effort to fully and completely educate players on the gambling policy should be a much greater priority than it has been.