NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell speaks at a news conference Wednesday,...

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell speaks at a news conference Wednesday, Feb. 9, 2022, in Inglewood, Calif. (AP Photo/Morry Gash) Credit: AP/Morry Gash

The NFL’s dalliance with legalized gambling is a lucrative yet tricky proposition, one that encourages fans to open up their wallets — and cellphone apps — to plunk down money on the outcome of games and individual performances yet prohibits any and all of its employees from doing anything that J.B. Smoove — aka Caesar — suggests in his commercials.

Calvin Ridley found out the hard way that the league will treat you very unkindly if you are caught violating its policy. The Falcons receiver, a former first-round pick who had been out since early November because of mental health issues, was suspended on Monday for the entire 2022 season — and perhaps longer — for gambling on NFL games. That includes games involving his own team.

The message is clear: Fans, give us your money, by all means, and bet on games and prop wagers and all the rest of it to your heart’s content. Players and league and team employees, don’t so much as look sideways at a casino or a betting app or you’ll be banished without pay.

"There is nothing more fundamental to the NFL’s success, and to the reputation of everyone associated with our league, than upholding the integrity of the game," NFL commissioner Roger Goodell wrote in his letter to Ridley announcing his suspension. "This is the responsibility of every player, coach, owner, game official, and anyone else employed in the league. Your actions put the integrity of the game at risk, threatened to damage public confidence in professional football, and potentially undermined the reputations of your fellow players throughout the NFL."

It wasn’t all that long ago when former Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo was forced to cancel a fantasy football convention in Las Vegas because of concerns raised by the NFL. But just three years later, in 2018, the Supreme Court overturned a federal law that disallowed states from legalized gambling on college and professional sports.

That opened the floodgates for the NFL, which saw an opportunity to bring hundreds of millions of additional revenues to the league. Partnerships formed quickly, and companies such as DraftKings, MGM Resorts and Caesars Entertainment joined football’s legalized gambling bonanza.

Today, the Saints’ home stadium is named after Caesars. And Smoove is joined in his highly entertaining commercials by the first family of football — the Mannings. Archie, Peyton, Eli and Cooper are now part of the show.

But Ridley ran afoul of the league’s gambling policy for employees and Goodell made a very public stand, not only to deliver the message to the Atlanta receiver but to every other player, coach and league employee.

"For decades, gambling on NFL games has been considered among the most significant violations of league policy warranting the most substantial sanction," Goodell told him.

Goodell has embraced the league’s newfound riches of legalized gambling, but the roots of his strict policy against players betting on games run deep. Pete Rozelle was one of Goodell’s biggest influences, and it was Rozelle who delivered an even more significant rebuke of players betting on games when he suspended two of the league’s biggest stars. Packers running back Paul Hornung and Lions defensive lineman Alex Karras were suspended for the 1963 season for betting on games.

It was a signature moment for Rozelle, who drew a line in the sand that remains today, even with the NFL’s public-facing embrace of gambling for anyone outside the league. And Rozelle’s punishment was understood by its targeted audience — the NFL community. It wasn’t until 1983 that he issued his only other suspension for gambling, when former Colts quarterback Art Schlichter, a compulsive gambler who has served prison time because of gambling-related issues, was suspended.

Cardinals defensive back Josh Shaw was suspended by Goodell for the 2020 season, making Ridley just the third player suspended since Rozelle punished Hornung and Karras.

Ridley had been the subject of trade speculation in recent months, but the Falcons, knowing the punishment that was about to be handed down after the league became aware of his gambling in November, rebuffed all inquiries.

Ridley wrote on his Twitter account Monday that he wagered $1,500 and does not have a gambling problem, but that didn’t matter to Goodell. With the integrity of his sport at issue, especially now that gambling among fans has exploded, Ridley became the latest cautionary tale.

Just as Hornung and Karras were more than half a century ago.

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