The National Football League has a gambling problem that is only going to get worse now that more states than ever have allowed sportsbooks to operate legally. Running back Nick Chubb of the Cleveland Browns and coach Kliff Kingsbury of the Arizona Cardinals drove that point home in Week 10 by taking points off the scoreboard.
Betting has always been big business
The NFL spent decades denying it, but the ability to wager on the outcome of its games has always been big business. Before Nevada legalized sports betting in 1949, gambling occurred under the radar, and organized crime had a substantial stake in bookmaking operations.
The NFL found itself in a dilemma. While not wanting to acknowledge the popularity of gambling, it felt obligated to be transparent so that fans – bettors or otherwise – never doubted the integrity of games. It’s why the league required teams to release weekly injury reports.
Over time, legalized gambling spread. New Jersey’s victory in a 2018 Supreme Court case opened the floodgates, and ESPN reported recently that 20 states permit legalized sports betting. Six more have recently passed bills that should open the door to it soon.
There’s real money on the line, too. Thanks to the NFL and college football being in full swing and MLB conducting its playoffs, New Jersey’s sportsbooks set a state record in October with $803 million in total wagers, NJBiz.com reported. New Jersey casinos and racetracks have netted $281.6 million from their sportsbooks through the first 10 months of the year.
Nick Chubb’s non-touchdown was gut-wrenching
Running back Nick Chubb would have and could have scored on a 60-yard touchdown run in the final minute of the Cleveland Browns’ 10-7 victory over the Houston Texans on Nov. 15, 2020, during NFL Week 10. Instead, he took a sharp left turn along the sideline and stepped out of bounds at the 1-yard-line.
In doing so, Chubb all but assured that the Browns could kneel out the clock without giving the Texans their million-to-1 shot at a victory. The touchdown would have made it a two-score margin for the Browns, but it would have also given Houston the possibility of a touchdown/onside kick/field goal finish to regulation.
Chubb was acting on instructions from the sideline when the play was signaled in. It had no effect on whether the Browns won, but the same could not be said for the fate of the bettors.
Gamblers who got money down early, when the Browns were 2 ½-point favorites, didn’t care. But the line climbed during the week because so much money was coming in on Cleveland. ESPN reported the line closed Sunday at 4 ½ points at most sportsbooks.
That made losers out of a lot of bettors. At William Hill sportsbooks nationally, 89% of the money on that game was bet on the Browns.
A similar problem in Arizona
In the most exciting finish to an NFL game so far this season, DeAndre Hopkins of the Arizona Cardinals outjumped three defenders in the end zone to make a touchdown catch with two seconds left that beat the Buffalo Bills, 32-30.
Rather than attempting to kick an extra point that could be blocked and returned for two points, Cardinals coach Kliff Kingsbury told quarterback Kyler Murray to take a knee on a half-hearted two-point conversion attempt. Because many sportsbooks had established the Cardinals as three-point favorites, the decision turned a “push” into a loss for bettors supporting the Cardinals.
The decisions made at the conclusion of victories by the Cardinals and the Cleveland Browns highlight a problem that will only grow worse for the NFL. Fans may feel heartache when their favorite team loses – hello, Buffalo Bills – but the pain that hurts more than those gut punches is a hit to the wallet.
NFL players and coaches cannot concern themselves with the effect that their decisions have on bets. However, the league and the teams will continue to feel the wrath of fans when smart moves cost them money. It will become worse every time another state legalizes sports betting.
Every “bad beat” is a public relations problem for the NFL that the league can’t address without making it look as though the point spread is ever even a consideration in decisions by players or coaches.
How to get help: In the U.S., contact the National Council on Problem Gambling helpline at 1-800-522-4700.