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Wanna bet? Once gambling-shy NFL plans move to Las Vegas

Therese Duenas counts money as she takes bets in the sports book at the South Point hotel and casino in Las Vegas in August 2015. (John Locher / Associated Press)
Therese Duenas counts money as she takes bets in the sports book at the South Point hotel and casino in Las Vegas in August 2015. (John Locher / Associated Press)
By Eddie Pells Associated Press

Once upon a time, the thought of gambling on a pro football game brought gasps of indignation from the NFL offices. And swift action if it was a player who actually placed a bet.

Paul Hornung and Alex Karras were suspended for the 1963 season for gambling on NFL games. When the league suspended Art Schlichter in 1983, then-commissioner Pete Rozelle said the quarterback would not be reinstated “until the league can be solidly assured that the serious violations of cardinal NFL rules he has committed will not be repeated.”

But slowly over the decades, the league has pulled back on how far it will go to enforce those “cardinal NFL rules.” And earlier this month, one of the last lines was crossed: The Raiders announced plans to move to Las Vegas, the epicenter of the action, where more than $130 million could be wagered on next weekend’s Super Bowl.

If the NFL approves the move, the Raiders’ new stadium could literally be walking distance from a few of the city’s dozens of sports books.

“We’re a gambling nation now,” said Orin Starn, a Duke professor who studies sports in society. “It used to be, 40 years ago, if you wanted to gamble or get a quick divorce, you had to go to Las Vegas. In the old days, it would’ve been crossing a red line for the NFL to bring a team to Las Vegas. I’m not sure that’s true anymore.”

The bottom-line explanation for this move speaks as much about priorities in Vegas as in the NFL: It’s about cold, hard cash. The new stadium will be funded by $750 million from the county, another $650 million from either billionaire Sheldon Adelson or another investor and the remaining $500 million from the Raiders and the league.

That amount of public money makes it a fantastic deal in the current economic climate for new stadiums. Given the more lucrative terms than either a move to Los Angeles or staying put in Oakland would present, the Raiders and the league are pressing forward. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell explained the league’s still-awkward do-si-do with gambling in an interview on Fox Sports Radio .

“We’ve seen the changes in the culture around the country in gambling,” Goodell said. “We’re obviously very sensitive to that, but we’re also going to evaluate the Raiders case on the relocation application in what’s in the overall best interests of the league. But one thing we can’t ever do is compromise on the game.”

And yet, there’s evidence that the league has been compromising for years. The NFL has long been America’s most popular sport to bet on.

Injury reports, which help set the point spreads that drive so much interest in the league, have been league-mandated for decades – an attempt to keep as much information in the hands of the public and not simply for backroom bettors and bookies who could use that information to their advantage.

Fantasy football, which the NFL has tacitly endorsed through sponsorship deals with individual teams and media groups that televise its games, is viewed in some legal circles as gambling. That thought has become more prevalent over the past 36 months with the influx of daily games, in which players put up money to assemble new teams every week. In some minds, it diminishes the skill-based portion of the game, and a handful of states are in litigation to ban daily games, claiming they violate anti-gambling statutes.

In 2003, the NFL was so sensitive about gambling that it refused to take a Super Bowl ad touting Las Vegas. The league eased up on that in 2009, although commercials that depicted gaming were still prohibited.

At the core of the ease-up is the growing sense that NFL players, with seven-figure salaries, have become far less susceptible to bribes from people trying to fix games, which is ultimately what the league fears.

“I think their shield is that they have enough confidence in player compliance to where Las Vegas is not a threat to the integrity of their game anymore,” said Billy Hawkins, who teaches a course in sports governance at University of Houston, not far from where this year’s Super Bowl will be played.

NBA commissioner Adam Silver has spoken to the realities of modern-day gambling – it happens across the globe, online and in person, not just at the betting windows in Las Vegas – saying “it should be legal, it should be regulated, it should be transparent.”

The NFL, at least by what it says, is not there quite yet.

But how it acts?

When the Raiders moving van backs into that new stadium in the shadow of the Strip, it will mark as sure a sign as ever that the league doesn’t view gambling as the threat it once was.

“The NFL and people broadcasting the NFL are recognizing that gambling is part of the game,” Starn said. “It’s also a little difficult for them to get on a high moral horse about Las Vegas when it’s so obvious that so much interest in the NFL is driven by gambling and fantasy football.”

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