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How can NFL reconcile loving Las Vegas and loathing betting lines?

Atlanta Falcons v Oakland Raiders

OAKLAND, CA - SEPTEMBER 18: A fan holds a sign in the stands in reference to a potential move by the Oakland Raiders to Las Vegas during the NFL game between the Oakland Raiders and the Atlanta Falcons at Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum on September 18, 2016 in Oakland, California. (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)

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A mere four years ago, the NFL wanted nothing to do with staging any games in Las Vegas. Then, once Las Vegas emerged as a viable candidate to lure the Raiders from Oakland, the nation’s gambling capital suddenly became acceptable for at least 10 NFL games per year.

No one seems to be troubled (or even curious) by the about-face. Indeed, hardly anyone ever questions how and why it happened -- especially since Commissioner Roger Goodell insists that the league can shift its attitude toward Las Vegas without shifting its attitude toward gambling.

“We’re obviously very sensitive to that, but we’re also going to evaluate the Raiders case on the relocation application in what’s in the overall best interests of the league,” Goodell told reporters in January. “But one thing we can’t ever do is compromise on the game. That’s one of the things we’ll do is to make sure the policies we’ve created, if we did in any way approve the Raiders, I don’t see us compromising on any of the policies.”

Compare that to this shrug of the shoulders from an unnamed AFC owner in comments made to Albert Breer of TheMMQB.com.

“From a gambling standpoint? That’s a joke to even say that’d be a problem,” the unnamed owner told Breer. “That was an issue decades ago. Now? Sports gambling is going to be legal. We might as well embrace it and become part of the solution, rather than fight it. It’s in everyone’s best interests for it to be above-board.”

And so it could be that, just as abruptly as the league pulled a 180 on Vegas, the league may abruptly flip its flop on gambling. Which could make it much harder for the league to continue to sue each and every state that tries to adopt betting on sports.

“We oppose further state-operated gambling on individual NFL games because it presents a threat to the integrity of those games and to the long-term relationship between the NFL and its fans,” NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy said in 2009, as the NFL fought to keep sports betting out of Delaware. “If you make it easier for people to gamble then more people will. This would increase the chances for people to question the integrity of the game. Those people who are upset will question whether an erroneous officiating call or dropped pass late in the game resulted from an honest mistake or an intentional act by a corrupt player or official.”

Those people who are upset will question whether an erroneous officiating call or dropped pass late in the game resulted from an honest mistake or an intentional act by a corrupt player or official.

The owners who will convene in Arizona this weekend should consider that quote and ask themselves that question, especially with more than 50 players eventually living in a place where gambling will be everywhere they go.

While putting a team in a place where gambling is legal is technically different than embracing gambling, “Las Vegas” and “gambling” are too synonymous to permit the average perception-is-reality fan to engage in the mental gymnastics necessary to tell the difference between the two. Which precisely why, as recently as 2013, the league shunned Vegas.

Even without the quote from the unnamed AFC owner, it was going to be very hard to remove the stigma of gambling from the dropping of a franchise into Las Vegas. That quote will make it damn near impossible -- especially as more and more similar quotes are harvested on- and off-the-record as reporters descend on Arizona to (hopefully) ask pointed questions about how the NFL plans to walk the tightrope between loving Las Vegas and loathing betting lines.