The NFL's complicated history with gambling, from Paul Hornung to Calvin Ridley

The one-year suspension Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Calvin Ridley received Monday for placing bets on NFL games is just the latest chapter in the league's long and sometimes-contentious relationship with gambling.

For much of its existence, the league purposely kept its distance from gambling interests in an effort to preserve the integrity of the game. Although gambling - legal and illegal - helped fuel massive interest in the sport, discussions of point spreads and odds were taboo on NFL pregame shows until only recently.

Here's a look at some important milestones in NFL history as they relate to the game on the field and the people who wager on those games off the field.

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All-Pros Paul Hornung, Alex Karras suspended

Hall of Fame running back/kicker Paul Hornung set an NFL record with the Green Bay Packers in 1960 by scoring 176 points. He was named the league's MVP the following season.

In 1963, the NFL showed how serious its anti-gambling stance was when then-commissioner Pete Rozelle suspended two major stars - Green Bay Packers halfback Paul Hornung and Detroit Lions defensive tackle Alex Karras - for the entire season for betting on NFL games and associating with "known hoodlums."

Rozelle said Hornung, the league MVP in 1961, bet as much as $500 on games from 1959-61, and that Karras made at least six bets of $50 to $100. Both players were reinstated for the 1964 season and both eventually were inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. 

"This sport has grown so quickly and gained so much of the approval of the American public that the only way it can be hurt is through gambling," Rozelle said at the time.

Art Schlichter's gambling addiction

In 1983, Rozelle suspended Baltimore Colts quarterback Art Schlichter, the No. 4 overall pick in the 1982 draft, for gambling.

Schlichter began to develop a gambling addiction while in college at Ohio State, and it only escalated once he joined the NFL. From January to March of 1983, he reportedly lost $389,000 to Baltimore-area bookies. 

Although his suspension was indefinite, Schlichter agreed to seek treatment for his addiction and was eventually reinstated after 13 months. However, his NFL career lasted only two more seasons as his gambling addiction continued to fester. While nearing the end of a nearly 11-year federal sentence for fraud in a ticket scheme, Schlichter's release was delayed when officials discovered he was gambling in prison

NFL changes course on gambling

In 2012, current NFL commissioner Roger Goodell was asked in a deposition challenging a proposed sports-betting law in New Jersey what the No. 1 threat to pro football's integrity was. He replied, according to ESPN: "Gambling would be No. 1 on my list."

However, the sports betting environment underwent a fundamental change in 2018 when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act (PASPA), clearing the way for individual states to allow sports betting. 

Before then, only licensed sports books in Nevada were able to accept legal bets on pro sports. 

While other professional sports moved quickly to establish business relationships with the newly legalized sports betting companies, the NFL waited nearly three years before striking a partnership with Caesars Entertainment, DraftKings and FanDuel to serve as the league's official sports betting partners. The deal was estimated to be worth nearly $1 billion over five years. 

The league expanded its stable of official sponsors last season, adding FOX Bet, BetMGM, PointsBet and WynnBET to its list of approved sportsbook operators.

Calvin Ridley's involvement

During the 2021 season, after Ridley decided to step away from the Falcons to "focus on my mental well-being," he placed three parlay bets from Florida through the state's only legal sports book. 

An NFL investigation determined Ridley made the bets during a five-day period in November. His one-year suspension was announced on Monday.

Ridley is the second NFL player to be suspended for gambling since Schlichter in 1983.  The league suspended Arizona Cardinals defensive back Josh Shaw in 2019 through the completion of the following season.

"There is nothing more fundamental to the NFL's success - and to the reputation of everyone associated with our league - than upholding the integrity of the game," Goodell said in a statement. "This is the responsibility of every player, coach, owner, game official, and anyone else employed in the league."