Opinion: Josh Shaw’s NFL Gambling Suspension Was Too Severe

Cornerback placed losing parlay bet with league's official gambling partner
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Josh Shaw can finally play in the NFL again.

Last week, the 29-year-old cornerback was reinstated following a suspension for the entirety of last season due to gambling activity in Las Vegas in late 2019. Shaw made a three-team parlay bet involving the Arizona Cardinals, the team that he was still signed to, on Nov. 10, 2019. Less than three weeks later he was suspended indefinitely by the league.

Shaw, who was on injured reserve at the time, lost the wager, but the fallout from placing it was a much larger financial hit. Was his penalty excessive? Here we’ll try to make that case.

The bet Shaw placed was in person at a Caesars property. Caesars, the official gambling partner of the NFL, was how the NFL found out. The casino operator told the league, as well as Nevada gaming regulators. According to ESPN, when signing up for a player rewards card at the casino, Shaw told Caesars that he played football for a living. The casino still took his bet. It appears that had Shaw not put his profession down on the player card registration he would not have been caught.

A dollar amount on the wager wasn’t made public.

In the suspension announcement, the NFL alleged that Shaw bet on NFL games “on multiple occasions” in 2019, but only the three-team parlay on Nov. 10 is known, and that information came through reporting citing unnamed sources.

Shaw, who was on a nearly $900,000 one-year contract with the Cardinals when suspended, was still a free agent as of Wednesday. It’s unclear if he’ll play in the NFL again.

First time in more than 35 years?

Shaw’s suspension wasn’t the first of its kind in the NFL, but it marked the first time since the early 1980s that a player had been banned from the league for any length of time due to gambling on the sport, as ESPN’s Adam Schefter pointed out.

That doesn’t mean Shaw was the first NFL player since Art Schlichter to bet on games. He was the first to get caught and punished for it. As we already mentioned, it appears Shaw would not have been caught had he omitted his job or put something else down on his player card registration. A player card isn’t an ID. It’s used primarily to track a patron’s gambling activity and send them promotional offers.

The timing of the suspension is notable. It came after the mid-2018 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that opened up sports betting outside of Nevada, which long had a single-game betting monopoly. Shaw’s suspension in 2019, the year that many states in the country legalized sports betting following the SCOTUS ruling, could be seen as a warning to other players. Had he made the same wagers in 2017 would we have heard about it? Who knows. His gambling activity and suspension also came ahead of the first season of the relocated Las Vegas Raiders, even more reason for the NFL to make an example out of him.

ESPN reported that the NFL sent a memo to all 32 teams reminding them of the gambling policy shortly before announcing Shaw’s suspension. Shaw reportedly stated that he thought the SCOTUS ruling made his wagering OK. Clearly the NFL was concerned others might think that, too.

The NFL hit him hard despite his cooperation and him indicating no nefarious intent with the wagering.

No evidence of corrupt activity

The NFL didn’t find that Shaw, who had been on injured reserve for months, had any insider knowledge that gave him an edge in the bet. He didn’t try to influence the outcome of the games in any way. The NFL said that none of his teammates or coaches were aware of his bet.

It’s also worth stressing that his bet was a parlay, so the fate of the wager didn’t just depend on the Cardinals game. His bet wasn’t one that a bettor would have had much of an expectation of winning. Parlay bets are typically more recreational than a single-game wager. Sportsbooks have a significantly higher winning percentage on parlays.

We have no other information about the alleged other wagers he placed, or if they actually happened.

Cost of the wager for Shaw

Shaw, a fourth-round draft pick to the Cincinnati Bengals in 2015, isn’t very highly paid by NFL standards, but still missed out on a lot of salary due to the suspension.

He’s earned more than $3 million in his NFL career, but it’s unclear how much longer he’ll play. The average length of an NFL career is short, and it’s under three years for cornerbacks. Shaw missed a year of work during what was probably the prime of his football playing career.

It’s unclear how much his gambling will ultimately cost him, but it could have been around $1 million. That’s a massive loss for an apparently innocent but still unwise parlay bet. It’s hard to make a case that such a financial penalty for this violation isn’t excessive, especially compared to other player misconduct.

The sports gambling world has been rapidly changing since the SCOTUS ruling, with the NFL’s own relationship with gambling becoming deeper as time goes on. Shaw could have been used as an example of what not to do in this new era with a much shorter suspension.

Photo by Mark J. Rebilas / USA Today Sports

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