Does the NFL Have a Gambling Problem?

By Mark Hendrickson
Mark Hendrickson
Mark Hendrickson
Mark Hendrickson is an economist who retired from the faculty of Grove City College in Pennsylvania, where he remains fellow for economic and social policy at the Institute for Faith and Freedom. He is the author of several books on topics as varied as American economic history, anonymous characters in the Bible, the wealth inequality issue, and climate change, among others.
July 19, 2023Updated: July 19, 2023


Over the past two years, the National Football League (NFL) has suspended 10 players for gambling. Seven players have been banned for full seasons for having bet on NFL games; three others received partial-season suspensions for gambling on sports events other than NFL games while on the premises of NFL team properties.

It’s easy to understand why the NFL has adopted a hard line against gambling. The league has a brand to protect. Years ago, the NFL surpassed major league baseball as the country’s most popular team sport. Fans are absolutely passionate about football. A key ingredient of that popularity is Americans’ love for a fair contest, a devotion to the creed of “let the best team win.” It would be a devastating blow to the sport and probably to our national psyche, too, if the perception of a fair fight were to be shattered by a revelation that a player or players threw a particular game. Memories of the 1920 Chicago Black Sox scandal in baseball still haunt our country’s professional sports leagues.

So far, the NFL has succeeded in preserving the integrity of its games. That doesn’t mean it will be easy for the league to continue to police player gambling easily. It isn’t so much that the NFL has a gambling problem, but that the human race has a gambling problem, and a rather large problem at that.

Gambling used to be regarded as a vice. In some quarters, it still is. The problem is more nuanced than that. For many people, gambling is recreational, a diversion. Millions of people bet on NFL games with no negative repercussions in their personal lives. According to the American Gaming Association, Americans bet over $31 billion in the first quarter of this year alone.

The majority of gamblers heed the first rule of risk-taking: Never bet money you can’t afford to lose. Unfortunately, many people lack such discipline and self-restraint. Seduced by the lure of easy money and self-delusions about their ability to predict the future, some individual gamblers go broke, suffering catastrophic losses that rob them of their happiness, their self-respect, and sometimes their families. It’s no small problem: The National Council on Problem Gambling estimates that there may be 7 million Americans addicted to gambling to some extent.

Sports betting is currently legal in 38 states and the District of Columbia. That means that it’s still illegal in 12 states. What we have here is a classic conservative versus libertarian issue. Conservatives, acting primarily out of a desire to protect people from potentially self-destructive behavior, often think that sports gambling should be outlawed. Libertarians counter with the principle that individual liberty necessarily includes the right to fail spectacularly; also, that if we try to ban something that millions of people are going to do anyhow, the prohibition results in other pathologies, such as growth in organized crime or law enforcement corruption.

Personally, I dislike gambling. The first time I went to a racetrack with college buddies (it was harness racing), I saw desperate, pathetic lost souls placing their last few dollars on a bet on some horse in the hope that better days lay ahead. It broke my heart, and I never went back.

I have watched a cousin lose his enjoyment for NFL games because even though his team might have won, some player didn’t earn enough fantasy points for my cousin to win his fantasy bet. I still don’t know the first thing about fantasy points, and I don’t want to know. I just want my team to win, and I’ll dispense with all that other drama, thank you. But millions of people find those bets appealing, even though they lose some of their enjoyment for the sport, so who am I to tell them they shouldn’t do that? And for those who tend to look down their noses at gamblers, realize that there are millions more Americans who may never place a bet on a football game, but who make ill-advised ventures into the stock market. They buy stocks that they don’t understand in the hope of receiving their little bit of “something for nothing,” and they often lose chunks of money in the process.

Some football fans have denounced the NFL for an alleged double standard: forbidding their players from gambling while the league itself receives a cut of the action from gambling licenses they have issued to gaming companies. Actually, if the league shares its gambling revenues with the players, it should be a win–win financial arrangement for the league and its players. In the upcoming season, two players will be paid $3 million per game, and the league minimum, even for very part-time players, is $750,000. That could rise smartly with the gambling revenues. Hopefully, then, the players’ paydays will be sufficiently large to convince them that they have far more to lose than to gain by breaking the league’s gambling rules. Talk about a bad bet!

As another NFL season looms on the horizon, may the best team win. And may football fans never allow money to cause them to lose their love for the sport.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.