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Gambling ties sneak in back door of NFL



Replacement referee Craig Ochoa seen conducting a raffle in 2004. Credit:

The gap between the NFL and legal gambling activities has just become much narrower. It was from a side of the business that the league would least like to have associated with games of chance.

The NFL Referees Association has pointed out that replacement official Shannon Eastin, who will become the first woman to officiate in the NFL,  played in a high-stakes poker tournament in 2007.  While there is nothing illegal regarding such tournaments, her associating with the gambling community does give one pause.

Also, we have noticed that Craig Ochoa, the replacement referee from the Hall of Fame Game, has pictures of his involvement conducting a raffle in 2004 on the Internet. In a referee’s uniform! Again, nothing illegal, but this is an image the NFL has always sought to keep extraordinary distance from.

For years the NFL has worked hard to keep the officials away from the influences of gambling.  In author Richard Lister’s book, The Third Team, many current and former officials tell of the very strict rules they must follow to not even have a hint of an association with gambling.  NFL officials are not allowed to step foot into Las Vegas or Atlantic City during the NFL season.  In the off-season the officials must notify the league within 24 hours of having frequented a casino.  Officials are forbidden from betting on all team sports.  Each official is given a list of bars and other establishments in each NFL city where there is known gambling activity, legal or otherwise, and that official is forbidden from patronizing that establishment.  The NFL employs people to monitor those establishments during the season to make sure the officials comply with the rules.

The NFL has confirmed that the anti-gambling rules in place under the expired collective bargaining agreement apply to the replacement officials.

The NFL also subjects its officiating applicants to rigorous background checks.  Not only are an official’s finances laid bare, league investigators comb through an official’s neighborhood asking questions about the person’s habits and behavior.  Investigators frequent off-track betting facilities in the finalist’s home town, show a photo of the officiating applicant, and ask if that applicant frequents the facility.  Investigators even ask neighborhood convenience stores if the candidate buys lottery tickets.   The NFL security and background check process on its officials is one of the most extensive in any sport.

All of those strict rules regarding gambling makes the Shannon Eastin and Craig Ochoa situations so interesting at best and troubling at worst.  First of all, I must stress that Eastin and Ochoa didn’t do anything illegal.  I am not calling either official’s ethics or honesty into question.  We have no evidence to the contrary.  But, for the NFL to let Eastin officiate when she has associated with gamblers and gambling establishments, and Ochoa with regulated games of chance, in the recent past does give one pause.  Did the NFL conduct a background check?  Did they pass that background check?  Did the NFL, in its attempt to create positive replacement official publicity with the hiring of a female official, decide to ignore Eastin’s past?

This just doesn’t sit right with me.

Mark Schultz is a high school football official, freelance writer and journalist. He first became interested in officiating when he was six years old, was watching a NFL game with his father and asked the fateful question, "Dad, what are those guys in the striped shirts doing?"