Can NFL Refs Bet on Games?

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Any fan new to National Football League games has to be amazed at how much the referees control games and all the action. They seem to be everywhere on the field. Baseball long ago had a problem with gambling; but is the NFL concerned with gambling on games?

National Football League referees cannot bet on games. The NFL has very strict rules forbidding gambling of any form ~ including by those who officiate the contests.

In fact, until the Raiders moved there from Oakland in 2017, NFL referees were forbidden to even visit Las Vegas during the season. That is how seriously the league takes gambling ~ of any kind.

Official NFL Guidance for Referees and Gambling

The NFL’s guidelines document for gambling makes it clear that referees cannot bet on games: “NFL Personnel shall not throw or fix any NFL game or in any way influence its outcome, statistics, or score; or otherwise manipulate or attempt to manipulate any other aspect of any NFL game for a gambling-related purpose.”

Why Gambling is Forbidden in the NFL

The National Football League has always kept strict rules against players and personnel being involved with gambling, both for the league’s own games, and elsewhere in sports. That could point back to the NFL’s beginning in 1920 ~ the very same year baseball almost died due to a gambling scandal.

When the Cincinnati Reds beat the heavily favored Chicago White Sox in the 1919 World Series, suspicions arose. Part of it was due to a growing influence of gambling in baseball. But to throw a World Series? It seemed preposterous.

But indeed it happened, and the players went to court, but were exonerated from criminal charges. However, for 8 of the players on this squad (soon to be forever called the Black Sox), baseball itself laid down eternal punishment.

The 8 men were out: they could never play organized baseball again. And they didn’t.

On top of that, in an effort to gain back the public’s trust in the game, baseball’s owners agreed to hire an independent 3rd party to serve as the MLB’s first Commissioner. This happened to be a hard-nosed judge, who for at least a decade wielded considerable power when it came to even sniffs of gambling in the game.

The NFL was born and grew in this era of gambling concerns. And it wasn’t just baseball, which happened to be the most-popular sport in America at the time. Gambling allegations and investigations also were plaguing boxing, then the No. 2 sport in the land.

Referees Included in Anti-Gambling Rules

The NFL has always made the gambling rules directed at all “personnel,’ including coaches, and the game officials.

However, a modern incident involving an official in the National Basketball Association cemented these rules, and nudged the NFL to be more attentive to its referees and the gambling rules.

In 2007, the NBA discovered that longtime referee Tim Donaghy has been compromised by gamblers in the most significant way: through the officials judging games on every play.

The referee resigned in July 2007 after reports about an investigation by the Federal Bureau of Investigations regarding whether Donaghy bet on games that he officiated the previous 2 seasons.

It was alleged that he made calls that impacted the point spread in games, a significant matter for sports oddsmakers. Donaghy pleaded guilty to 2 federal charges, and was sentenced to 15 months in federal prison. It was an eye-opening reminder to all the major team sports that gambling interests still diddled around the edges of their operations.

The NFL historically has sought to protect its game officials from exposure to gambling interests, and avoid even the mere perception of meaningful contact with gamblers. Hence the Las Vegas rule, and other details like it.

While the NFL has never had allegations of gambling influence by referees, it should be noted that these game officials are not full-time employees, that they still must work a regular job. As an aside, NFL referees are not very young and therefore more vulnerable to outside influences.

NFL Football, Las Vegas, and Gambling Oversight

The Raiders moving to Las Vegas didn’t necessarily force the NFL to allow league personnel, especially the officials, from visiting Sin City.

Making the Raiders’ move more palatable was the fact that online gambling had grown so much by that point that geographic boundaries no longer existed. That helped pave the way for the Raiders’ move, and opinions of NFL leaders.

NFL Gambling Rules Trivia

The league has a gambling rules document that clearly outlines for players, referees, and club personnel exactly what constitutes gambling, what is forbidden, and what is allowed, with or without caveats. Highlights:

  • Gambling in the NFL consists of commercial gambling, whether it’s for profit, charity, or any other reason, if it involves 3rd parties like dealers or bookies.
  • The definition of gambling includes private wagers between teammates, family, and friends, or others!
  • Gambling consists of wagers made in person, remotely (by telephone or internet), or through 3rd party surrogates like bookies.
  • The NFL’s gambling policy prohibits anyone in the NFL from engaging in any type of gambling, in any club or league facility or venue, including practice facilities.
  • Allowed are prizes for players, referees, or staff in what are called “sponsored skills competitions,” like golf tournaments (provided there is no wagering on the final outcome).
  • In such instances, no money or items of value are to be wagered; and all proceeds from such events must be donated to legally recognized charities.
  • NFL players can play fantasy football, but they cannot win more than $250 per season of fantasy football.

Betting Incidents in the NFL

The NFL is vigilant and serious about any and all allegations of gambling, whether that means directly on their games, or on other sports.

In fact, in April 2023, the NFL suspended 5 players on allegations of violating the league’s gambling policies. Three of the players were suspended through the rest of the 2023 season for betting on NFL games the season prior; while the others were banned for 6 games each.

Related Questions

Question: Before they changed the rule letting referees into Las Vegas during the season, what if there was some kind of emergency?

Answer: Exceptions were for personal emergencies, or mandatory meetings for their regular jobs away from the NFL (which all the referees have, by the way). Rules now allow referees to visit Sin City in the off-season ~ as long as they inform the league office! (Even then, they cannot visit sportsbooks).

Q.: What about NFL referees and fantasy football?

A.: The league took care of that by wording the rules to apply to “NFL personnel.” So everyone employed by the NFL cannot accept prizes worth more than $250 in any season-long fantasy football game that awards winners. They cannot even participate in the brief or daily fantasy football contests for prizes.

Q.: Can NFL referees bet on other sports?

A.: No. “All NFL Personnel other than Players are further prohibited from placing, soliciting, or facilitating bets on any other professional (e.g., NBA, MLB, NHL, PGA, USTA,  MLS), college  (e.g., NCAA  basketball),  international  (e.g.,  World  Baseball  Classic, World Cup), or Olympic sports competition, tournament or event.” Notice that NFL players can still bet on other sports ~ just not while on NFL properties.

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