Goodell, NFL might be warming up to gambling

Showered with boos on a rain-soaked weekend in Chicago, Roger Goodell told the draft crowd to “bring it on” in a rare show of his sense of humor. The NFL commissioner knows he’s unpopular, and he’s embracing the hate.

Maybe someday Goodell will be forced to embrace Las Vegas, a gambling mecca that he always has viewed with an evil eye.

The story of the Raiders and owner Mark Davis’ commitment to Las Vegas — and impending breakup with Oakland — is not going away anytime soon, no matter how badly Goodell wants it to go away. He will be forced to answer some uncomfortable questions, and that’s a good thing.

The first real sign of Goodell softening his anti-gambling stance and possibly warming up to Las Vegas was evident last week, when he was grilled again about the Raiders’ potential move to a proposed $1.4 billion stadium on the Strip. This time, his answer changed.

“All of us have evolved a little on gambling,” Goodell said. “To me, where I cross the line is anything that can impact the integrity of the game. If people think it is something that can influence the outcome of a game, we are absolutely opposed to that.”

The first part of his statement indicates an overdue breakthrough. Goodell’s opinion of legal sports betting is outdated, and the league’s relationship with gambling is hypocritical, and maybe he’s finally ready to admit it and open his mind.

The NFL has scheduled three regular-season games in London and one in Mexico City, where the Raiders will play the Houston Texans, in 2016. And sports books will be doing business in both cities. How is that for hypocrisy?

Just as relevant is the NFL’s relationship and profitable business partnership with daily fantasy sports, an industry that exists amid legal ambiguity yet is definitely a form of gambling.

The second part of Goodell’s statement hints at an absurd, archaic belief that gambling rats could be running around Las Vegas trying to influence professional players to fix games. In another era, say the 1970s, that paranoia might have been justified.

There is no reason for the NFL to fear and loathe Las Vegas now. The NHL is prepared to put an expansion franchise here, and NBA commissioner Adam Silver has stepped forward as an outspoken proponent of the values of fan involvement in legal, regulated wagering and fantasy sports.

Silver evolved on the gambling issue a long time ago, and the NFL’s chief caveman seems to be catching on, if only gradually.

But it’s not just Goodell who needs gambling education. If the Raiders file for relocation from Oakland to Las Vegas, 24 of 32 team owners would need to approve the move, and several of those owners are old-timers who hate changes.

“There is still going to be some resistance, and that comes from people who don’t know 98 percent of what is wagered in this country is wagered outside of Nevada,” Westgate Las Vegas sports book director Jay Kornegay said.

Davis appeared sincere Thursday, when he attended a Southern Nevada Tourism Infrastructure Committee meeting and pledged a $500 million contribution from the Raiders toward the stadium project.

“I was skeptical at first. That press conference changed my mind,” said Kornegay, adding the reaction to the Raiders’ interest in Las Vegas has “shed some light that the climate is changing” within the NFL.

“It used to be, when we talked about a pro team coming to Las Vegas, gambling was the No. 1 issue,” Kornegay said. “Now it’s on the backburner.”

Las Vegas is a world-class city with almost everything but a state-of-the-art stadium. The benefits of a stadium for an NFL franchise and other big events are undeniable. The financing plan needs more scrutiny. But it should get built, and if it does, there’s not much that could stop the Raiders from coming.

Owners should realize Las Vegas will create more appeal and generate more revenue for the NFL than Oakland, and the league wants the second spot in Los Angeles to remain open as leverage for stadium negotiations in other cities. The league needs the Chargers to stay in San Diego, and the league will be better off if the Raiders are in Las Vegas.

The gambling hurdle can be cleared. In 2001, the Nevada Gaming Commission lifted a long-standing betting ban on the state’s college teams. Sports books started accepting bets on UNLV and UNR basketball and football to help exhibit the integrity of regulated wagering, and in the past 15 years, Kornegay said, there have been “no issues.”

American Gaming Association president Geoff Freeman reacted to Goodell’s comments by saying, “Nothing threatens the integrity of sports more than a thriving and opaque sports betting black market where the bettors and those taking the bets hide in the shadows.”

Still, expect some resistance from a commissioner who bristles when his authority is challenged. After all, for more than a year, the NFL has waged a clumsy Deflate-gate battle with the New England Patriots while attempting to tear down and suspend quarterback Tom Brady, the league’s brightest star.

So, if Goodell wants to pick a fight over gambling, bring it on. The arguments for the Las Vegas Raiders are strong.

The Review-Journal is owned by the family of Las Vegas Sands Chairman and CEO Sheldon Adelson. Las Vegas Sands is a partner in the stadium project that could bring the Raiders to Las Vegas.

Las Vegas Review-Journal sports betting columnist Matt Youmans can be reached at myoumans@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2907. He co-hosts “The Las Vegas Sportsline” weekdays at 2 p.m. on ESPN Radio (1100 AM). Follow on Twitter: @mattyoumans247

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