STINSON: In the Ridley case, who really has the gambling problem?

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The only surprising element of the Calvin Ridley story is that he was caught.

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Ridley, the Atlanta Falcons wide receiver who has been suspended for the 2022 NFL season for betting on football, says he only gambled a small amount on NFL games.

Indeed, the US$1,500 he says he wagered is a relative pittance for someone on a salary of US$11-million. Many NFL wideouts wear jewelry worth much more than fifteen hundred bucks, on their person, in actual games.

Reports suggest Ridley placed three bets on a mobile app in Florida. The three wagers, each a multi-team parlay, all included the Falcons to win.

There’s nothing unusual about any of this, from a gambling perspective. The explosion of legalized sports betting in the United States, and immediately in Canada, has made it exceptionally easy to place a few wagers should the mood strike. Download an app, register an account, and the bets can be placed in seconds.

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Parlay bets, while generally a fool’s errand, have extra appeal to the novice bettor because they promise giant payoffs due to the multiplier effect of the odds for each individual game. Many a new gambler would have done just what Ridley reportedly did: Place a few bets, and then add some more bets to those same bets to goose the odds and increase the possible payout. Sportsbooks love those kinds of bettors, since they might as well be setting their money on fire.

That Ridley made those kinds of wagers is strong evidence that he’s not exactly running a sophisticated racket. (As would probably be the case with anyone placing three bets that included the Falcons to win.) These are precisely the types of bets that all the nascent gambling houses in North America are hoping to use to build their fortunes. And they are the same types of bets that all of the professional sports leagues have quickly shown themselves to be happy to encourage, provided they get a cut of the action.

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But it is weird that Ridley was dinged. Perhaps it is as simple as the football player using his own name on a gambling account, which for its first bets included only those involving the Atlanta Falcons. An algorithm might have flagged that right away. It could be that Ridley’s social-media explanation for his misdeeds from him, in which he said he did not have a gambling problem, understated the amount he wagered by a significant amount. If it was in fact three very large parlay bets that he made off the jump, most operators would have immediately investigated.

But he almost certainly could have avoided scrutiny by taking some simple steps.

Given the plethora of gambling options now available, a pro athlete interested in placing some bets could easily do so through an intermediary, or even a series of intermediaries so as to obscure the original source of the bets even further. The same is true of team staff, coaches, trainers, broadcasters, league officials, and any number of other interested parties who might want to gamble.

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As sports leagues embed themselves ever further with gambling operators and sponsors, it’s not just the doomsday scenario of a referee or player who attempts to fix games that threatens to blow up the whole operation by, as NFL commissioner Roger Goodell put it in his letter to Ridley, “putting the integrity of the game at risk, (and threatening) to damage public confidence in professional football.”

It’s the possibility that anyone who works in or around the leagues might come into knowledge that is not publicly known and then attempt to take advantage of that information before gambling lines are adjusted. Dozens of people within a given team would be privileged to, for example, the injury status of a star player long before that would be disclosed through the official channels. Many of those employees would make regular-person money, not the vast sums paid to professional athletes. Would they not be tempted to place a bet through a trusted friend?

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When that not long ago involved going to Las Vegas or Atlantic City, or using a grey-market operator, the next step to placing a wager took some doing. Now it’s as simple as using a phone, and looking up one of the many companies that advertise gambling products through the leagues themselves. It’s right there on the sign along the boards.

Which gets back around to the last non-surprising thing about the Ridley story: That Goodell dropped the hammer on him. A suspension of “at least” a year is of course huge, especially in a league that both has short careers and a history of one- or two-game suspensions even for actions that result in serious physical harm to others. But it’s the precedent of the thing, and the NFL boss did a huge favor for his counterparts in other sports by delivering a punishment, over what was in practice a small transgression — Ridley wasn’t even on the active roster of the Falcons when the bets in question were placed — that sends a signal that no gambling at all will be tolerated. The precedent is that anyone who works for the league in some capacity and wants to bet on games stands to lose their job, or awfully close to it, on a first offence.

How can the NFL and its fellow leagues take this position while at the same time embracing the new revenues that sports betting provides?

That’s another question entirely.

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