Strange dance: Sports leagues and teams love legal gambling, except when their players are doing it.

Betting on games is just as taboo as it used to be for athletes, even as they’re surrounded by the glitz and glamor of betting parlors near their work space.

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Bulls and Blackhawks fans will be able to place bets at the FanDuel Sportsbook inside the United Center.

The FanDuel Sportsbook at the United Center is awaiting state licensing approval.

Photo courtesy of the United Center.

For decades, professional sports leagues wanted nothing to do with gambling. There was sin, there was mortal sin and then there was gambling. If athletes were anywhere in the vicinity of a wager, it would bring the integrity of the games they played into question. That was the thinking. The 1919 Black Sox scandal wasn’t just a cautionary tale. It was a horror story come true.

And now? Now that sports betting is legal in the United States, team owners are the first ones down the waterslide that leads to an ocean of money. At Wrigley Field, you’ll soon be able to wager to your heart’s desire, and to your heirs’ eternal regret, at DraftKings Sportsbook, which is adjacent to the ballpark. The FanDuel Lounge inside the United Center is likewise waiting for license approval from the state of Illinois. Wherever the Bears end up building their new stadium – Decatur? – fans surely will be able to plunk down some money at a sports betting facility there. A year ago, the White Sox named Caesars Sportsbook as their official sports betting partner, which was nice of them.

The Oakland A’s plan to move to gambling mecca Las Vegas, which used to be considered the capital of all evil. They’re joining the Raiders and the Golden Knights, who just won the Stanley Cup. It was a 1,000-to-one shot that the hip NBA would be the last to the Vegas hotel pool party, yet here the league is, on the outside looking inert.

What a strange dance this is. For the athletes, betting on games is just as taboo as it used to be, even as they’re surrounded by the glitz and glamor of betting parlors near their work space. The logic behind the ban on gambling on games is still sound: If a player loses a lot of money, he or she might be susceptible to throwing games for organized crime crews. You don’t want doubt served alongside excitement.

Abstaining from gambling on the sport you play isn’t asking a lot from athletes making millions of dollars a year. So let’s not feel sorry for them. But it’s easy to understand how they might get drawn into the world of sports gambling, given that everything around them promotes the enjoyment of placing a bet on a game. What used to be done surreptitiously through an illegal bookmaker is now done legally, especially online. Millions of Americans are doing it. Friends and family of players are doing it. Temptation, anyone?

In April, the NFL suspended five players for gambling — the Commanders’ Shaka Toney and the Lions’ Stanley Berryhill III, Jameson Williams, Quintez Cephus and C.J. Moore. Cephus, Moore and Toney were suspended at least a year for betting on NFL games, which violates league rules. Berryhill and Williams received six-game suspensions for betting on college football games inside the Lions’ practice facility. Gambling at any team property is prohibited.

The NFL is also investigating whether the Colts’ Isaiah Rodgers bet on his team’s games.

The owners are making big money off legal gambling, and fans at games can wager onsite. Players are asked not to touch the apple on the tree of knowledge while everyone else has their face in the fruit salad. It’s a very weird picture.

Jaguars wide receiver Calvin Ridley was suspended for the 2022 season for violating the NFL’s gambling policy while he was with the Falcons. There’s an obliviousness among players about betting, he said. That’s not surprising at all.

“I think, even for me, once I found out I was getting investigated, I didn’t even know [how serious it was],” Ridley said recently. “I was like, ‘OK, cool.’ I didn’t know how serious it was until I left that interview. It’s just schooling the guys on not to do it. It’s not worth it at all. I really think we don’t understand how serious it is. We kind of go over it, and then it’s gone. It’s a real serious offense. You don’t want to do it, mess with the integrity of the game and your job. Just stay away from it if you can.”

Two things can be true at the same time: Owners are ravenous to the point of hypocrisy when it comes to gambling money, and players can’t have anything to do with gambling for the good of the games they play.

Legal gambling is good for business. Athletes gambling on games is not good for business. The Black Sox scandal, in which eight White Sox players were accused of throwing the 1919 World Series, still casts a shadow over professional sports in this country. If fans can’t trust that the outcomes of games are legitimate, they might look elsewhere for entertainment.

That fear will never go away. Neither will the temptation.

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