While Vice President and General Counsel of the Green Bay Packers, I became aware of and was invited to join a fantasy football draft to be held immediately before the start of a National Football League (“NFL”) season. Similar to thousands of events being held around the country in that time frame, a group of Packers employees—primarily scouts, administrators and other front office executives—were to gather in a room (in this case the Packers’ War Room where we sat during the real Draft each year) and draft players for our fantasy “teams.” These players’ season-long individual performances would determine our success, or lack thereof, in the league standings. Millions of people around the country played fantasy football, and we at the Packers organization—football fans like everyone else—were set to join in the fun.
As general counsel of the organization, however, something about this didn’t feel right. Knowing the NFL’s mantra of “integrity of the game” and longstanding issues with gambling, our formation of a draft of NFL players, even in the name of fun amongst colleagues, raised my antennae as the team’s liaison with the NFL’s legal department. I queried my colleagues organizing the league about all the details, and they did ease concerns of mine regarding two important rules of this proposed league. First, the league was free: no money would exchange hands; the rewards were primarily trash-talking and bragging rights. And, perhaps more importantly, Packer players were off-limits to fantasy owners of this league; we could not draft our own players. While these facts lessened my anxiety level about the league, it was in my nature—and my job description—not
just to leave it at that. Much to my colleagues’ disappointment, I felt I had to bring this venture to the attention of the NFL to get sign-off. I reached out to my contact at the NFL on legal and business matters. I matter-of-factly explained the nature of the fantasy football draft that was about to take place, emphasizing the two features to preemptively address concerns: no money exchanged and no Packers drafted. When I finished explaining and implicitly asking for the league’s blessing and consent to allow this, there was a pregnant pause in the conversation. Finally, my contact said the following: “Andrew, we didn’t have this conversation.” When I started to follow up, he cut me off: “We didn’t have this conversation. How are your kids?” I got the message.
The NFL knew there were degrees of “soft” gambling that occurred regularly around the sport, from heavily-publicized betting lines to fantasy drafts held in every setting imaginable. However, it was clear from my conversation—or non-conversation—that the league did not want to give consent to it occurring amongst the teams. Sure, the fantasy draft and league we were about to implement was innocent and harmless. However, from the league’s standpoint, forever concerned with public trust and actions that could be perceived as antithetical to the integrity of the game, it was important that it maintain plausible deniability that they did not know. The Packers fantasy draft proceeded and continued throughout my time there. As we see the NFL and other sports leagues now embrace gambling, at varying degrees and levels, I always think back to that story.