For years, the NFL has been concerned about a federal agency on gambling

NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle
Getty Images

With legalized sports betting spreading throughout the country, the NFL faces the very real risk of the eventual development of a governmental entity charged with protecting the integrity of the wagers made by the American people. As it turns out, the NFL has had the possibility of a federal agency on its radar screen for decades.

A reader recently passed along a link to the debut of Frontline. First broadcast by PBS on January 17, 1983, the episode delves into the NFL’s ties to gambling.

Jessica Savitch narrates the piece, which includes an interview with Commissioner Pete Rozelle, who is repeatedly accused during the segment of looking the other way regarding ties between owners and gamblers.

Consider this exchange between Savitch and Rozelle, which was preceded by comments pointing out that the Commissioner ultimately serves at the will and pleasure of the owners.

“Do you ever feel there’s a conflict of interest?” Savitch asks.

“Not as long as you have a long-term contract,” Rozelle replies, deflecting the question with a smirk.

Savitch continues: “Are you confident as the NFL is currently constructed you could investigate owners thoroughly with regard to association with gamblers?”

“Oh, absolutely.”

“Do you have the power to tell an owner to divest himself of a questionable property the same way you would a player?”

“I don’t have the power to force either to, necessarily,” Rozelle says. “But in extreme circumstances, I could test that power. It would probably mean a court case.”

“Do you think it might be necessary at this time to get some outside help with regard to policing the game and gambling?”

“Oh, I think it would be very difficult to, say, have a federal agency, which is what I assume you’re suggesting, get involved in sports,” Rozelle says. “Because it wouldn’t just be the NFL, it would be basketball or hockey, baseball. And I think that we just have to enforce these things ourselves. And I don’t see a government agency could really help.”

Of course that’s what he’d say, because a federal agency wouldn’t look the other way when evidence emerges of potential problems and irregularities. The Frontline investigation chronicles several issues that the league apparently didn’t pursue or punish.

For example, Savitch interviews John Piazza, who claims that he helped fix four NFL games per year, in 1968, 1969, and 1970.

“We had the coach and we had the quarterback, who’s the offensive captain,” Piazza explains. “And we had the defensive captain. . . . With the quarterback, if he knew the perimeters of the scores that we wanted to hold, maybe he was down close to scoring a touchdown, but a touchdown would have put it out of the reach of where we wanted to go. So he’d throw a bad pass or throw it out of bounds, and only kick a field goal. So he had control of where the points would fall.”

Piazza, who was imprisoned at the time of the interview, addresses the importance of having the coach on board with the scheme.

“The coach, if you’ve got a quarterback that’s supposed to be a very good quarterback who has an extremely high percentage of completions and then all of a sudden today he’s throwing them in the ground and throwing them in the seats and throwing them in a lot of different places, you don’t want the crowd to start yelling at the coach and the coach to pull the player out when we need him to protect our investment,” Piazza said.

The on-air remarks from Piazza seem hard to believe, and the cheesy disguise he’s wearing makes it harder to accept his word at face value. But Savitch claims that Piazza passed a polygraph test administered by PBS.

There’s plenty more in the Frontline episode, which focuses on the question of whether connections with gambling can lead to a problematic perception.

“Our biggest problem is suspicion,” Rozelle says.

Here’s a quick list of the specific topics covered in the episode regarding the problem of suspicion.

1. The 1946 NFL Championship featured concerns that gamblers tried to bribe two Giants players. The Giants players failed to report the bribes. “Officially,” Savitch says, “this is the only attempt to fix a game to which the NFL admits.”

2. An NFL game was allegedly fixed in 1951, thanks to the involvement of a referee. “There’s a lot of ways — you know, that — there’s a penalty. An offside penalty,” Jimmy “The Weasel” Frattiano explains. “In them days, they didn’t have this television replay. You know, they could get away with a lot of stuff.”

3. Alex Karras and Paul Hornung were suspended for gambling in the 1960s, but Savitch says Rozelle did nothing when Hornung was later seen with an illegal bookie.

4. In 1970, a Detroit grand jury explored the connections between four quarterbacks, two college coaches, and bookie Dice Dawson. The NFL allowed the Colts to hire Frank Kush as head coach in 1982, despite evidence of many past conversations between Kush and Dawson. Joe Namath, per the PBS report, had been linked to the Detroit grand jury.

