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?”
“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.