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As it embraces Las Vegas, NFL is awash in gambling contradictions

When NFL owners voted overwhelmingly last month to move the Raiders to Las Vegas, some of them went out of their way to say the city was no longer the corrupting influence they believed it once was and now very capable of supporting a franchise.

The Dallas Cowboys’ owner, Jerry Jones, a prime backer of the move, said the city most closely associated with gambling “is not your father’s Las Vegas.” Even the NFL’s commissioner, Roger Goodell, who continues to oppose legalized sports gambling, admitted that Las Vegas was “not the same city it was 10 or 20 years ago.”

Las Vegas has evolved enough for us to bless it with our presence, the league seemed to be saying.

But the decision to leave Oakland and embrace Las Vegas presents conflicts for a league that has long stood vehemently against gambling. A franchise will live in Sin City — a notion considered a nonstarter just five years ago — as a neighbor of the casinos and sports books that for so long were the enemy.

Goodell has said that the league’s policies are all about protecting the integrity of the game, but they amount to a hodgepodge of contradictions.

The league continues to fight legal efforts that would effectively let states other than Nevada and Delaware introduce sports gambling even as leagues like the NBA and the NHL, which have stood with the NFL in court, have softened their stance on the issue. The NFL also continues to penalize players and other league personnel who are paid to appear at casinos even as team owners collect millions of dollars from sponsorships with casinos, state lotteries and fantasy football providers, and play games in England, where sports betting is legal.

Just this month, for example, several players participated in an arm wrestling event at the MGM Hotel and Casino on the Vegas Strip, and the league is considering whether to fine them for those appearances.

“How can you have a franchise there and not allow players to participate in arm wrestling contests?” said Scott Rosner, who teaches sports law and business at the University of Pennsylvania. “When you get into the weeds, the policies may not be as inconsistent as they seem, but the optics are that the league is very inconsistent on this.”

The NFL, though, will remedy these contradictions, Rosner said. The Raiders will play in Oakland for at least two more seasons, giving the owners time to revisit their rules and bring them more in line with the reality that gambling has become far more ubiquitous than the days when gamblers had to place bets through a bookie or at a racetrack.

The NFL is often criticized for having a double standard on gambling, in part because the public seems to be more accepting of betting on games. A recent poll by researchers at Seton Hall University found that just 21 percent of respondents thought the NFL was tarnishing its reputation by putting a team in Las Vegas. While it is hard to imagine another American city prompting such a negative reaction, it is also a far smaller percentage than might have been the case even a decade ago.

In the immediate future, the league will tread more slowly because a lawsuit brought by Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey to allow casinos in his and other states to open sports books is still pending. The NFL and other leagues have argued for years that permitting sports gambling beyond Nevada and Delaware would harm them. When that case concludes, the NFL will be able to revisit its stance on gambling, said Daniel Wallach, a sports gambling lawyer at Becker & Poliakoff in Florida.

The league is not averse to sports gambling and recognizes that there is a lot of money to be made, he added. The key, he said, is for the league to manage the process by, for instance, lobbying Congress to introduce a national policy on sports wagering instead of facing variations in each state.

“They’re not fighting to stop sports betting, they’re fighting allowing states to come up with their own apparatus in their own ways,” Wallach said.

If anything, this is good business, and if there is anything the NFL has shown, it is good at making money. The league certainly recognizes that the growth of DirecTV’s NFL Sunday Ticket, which lets fans watch every game, and Verizon’s NFL RedZone, which shows every scoring play, has been driven by people who gamble on football. Fans who bet on NFL games watched more than twice as many games as nonbetting ones during the 2015 regular season, according to a study by Nielsen Sports financed by the American Gaming Association.

The question, then, is how the league continues to prevent the perception, real or otherwise, that games might be influenced by gamblers, while also adapting to a changing world in which casinos and gambling in general are becoming more pervasive.

“We have to make sure that we continue to stay focused on making sure that everyone has full confidence that what you see on the field is not influenced by any outside factors,” Goodell said last month. “We will not relent on that.”

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