5. In 1978, police discovered two NFL players during the raid of the home of bookie named Bernie Fuqua: Washington safety Jake Scott and Bills offensive lineman Craig Hertwig. Rozelle downplayed the situation by explaining that players were at the end of their careers, and that they did not play in any additional regular-season games after Fuqua’s arrest.

6. The Raiders told the NFL 15 times that quarterback Ken Stabler had been seen with convicted bookmaker Nick Dudich. The NFL, per the PBS report, did nothing. Stalber eventually sued NBC and the New York Times regarding their stories about Stabler’s ties to Dudich.

7. Former Colts and Rams owner Carroll Rosenbloom had a long history of gambling connections. He invested in a Cuban casino in the late 1950s. He allegedly bet against the Colts while he owned them. Per the PBS report, Rosenbloom was accused of fixing games by leaving key Colts players at home. Rosenbloom allegedly used a bag man to carry the cash for his bets in and out of Las Vegas. The bag man ended up dead in the trunk of a car two months after Rosenbloom’s death. He drowned while swimming in the ocean. The PBS episode delves into the question of whether someone killed Rosenbloom, an avid swimmer. As the story in mob circles goes (per the PBS report), someone in a wetsuit grabbed Rosenbloom and held him under the water until he was dead. A French Canadian man who tried to help Rosenbloom explains through an interpreter that he heard Rosenbloom calling for help, and that while moving to assist Rosenbloom, he saw a black object going in the opposite direction of the waves. Then, two men appeared, retrieved Rosenbloom’s body, carried him to the shore, put the body down, and left.

8. The legal battle between the NFL and the Raiders arising from the move to L.A. generated evidence about the business associations of Al Davis, who allegedly had ties to casino owner Alan Glick. FBI wiretaps showed that Glick was a front man for the mob. Glick conducted several real-estate deals with Al Davis. (A partner in one of these transactions, who believed she had been swindled and threatened to go to the FBI, ended up shot four times by a silenced .22-caliber pistol.) Pete Rozelle had criticized the connection between Davis and Glick, but Davis didn’t sever ties with Glick, who at one point allegedly gave Davis a 25-percent stake in a $25 million shopping center for only $5,000. Davis testified in the lawsuit that 15 NFL players did business with Glick, including John Hadl and receiver Lance Alworth. Davis claimed that Don Shula also did business with Glick, before learning about Glick’s gambling ties and severing the connection. Davis also testified that several unnamed owners had formed limited partnerships with Glick.

9. Major League Baseball had rejected Edward DeBartolo, Sr. as an owner due to his gambling interests. Al Davis received a $100,000 finder’s fee for helping DeBartolo purchase the 49ers.

10. Former Chargers owner Eugene Klein owned and was registered at a 21-room private hotel where mobster Meyer Lansky allegedly held an “underworld conference.”

11. Former Cowboys owner Clint Murchison had ties to multiple underworld figures, per the PBS report, including the reputed boss of the New Orleans mob.

Thirty-eight years after the Frontline report, the NFL continues to provide the foundation for illegal (and increasingly legal) gambling in America. In past years, it was easier for Congress to overlook the potential corruption of the game by gambling interests, since most of the people betting on football were technically breaking the law. As sports betting becomes legitimate, it will become harder and harder for the NFL to look the other way whenever questionable associations arise.

It also will become harder and harder to spot the questionable associations, given that so much of the business between the NFL and gambling interests will be happening permissibly and in broad daylight. It’s the things that happen discreetly and behind the scenes that will require extra concern and vigilance by the NFL. Otherwise, the federal agency that Pete Rozelle didn’t deem necessary in 1983 may become imperative.

34 responses to “For years, the NFL has been concerned about a federal agency on gambling

  1. “Our biggest problem is suspicion,” Rozelle says.
    ~~~~~~~~~~~
    That’s funny. Today, suspicion is still the biggest problem in this area, but, it lies with the officials on the field and the league office and their absurd and often hypocritical replay escapades and not with players or coaches.

  2. That’s some pretty shady stuff happening back in the day. I wonder why we don’t here more of these things occurring in the past 20-30 years or so. Is it because players and coaches are paid a lot more, and thus are less likely to be tempted to fix games?

