Oh Come On Roger, Let it Go!

Roger Goodell insulted all of us who work in or are associated with the casino gaming industry, and I am pissed. The week before the Super Bowl is a busy time for sports media; reporters gather en masse resulting in an endless series of interviews with players, coaches and of course NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell.  Goodell is the face and voice of the league, so his pronouncements are closely followed.  In a press conference on February 1st, he reiterated that casino guys are persona non grata.  It is not a new thought, but part of the league’s formal policy.  But this time, it had a very particular meaning; Sheldon Adelson is not welcome in the NFL.  It came as somewhat of a surprise because, for the past year, Sheldon Adelson, Mark Davis, Las Vegas and the State of Nevada have been discussing a new stadium in Las Vegas for the Oakland Raiders.

The discussions started at the end of the 2015 regular season when the Raiders filed to relocate to Los Angeles.  The discussions took on a Vegas note in January 2016 when Adelson proposed building a stadium in Las Vegas.  As originally proposed, Adelson would guarantee approximately a third of the funding, the City of Las Vegas, through a room tax, would provide another third and Davis would step up with the final third.  Stadiums that use any public money are always contentious, but this became more so due to its association with Sheldon Adelson.  He is a billionaire and a Republican Party power broker.  Either is enough to make him a lightning rod for controversy.  However, in this case there was an additional element that made Adelson’s participation an issue.

In December 2015, Adelson purchased the Las Vegas Review-Journal for an astounding $140 million.  The purchase caused a major upheaval in journalism, not just in Las Vegas, but nationally.   Not only had Adelson overpaid for the newspaper, he had tried to keep his role secret. His motivation was subject to much speculation, none of it complimentary to Adelson.  So when the Raiders and the new stadium came up, Sheldon Adelson was not a popular and trusted guy with the press.

Still, the deal moved along; the Nevada legislature passed a room tax bill that would fund a major expansion of the convention center and a new football stadium.  Davis and his Raiders seemed bent on moving to Las Vegas and uninterested in staying in Oakland or moving to San Diego.  Davis voiced no opposition to coming up with his part of the financing; the room tax was in place and Sheldon stood by with an open checkbook.  There was only one remaining piece, the NFL’s approval.  But then things unraveled quickly.  Adelson was offended for not being included in some of the Raider’s plans and withdrew his financing offer. At the same time, the backup financing Goldman Sachs had promised also evaporated.  And that brings me back to Roger the Dodger.

All through the process, Goodell had played it very close to the vest.  He never said he would oppose a move to Las Vegas or the way the stadium was to be funded until the deal started to unravel.  But on the biggest stage in sports, the Super Bowl, he said the deal could not happen as conceived.  Now, he did not say those exact words, I am paraphrasing; but he did say something just as clear.

“That is not something that’s consistent with our policies,’’ Goodell said during his televised State of the League address and news conference leading to Super Bowl LI. “Not likely a stadium (ownership role), either.’’

The move to Las Vegas and the new stadium could not happen because of Sheldon Adelson. He could not be part of the Raiders’ ownership or even the stadium.  It is not personal with Roger; the league has a rule against Sheldon and others like him.  The National Football League’s policy manual has long stated that “no owner of an interest in a NFL club may own, directly or indirectly, any interest in any gambling casino.”  In other words, no person tainted with the sin of casino gambling can have a place in that league!  No ambiguity in that.  However, it is okay to own a racetrack with slot machines or be involved in other forms of gambling, but not a casino.  In fact two of the league’s most important franchises were founded by gamblers – the New York Giants by a bookmaker and the Pittsburgh Steelers by a track owner.  Casino tycoons can own baseball teams, basketball teams, but not football.

The league maintains casinos have sports books and they would be tempted to do nefarious things to win a bet.  Of course, only casinos in Nevada have books and those books are highly regulated by the Nevada Gaming Control Board. This is not the first time the league dug in its heels over the issue.  In 1998, Edward P. Roski Jr. bid on an expansion team for Los Angeles. Roski wanted the team to play in his refurbished Los Angeles Coliseum.  But Roski owned the Silverton casino in Las Vegas and thus was in violation of the league’s rule.

So, why does the NFL- and it is the only league that does – insist on barring one class of businesses and no other? In my opinion, it is because it does and changing that stance is not easy.  Would the other league owners refuse to accept a casino owner into their mix?  I don’t believe they would object. Quite the opposite, I think they would be very accepting. The major stumbling block to a change in policy is not “the league” – it is Roger Goodell. He has said the same thing so many times that in my opinion he can’t change his tune.  It might take a new commissioner to usher in a new policy and a new era.  That is what it took in the 1940’s in baseball.

In that era, Bing Crosby wanted to buy into a baseball team, but was prevented by the league’s commissioner, Kenesaw Mountain Landis.  Bing was one of the most famous men of the time and he was rich.  He loved baseball and wanted to buy into the Pittsburgh Pirates; the commissioner stopped him because “Old White Christmas” owned race horses and had an interest in a racetrack.  When Landis died in 1944, Bing was free to become part of the Pirates and major league baseball.  One can almost understand the “no gamblers” policy in the 1940s.  Gambling and gamblers have a checkered history and in the time immediately after World War II it was very much in the national spotlight as a source of crime and corruption.

Gambling was prohibited by law in the United States for most of the 20th century; but beginning with state lotteries in the 1960s, casinos in New Jersey in 1978 and finally when the flood gates really opened in 1988 with the National Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, casino gambling has become common place.  In the 21st century that expansion has accelerated; the latest casino opened on the very doorsteps of the nation’s capital at National Harbor, Maryland.  Roger Goodell is not old and he has only been in the job for ten years, so why does he hold on to 20th century morality?  I don’t know, but I know this: his stance is insulting to all of the millions of people who work in the gaming industry in this country.  Out of all of the businesses in the world, only ours is judged to be so tainted with sin and corruption that we are unfit for the society of more honest people.  The casino industry does have its problems and issues, but so does every industry and we have made a great deal of progress in addressing those issues in recent years.  There is still much to be done, especially in protecting people with an addiction.  But that alone does render us impure.  The NFL’s position on casinos is insulting to everyone involved in casino gaming, but it is also insulting to gaming regulation.  It implies that regulations and regulators do not prevent illegal or unsavory practices.

It is too much to expect an apology from Roger Goodell.  But it is not too much to expect the NFL to move into the 21st century and drop that outdated, unfair and insulting rule from its policy manual.


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