CFL Player Suspended for Betting, as Wagering Woes Continue for Pro Sports

The CFL, NBA, and others have embraced legal sports betting as a way to boost interest in their games and add additional sources of revenue. Those partnerships stick out when controversies ensue. 

Apr 24, 2024 • 15:56 ET • 4 min read
Shawn Lemon CFL
Photo By - USA TODAY Sports

One of the more troubling trends in professional sports — athletes getting suspended for wagering on the games — has hit the Canadian Football League.

The CFL announced on Wednesday that recently retired defensive lineman Shawn Lemon was suspended indefinitely for betting on the league’s games, including one he played in. CFL players are banned from betting on the league’s games but can wager on other sports. 

An investigation found that Lemon wagered on CFL games in 2021 when he was playing for the Calgary Stampeders, according to the league.

“While the investigation uncovered clear and irrefutable evidence of Mr. Lemon’s participation, no evidence was found to indicate matches were in any way impacted by his wagering,” the league said. “In addition, no evidence was found to indicate that any Calgary coaches, teammates, nor team personnel were aware of his actions.”

The CFL did not specify how the problematic wagering activity was discovered, who Lemon was wagering with, or where exactly the betting occurred. CFL commissioner Randy Ambrosie did say in a statement that the three-down football league “will continue to work with our authorized gaming operators, partners and stakeholders to hold our game to the highest standard.”

One of the CFL’s authorized gaming operators for 2023 was Alberta Gaming, Liquor and Cannabis, which runs the only legal online gambling platform in the province that the Stampeders play in, Play Alberta. 

Even so, the news from the CFL comes amid a spike in athletes getting suspended for sports betting.

The recent discipline has included the ban the NBA handed down last week for former Toronto Raptor Jontay Porter, which was for betting on the league's games, among other things.

Suspensions like the ones levied against Porter and Lemon create awkward optics for leagues and may help fuel conspiracy theories among bettors and fans. The CFL, NBA, and others have embraced legal sports betting as a way to boost interest in their games and add additional sources of revenue. Those partnerships stick out when controversies ensue.

Moreover, while the regulation of sports wagering provides ways of catching bad behavior that unregulated wagering does not, betting scandals have caused at least one league, the NBA, to ponder possible changes. The negative publicity could ultimately prompt pushback from lawmakers and regulators as well. 

Made in Canada concerns

The Lemon suspension also has some Canada-specific considerations.

For example, the betting at issue took place in 2021, which is not only nearly three years ago, but also when Canadian lawmakers decriminalized single-game wagering after years of prohibition.

The CFL and Ambrosie were supporters of single-game betting, even testifying before a Parliamentary committee to express the need for its authorization.

“The integrity of our game is of the utmost importance,” Ambrosie said in Wednesday’s press release. “Any other factors – career performance, actions in the community, timing, frequency or size of wagers – hold no weight when the legitimacy of the CFL can be called into question. It is our responsibility as a league to investigate and address such abnormalities, and it is our collective duty, along with our teams and players, to ensure that sports wagering in no way impacts the quality nor standing of the CFL.” 

Tackling integrity issues

Lemon was a well-known player, a defensive stalwart who was an all-star in 2022. He played for 13 seasons in the CFL, racking up more than 100 sacks and winning the Grey Cup in 2023 with the Montreal Alouettes. He also only announced his retirement earlier this month.

Nevertheless, CFL players are paid substantially less than their NFL counterparts. The minimum salary for CFL players was reportedly $70,000 last year, while in the NFL it was $750,000. According to a recent white paper from the Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport (CCES) and McLaren Global Sport Solutions, the risk of match-fixing is higher for leagues in which athletes earn less money. 

The CFL does have a match-manipulation policy and an e-learning course for players offered in tandem with the CCES. Ambrosie also said last year that the CFL relies on partners such as data and technology company Genius Sports Ltd. to help the league spot any integrity concerns and enforce its match-fixing policy. 

“It all starts with basically an algorithm-based structure that evaluates bets and gambling based on patterns,” Ambrosie told the media. “So, they're able to scientifically identify areas of concern, areas where there looks to be anomalies, and those anomalies then are elevated and there's a human intervention to kind of look at the data to see whether there's something there. So we're really working with world-class experts in this space to really help to identify if and when there could potentially [be] a problem, and if there is, you investigate it more fully.”

The commissioner also told reporters during Grey Cup week that the CFL has a hotline team personnel can call to report any potential wrongdoing while remaining anonymous. 

“We feel like the system's working well, our experts are telling us that the system is working well,” Ambrosie said. “But you have to be forever vigilant on this front because that's a problem that we simply don't want to have.”

We need to talk

With all that said, subsequent comments from the CFL player union last year suggested they were still waiting for specific guidelines about punishments for violating the league’s match-fixing policy.

Instead, the CFLPA expected any gambling-related discipline would be on the spectrum outlined in the collective-bargaining agreement with the league. The union also sounded interested in speaking more in-depth with CFL management about its gambling policies in the offseason. 

“It's one thing to punish guys, but if they don’t know the do's and don'ts, we want to educate [them],” CFLPA president Solomon Elimimian said. “Like all our programs, we will be instrumental, we will be on the forefront to making sure that players get the right education, not just at training camp, but throughout the season.”

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