Cameron Heyward, the veteran Pittsburgh Steelers defensive lineman, remembers that when he was selected in the first round of the 2011 N.F.L. draft, the most popular betting event was the N.C.A.A. Division I men’s basketball tournament, which attracts millions of casual fans in the United States through bracket pools among friends and co-workers.
The league had policies back then to restrict gambling among players and others in the sport, saying that it would risk damaging the integrity of the game. But, Heyward believed at the time, the guidance was less of a big deal because betting was not as widely available.
“I honestly never really saw it as the gambling policy related to football,” Heyward said last week in an interview at his team’s training camp. “But it’s really taken off, and you have to make sure you’re up-to-date on what you can and cannot do.”
The Supreme Court in 2018, seven years after Heyward was drafted, struck down a law that prohibited sports betting in most states. Since then, betting has quickly become intertwined with both the sport and the league as numerous states have begun allowing legal sports books.
The N.F.L. has direct sponsorship agreements with three sports betting companies, and it has increased the branding on game broadcasts and other programming. Television viewers are bombarded with ads from sports books, offering promotional incentives and pushing mobile apps. At least two teams — the Washington Commanders and the Arizona Cardinals — have sports books on their stadium grounds.
But the N.F.L.’s embrace of sports gambling is jarringly different from its heavy-handed discipline of its players who have broken the league’s rules against betting.
Since April, the league has suspended at least seven players indefinitely for betting on N.F.L. games, in violation of its gambling policy. Those players can apply for reinstatement after the 2023 season. It also suspended at least three players, including the second-year Detroit Lions receiver Jameson Williams, for betting on other sports at their team facility.
The league says the strict approach to players, coaches and staff who bet on games is needed to protect the sanctity of the sport — the fundamental proposition that the games contested for the entertainment of fans are real competitions without predetermined outcomes.
But that approach has also raised questions about fairness, the idea of integrity and the league’s policing of athletes who have grown up with smartphones and with fewer restrictions in their adult lives than even slightly older players like Heyward.
The aftermath has left coaches and players trying to prevent more suspensions and questioning the league’s effectiveness at relaying its policy and its consequences.
Coach Sean Payton of the Denver Broncos told USA Today that it was a “shame” to have players suspended for extended periods because the league had not communicated its policies well.
“When you have a bunch of players getting D’s, you have to start looking at the message,” Payton said after one of his players was suspended in July. “And we’ve had a lot of D’s in our league this year with this policy.”
Some players struggle to differentiate between the league’s prohibition for its employees and its wider institutional acceptance of the sports betting industry. Williams said he was “not aware” of the league’s gambling policy, even though it is detailed in the N.F.L.’s collective bargaining agreement and included in every player contract.
For decades, the N.F.L. shunned affiliations with gambling and lobbied against betting expansion in the United States. Since the Supreme Court struck down the law that prohibited legalized sports betting, teams have rushed to sign sponsorships with casinos and sports books and, in 2021, the N.F.L. formed partnerships with DraftKings, FanDuel and Caesars Entertainment, reportedly worth nearly $1 billion across five years.
After long avoiding Las Vegas because of its betting industry, the league allowed the Raiders to move to a new stadium there that has since hosted the Pro Bowl twice, as well as the 2022 N.F.L. draft. This February, the city will host the Super Bowl.
Across the United States, legal sports books are operating in 34 states and the District of Columbia, according to the American Gaming Association, the casino industry trade group.
Heyward said the rapid spread of sports gambling may have forced the league to take a more stern approach with players than perhaps was necessary.
“At this point, we’re more reactive than responsive, and that’s just the way the game is because we haven’t thought of everything,” he said. “And so reactive becomes more of a heavier punishment rather learning from it and seeing how we can grow.”
The average age of the 10 players suspended is just under 25, meaning that many were likely still in college when the Supreme Court issued its ruling. They grew up in a digital era in which betting became widely accessible and legal via technology.
“It’s very hard for anyone who has worked with people in that age range to explore that nuance, particularly given the number of changes a young player absorbs when coming into a pro sport,” said Bob Boland, a sports law professor at Seton Hall and the former athletics integrity officer at Penn State.
The recent suspensions bore similarities to an episode in 1963 in which Alex Karras and Paul Hornung — two of the biggest stars in the league at the time — were suspended for one year for betting on games.
“The precedent was set then,” said Steelers owner Art Rooney II, who approves of Commissioner Roger Goodell’s hard-line approach.
Karras and Hornung resumed their careers. But returning after a year out of the league is tough in ordinary circumstances. The younger players who have been recently suspended will also carry the stigma of having been suspended.
In the months since the off-season suspensions, both the league and the players have tried to prevent more bets from within the sport.
The N.F.L. required rookies to attend mandatory meetings on the gambling policy, and it sent officials to teams during off-season practices and training camps to further explain what players could and could not do. Joe Schoen, the Giants general manager, said in an interview that league personnel delivered a presentation about the gambling policy at the Giants facility during the first day of training camp. Though the Giants had no players suspended this off-season, he said he sympathized with those who might have violated the mandates. But, he said, they are now without any excuse.
“Maybe some guys just made some honest mistakes because they didn’t understand the rules, but the integrity of the game is so important to the league and everyone else,” Schoen said. “Everyone saw the same presentation, so now if they get in trouble or break the rules, that’s on them.”
Among the messengers leaguewide was Tom Brady, the recently retired star whom the league asked to film an anti-gambling educational video message for players.
Chris Lindstrom, a Falcons offensive lineman, said he would not download betting applications on his phone, and Steelers linebacker Alex Highsmith said he knew of players who had deleted the applications off their devices. Highsmith said he would have less sympathy if a player was found to have violated the policy in the future.
“For guys to do something at this point, after hearing all this, is just negligence,” Highsmith said.