  3. Some sort of outside entity would be the best hope of doing fair and honest investigations. The sports leagues themselves will always be under extreme pressure to keep things under wraps and pretend everything is just fine. Look at how the Tim Donaghy scandal played out in the NBA. Their entire investigation was over within just a couple of weeks and (incredibly fortunately for them) found Donaghy was acting totally alone and nobody else knew a thing. That’s certainly possible but it’s fair to wonder how they even had the time to talk to everybody involved in that short a span to reach their conclusions. No league is going want to dig TOO hard for fear of further damaging their reputation.

  4. Football is the most ‘fun’ sport to gamble on, but not where you should gamble. The subjective calls are the problem. Holding, pass interference, roughing, illegal use of hands, and unsportsmanlike conduct are tools that can be used to manipulate the flow of the game leading to higher or lower scoring. A critical third down call can shift momentum abruptly. It’s impossible to police. How many times have the commentators gone to there rules expert in the booth who can interpret a play one way only to find out the official on the field goes another way, then they have to backtrack and explain how that conclusion is actually reasonable if you take into consideration other factors. It’s a bad look. An inconsistent look. And ripe for corruption. Even if games are not under the influence of gambling like the NBA experienced with Tim Donaghy, bias plays a part. Take what happened in the NHL this year when Tim Peel was caught on a hot mic not making the right call, but manipulating the game through a make-up call. Sports are entertaining, and we like to think the playing field is level, but there is plenty of evidence to seed doubt.

  5. I still believe Super Bowl 30, Steelers vs Cowboys, was fixed. The Cowboys were 13 point favorites and it sure looked like Steelers QB O’Donnell was trying his best to make sure the Cowboys covered. They failed. The Cowboys won by 10. O’Donnell was let go and signed a huge 1 year contract with the NY Giants, his payday.
    Super 40, Steelers vs Seahawks, looked a little bit shady too with the one ref blowing call after call.

  6. B/c they’ll finally realize the jig is up b/c it will become public knowledge that their own referees are involved in manipulating games? What a shame. Everyone’s billions down the drain.

  7. It’s not like a federal agency would actually do anything to the billionaire owners. Robert Kraft was accused of the exact same thing DeShaun Watson is accused of, and Kraft got off Scot free. No one was the least bit surprised by that result.

  8. Great article and MFL betting outcomes are fixed all the time. You are really naive if you think it hasn’t happened. I can think of 2 prime examples that I know were fixed and both did affect the betting and actual outcome of the game. I know Vegas benefitted from the first, im not positive of the 2nd. the first example was the blatant fix job by the replacement referred in the Seahawks Packers Monday night game. The other involved Vinny Testaverde when he was on the Jets. He was stopped a yard short of the goal line. While he was down, he blatantly put the ball over the goal line and the refs gave him a TD. I believe it was vs the Seahawks and the Jets won 36-31 or something close to that

  9. They already did this a couple of years ago with the Steelers. The Rooney family members who run the dog tracks and gambling venues had to sell their shares to Dan and Art II.

  10. Replay is designed to help Vegas win. Why do you think easy calls take 10 mins to decide the call on replay and same with the NFL controlling the replay the last 2 minutes of every half. The other thing designed to help Vegas is the whistle blew the play dead call.

  11. You are a fool if you don’t think games aren’t being fixed. Rules are intentionally worded to allow the games to be manipulated into the desire outcome

  12. sameer1138 says:
    July 20, 2021 at 11:39 am
    It’s not like a federal agency would actually do anything to the billionaire owners. Robert Kraft was accused of the exact same thing DeShaun Watson is accused of, and Kraft got off Scot free. No one was the least bit surprised by that result.

    ——-

    As much as you would like this to be true it is not.

    Kraft solicited prostitution. An investigation showed the women were not illegally sex trafficked and were merely prostitutes. That’s a Class B Misdemeanor punishable by $500 fine and up to 60 days in jail in FL (almost never happens for first offense).

    Watson is accused of serially sexually harassing and forcing himself upon his victims. These are 14+ civil suits (not criminal as of yet). The settlement will be in the millions.

  13. The NFL needs to get a list of confirmed (or even suspected) bookies or others associated with organized crime and give it to each team before the start of the season to distribute to each player. And to each rookie at the rookie orientation. They should basically say that under the player conduct clause of the collective bargaining agreement any play caught associating with anyone on the list will be automatically suspended for 6 games without pay (or longer for all I care). Then the same rule needs to apply to every employee of the organization but instead of a suspension they face immediate termination…including coaches, scouts, or anyone else in the organization.

