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Arm-Wrestling Competition Tests NFL Gambling Policy

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USA TODAY

 

Nearly three dozen NFL players were in Las Vegas last weekend for a competition that classically captures the macho spirit of football: arm wrestling.

Dubbed the inaugural "Pro Football Arm Wrestling Championship" -- with heavyweight and light heavyweight crowns -- it's a made-for-TV deal, to air on CBS over two weekends this spring.

But arm wrestlers beware. Roger Goodell and Co. lurk for a strong-arm takedown.

That the event was staged at MGM Grand Hotel and Casino has captured the attention of the suits at NFL headquarters on Park Avenue. The NFL's gambling policy prohibits players from appearing at casinos as part of promotional events.

According to the NFL, players participating in this specific event -- without preapproval -- are in violation of the gambling policy and subject to discipline.

"Had we been asked in advance if this was acceptable, we would have indicated that it was in direct violation of the gambling policy," Joe Lockhart, NFL executive VP for communications and public affairs, told USA TODAY Sports. "No one sought preapproval."

Uh-oh.

With discipline perhaps coming in the form of a fine, the stage might be set for another skirmish between flamboyant Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker James Harrison and his friends in New York.

Harrison, a vocal critic of Goodell who has had a series of differences with the NFL over a range of issues, coached one of the teams in the event. His counterpart was Marshawn Lynch, the free-spirited running back who received permission from the Seattle Seahawks last week to visit the Oakland Raiders as he contemplates coming out of retirement.

Other notable participants: Miami Dolphins receiver Kenny Stills, San Francisco 49ers linebacker NaVorro Bowman, Steelers center Maurkice Pouncey, Raiders punter Marquette King and defensive end Mario Edwards and New England Patriots safety Patrick Chung.

And what event at a casino would be complete without the presence of a guy nicknamed "Lucky," as in Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Lucky Whitehead.

"This is great exposure for all involved," said Alan Brickman, co-owner of the California-based company, Encinal Entertainment, that put on the show.

Besides funneling half of the $100,000 first-place prize money to charity, with the Give Back Foundation charged to support foundations in the players' names, Brickman sells the TV package as a chance "to get to know the players behind the scenes."

Brickman disputes the contention that preapproval wasn't sought from the NFL. He told USA TODAY Sports that, beginning in January, he engaged with two different departments within the league and tried to strike a deal to include the NFL as a partner with the event.

Obviously, the NFL didn't sign up. Yet Brickman maintains that, during communication with the league, guidelines were suggested that included showing no images during the broadcast of any gambling-related activities or any alcohol. He said the power was turned off on gambling machines in the vicinity of the events being taped.

"With a team coming here, I'm sure they're branding it as a family destination," Brickman said from Las Vegas.

In the big picture, the arm wrestling event is a fresh test of the NFL's gambling policy.

Remember, two years ago the league essentially shut down a fantasy football convention that was connected to then-Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo, warning players of fines and/or suspensions if they participated in the event in Las Vegas that wasn't even to be held at a casino -- although it was to be staged at a venue owned by a casino, Sands.

It would have been consistent with the Romo case for the NFL to try to squash the arm wrestling, too. But apparently, there was some communication breakdown as league officials insist they were unaware of the event until the middle of last week.

As it stands now, even with the Oakland Raiders formally approved last month for a move to Las Vegas in 2020, the NFL is hardly relaxing a gambling policy that prohibits association with casinos or other gambling establishments.

"We did not change any of our gambling policies in the context of the Raiders relocation," Goodell said in late March at the NFL owners meetings in Phoenix.

The NFL has a long history of opposing gambling, particularly sports books, which is why any association with casinos is frowned upon. Yet there's seemingly a much grayer area in play with the Raiders headed to Vegas.

A few years ago, the NFL would have never dreamed of putting franchise in the gambling capital of the USA.

But times change, and the Raiders' move is fueled by the type of cash that always gets the NFL's attention: $750 million in public funds to build a stadium.

Related: NFL Owners Approve Raiders' Relocation to Las Vegas

As the Raiders situation progressed, several NFL owners told me they were not concerned about gambling influences.

Las Vegas, though, is gambling on steroids, so to speak. Moving into a market where gambling is the major industry could force the NFL to constantly re-establish its resolve against such a backdrop. As Goodell acknowledged, "That is a major risk for us. We have to make sure that we continue to stay focused on making sure that everyone has full confidence that what you see on the field is not influenced by any outside factors. That goes to what I consider the integrity of the game. We will not relent on that."

With the NFL planting a flag in Vegas, there will surely be more events at casinos and related properties looking to connect with the NFL. For example, shortly after the Raiders move was approved, a Nevada brothel owner revealed a plan to open a Raiders-themed brothel. That prompted a question to Goodell about whether special policies will be needed for the Raiders. He seemed to have an open mind. Sort of.

"We have policies in place now," he said. "If we think something specific needs to be done in Las Vegas or any changes to our policy, we obviously retain the right to do that."

In other words, what happens in Vegas doesn't necessarily stay in Vegas. It resonates on Park Avenue, too.

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April 11, 2017
 
 
 

 

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