Colts cornerback Isaiah Rodgers called his hundreds of bets, some of which involved the team he plays for, which were allegedly funneled through an account without his name on it to avoid detection, an “error in judgment.”
As we continue to wait for whatever lengthy punishment comes his way, he deserves credit for getting ahead of the storm and accepting it. While I’m not suggesting Rodgers has a gambling problem, I’m here to remind everyone that having a gambling addiction is recognized in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Unlike, say, the NFL’s policy against performance-enhancing drugs, its policy on gambling is always going to be a little less black and white, at least partly because some people have a harder time controlling their gambling habits than others. Rodgers knowingly went through a process of using a third-party account just to get his bets in, even after rising star receiver Calvin Ridley lost a full year of his prime for similar infractions. Rodgers will now be looped in with other players who will miss time in 2023 because of actions in ’22, after Ridley had been made an example of. Without all of the information the NFL will inevitably dump on some unsuspecting Friday afternoon, we should balance our scorn with some sympathy.
With that in mind, I’m still going to take issue with the phrase “error in judgment,” because I believe the stakes are a little bit higher in this particular scenario. Reportedly, Rodgers’s bets were mostly below $100, with several “low-four-figure” bets on the docket. But in this case, the machinations are irrelevant for most of us. It’s not our job to levy punishment.
The problem is what Rodgers’s case does for our own imaginations. The idea that a player could—and did—go through the trouble of using a secret account to place bets relating to his own football team raises the kind of conspiratorial questions that the NFL had always hoped to tamp down after it jumped in bed with a horde of sportsbooks. Sure, Ridley bet on his own team, but he was away from it at the time. Jets coach Miles Austin was busted for, among other things, playing casino table games online.
I don’t think this case crosses the actual Rubicon. It’s not NBA referee Tim Donaghy admitting to fixing playoff games. It’s not the Black Sox throwing the 1919 World Series. And Rodgers, regardless of whether he bet on the Colts or against them, had his best season as a professional last year. He missed only one tackle and allowed only 58.6% of the passes thrown his way to be completed. Also, given the meager sums that he placed on the games (relative to NFL paychecks), it’s hard to imagine any game-altering incidents were a result. If Rodgers was allowing completions to secure the final leg of a $30 parlay, his problems are far bigger than how long he’ll have to sit out.
But—BUT—Rodgers’s infractions are not outside of that shadowy realm altogether because of the implications. Because of what we might think is still out there. In the coming weeks, Rodgers will have every one of his targets analyzed. That suspicion, even if unfounded, is simply with us now. Choose your metaphor: The genie is out of the bottle, Pandora has left the box, that Raiders fan with the egg avatar in your timeline who retweets conspiracy videos may not have been wrong about that one fumble at the end of that one game.
I’ve long thought that almost nothing could break the NFL’s stranglehold on our country’s collective consciousness. The league is too entertaining; its rituals have become synonymous with our patterns of gathering, relating to other people and our concept of entertainment. But if football begins to go the way of professional boxing, where almost nothing happens without the suspicion of some failed or cheated drug test, some plaster inside the glove or some tomato can taking the fall for an under-the-table payment, that could change the landscape quickly.
We are already hearing more about an increased effort to educate and inform (TOM BRADY!), though part of me thinks it’s ridiculous. It’s hypocritical for the NFL to try to legislate something that can be addictive. Does the league plan on testing players for Coors Light, too? It’s also ridiculous to assume that any more finger-wagging is going to stop the players who want to gamble anyway. The NFL has a drug-testing policy that warns players weeks in advance, and players still fail.
Again, Rodgers’s reported behavior alone is not enough to break this into a full-blown crisis. But, optically, we’re absolutely circling the drain. A player placed bets on his own team, in games that he actually suited up to play. The door has now been opened to question that fumble, that dropped pass, that poorly run route, that interception. Irresponsible social media users were already sharing damning clips from one of Rodgers’s teammates Monday, before we knew the identity of the player in question, sleuthing for nefarious clues as if it were a 2017 Astros home run. Certainly, the NFL deserves this for inviting gambling into its everyday life. But I doubt it has a strategy to stop us from thinking the absolute worst-case scenario is out there somewhere. MLB recovered from the Black Sox scandal. The NBA recovered from Donaghy. The NFL already recovered from Paul Hornung, who was suspended for wagering in 1963. It will go on, but it won’t be the same again. Not when potential evidence, and the ability to place a bet, are right at our fingertips.