Bert Bell is spinning in his grave today. Rolling over with him is the man who replaced him after his death, Pete Rozelle. They are the two greatest commissioners in NFL history and, some argue, the two greatest commissioners in the history of professional sports. They were also two men who understood and feared the potential danger gambling posed to their game.
A day before the 1946 NFL Championship Game between the New York Giants and Chicago Bears. Bell was called to the office of the mayor of New York and informed that two Giants, single-wing quarterback Frank Filchock and halfback Merle Hapes, were implicated in an effort to fix the game. Stunned, Bell watched as the two were questioned and a 29-year-old florist and bookmaker named Alvin Paris was arrested for offering them $2,5000 bribes to throw the game.
Neither took the money nor did they report the incident to their team. Hapes immediately admitted the offer had been made and Bell suspended him. Filchock denied it and was allowed to play. He threw two touchdown passes and six interceptions in a 28-14 loss that exactly covered the 14-point spread.
A month later, now under oath, Filchock admitted he too had been offered a bribe. Bell suspended both players and Paris was sent to jail. Chastened and shocked, Bell wrote an anti-gambling resolution into the league constitution that gave the commissioner extraordinary powers to permanently ban any player or employee for betting on games, withholding information on a game being possibly fixed or associating with unsavory characters.
Bell also created the now laughably abused injury report to make public the kind of information formerly the property only of teams and, frankly, well-connected gamblers. He also monitored the weekly point spreads through bookmaking associates of his acquaintance, always searching for suspicious last-minute pivots of the spread. He also began what has become a long-standing tradition of employing former FBI agents as security and successfully lobbied to get every state in the country to criminalize the fixing of sporting events.
Three years after Rozelle took over after Bell died unexpectedly, he said, “This sport has grown so quickly and gained so much of the approval of the American public that the only way it can be hurt is through gambling.’’
Thirteen years later, Rozelle testified in a case looking to block the state of Delaware from creating a sports lottery, saying, “I have frequently expressed my opinion that legalized gambling on sporting events are destructive of the sports themselves and in the long run injurious to the public."
In 1991 his replacement, Paul Tagliabue, said at a Congressional hearing into efforts to legalize sports gambling that, “The issue of sports gambling and the National Football League's interest in this issue is not an economic or a commercial interest. It is a matter of integrity. It is a matter of the character of our games, of the character of our fans and a matter of values -- especially the values that we in professional sports and our athletes represent and transmit to the youth of this country."
Just over a decade later the NFL legally challenged efforts by the state of New Jersey to legalize sports gambling. Commissioner Roger Goodell, responding to a question concerning his belief that gambling could do irreparable harm to the NFL told state attorney William Wegner, “It's a very strongly held view in the NFL, it has been for decades, that the threat that gambling could occur in the NFL or fixing of games or that any outcome could be influenced by the outside could be very damaging to the NFL and very difficult to ever recover from. That's why we take the positions that we do with our policies and education and make sure that people understand that we'll enforce it vigorously."
Fast-forward to this week when the Miami Dolphins and Tampa Bay Buccaneers urged their fans to support a bill legalizing sports wagering in Florida at a time when several owners are investors in fantasy sports gaming sites FanDuel and Draft King and the Oakland Raiders are in the process of moving to Las Vegas, the gambling mecca of America, with the blessing of Goodell and all NFL owners.
The Dolphins and Buccaneers both encouraged their fans to protect their right to legally bet on sports by voting no on an amendment to the Florida constitution aimed at increasing the threshold required to expand gambling, including sports betting, in the state. Amendment 3 would have stripped the legislature of the power to expand gambling and instead would require a voter referendum. Opponents believed this would potentially close the door on legalized sports betting in Florida.
Ironically, FanDuel and Draft Kings both opposed the amendment for their own business reasons but the bottom line is the NFL, as with its peers in other sports, have now climbed aboard with something Bell, Rozelle and Tagliabue believed posed a potential threat to their game because they knew the game is only one scandal away from people questioning whether the outcomes are on the up.
One or two point shaving scandals or worse and the NFL will be on its way to becoming the WWE, the wrestling conglomerate that most everyone knows has pre-arranged outcomes.
The NFL has been a staunch opponent of sports betting for decades but recently adjusted its policies after the United Sports Supreme Court struck down a federal statute in May that opened a path for states to authorize legal sports betting. Since the ruling, sportsbooks have opened in Delaware, Mississippi, New Jersey, New Mexico and West Virginia and it won’t be long before they are all over the country. That being the case, it seems the NFL has decided maybe it’s not so dangerous after all as long as they get a cut of the revenue, which they will.
The Raiders are headed to Vegas. The Ravens, Cowboy, Raiders and Jets have announced partnerships with casinos and other gaming operators. The Cowboys and Patriots are investors in fantasy gaming sites. In pursuit of th almighty dollar, the NFL has gone all in on gambling after decades of acknowledging its potential to threaten the game’s credibility.
Is the NFL making a deal with the devil that may lead to a fulfillment of the great fears long held by Bert Bell, Pete Rozelle, Paul Tagliabue and, until recently, Roger Goodell? No one can say for sure but casinos everywhere post 1-800 numbers about where to seek help for addiction to gambling. One wonders if it’s time NFL owners and league power brokers call it.