  14. Just stop. The NFL and every other sports leagues owes gamblers NOTHING. No one is forcing them to bet on games.

    Seriously, if the government tried to tell me how to run my business because it affected some THIRD PARTY that was neither a client or customer of mine, I’d tell them to bugger off.

  15. @howboutthemcowboys2020

    How bout some evidence to back up your claim? I agree both games were wrong but I don’t see any evidence of tampering. The bad call in the Jets game is what ushered in the era of instant replay and the Packers game is what instantly forced the NFL to make a much better offer to the ref’s association and end their strike with in days. But I don’t see ANY evidence of any kind of tampering or such. (And I’m a Seahawks fan so I am well informed on both those games.) I’m not berating you, as I would DEFINITELY like to see some evidence because I think both games were huge mistakes, but I just don’t see any evidence at all.

  16. It’s a good idea. Perhaps they could end the war on drugs and give the responsibility to the ATF, since gambling is addictive and connected to a lot of the same illegal activities and networks as the drug trade has been.

    Personally, I think embracing gambling will turn out to be a terrible tipping point for the league. The NFL already feels so much more unsavory to me now. I think it’s going to generate huge sums of short-term cash but dissolve something priceless: the place the league holds in our hearts.

  17. This was the first episode of Frontline and they were looking to make a splash so they sensationalized this story. The Piazza segment has zero credibility, the insinuation that Rosenbloom was murdered by some mysterious frogman is laughable. Stories from 40 years ago and beyond aren’t relevant in today’s day and age. The games in today’s NFL aren’t rigged. Fumbles happen, interceptions happen, bad calls happen – that’s the nature of the game.

  18. donniemackjack all you need to do is check the line on each game. The Packers Seahawks game was a $540 million swing in Vegas’ favor. as always the only evidence you need is to follow the money and who benefits

  19. Reading some of those descriptions about fixing games really makes me wonder if Andy Dalton was on the take for every one of those prime time games.

  20. Most players make too much money to be on the take in today NFL, the potential loss of earnings would not be worth it. Any gambler would have to have a HUGE amount invested in a single game for it to make sense to try and buy a millionaire player to fix the game. Huge single bets get red flagged and any ties to a player would be found. The refs are probably the weak link here.

  21. howboutthemcowboys2020 says: “donniemackjack all you need to do is check the line on each game. The Packers Seahawks game was a $540 million swing in Vegas’ favor. as always the only evidence you need is to follow the money and who benefits”
    ———————

    Stop with that nonsense.

    Seriously, for refs to “fix” that game that solely depended on the VERY LAST call on a hail mary pass for the Seattle bet to win. In a game where MORE penalties were called on Seattle which resulted in FIVE 1st downs for Green Bay.

    If the ref wanted Seattle to win, they sure make it difficult all game.

  22. donnymacjack says:
    July 20, 2021 at 1:20 pm
    “a list of confirmed (or even suspected) bookies or others associated with organized crime and give it to each team before the start of the season to distribute to each player.”

    Seriously? Did you think about how long that list would be before you posted this?

  23. The referees need to be full-time league employees, and well-paid. Full-time, so they can spend their days practicing on simulators and being tested on the rules, so they can actually get good at their jobs. And well-paid, so gamblers’ money is less of a lure. The officials should at least be better paid than rookie players. The NFL is rolling in money and they can easily afford this.

  24. The NFL should be doing everything in it’s power to keep gambling out of the game. They can’t control what individuals do on their own, but they shouldn’t be promoting it as part of the game. Too much conflict of interest.

  25. The nfccg no call was a fix. That is the only reason for that gross non call. Rams the under dog covered rather than lost by 10

  26. Interesting… while reading this story I did not see any mention of the 1970’s Pittsburgh Steelers ?? The Rooney’s …not one incident?? I find that puzzling.

  27. This thread goes to a bigger line that is one of the few things the NFL fears. Oversight.

  28. There’s a fine line between good and evil. Actually, what half the people think is evil, the other half think is fine. That’s why gambling and the NFL is no longer a problem. We’ve got bigger fish to fry.

  29. The NFL will not do anything until they are faced with a Tim Donaghy situation and then it will be to late. Government intervention!

  30. Fascinating how all that shady business was going on, but Rozelle brought the hammer down on Joe Namath for simply owning a club that gamblers frequented. Joe was never implicated in fixing or throwing games.

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to leave a comment. Not a member? Register now!

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.