Garden State Update - Part III
December 12, 2013
By Bruce Marshall
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THE "FAUX MORALITY" OF THE NFL
Almost thirty years ago, Sports Illustrated published an extensive and rather exhaustive editorial study devoted to the subject of sports gaming. We at TGS remember it well because an issue of our flagship publication was the centerpiece of the cover of that SI issue dated March 10, 1986.
The SI presentation was a comprehensive bit of work, as publisher Donald Barr and writers John Underwood and Robert H. Boyle, among others, all contributed to various pieces that appeared throughout the issue. A common theme throughout the stories was a no-holds-barred approach to the NFL, which apparently held no "sacred cow" status to those journalists. Specifically, Underwood's story ("The Biggest Game In Town") reminded readers about how many characters with unsavory backgrounds had been part of the NFL hierarchy for years.
"The NFL seems especially inclined to gloss over gambling associations and activities of team owners and other front-office personnel," wrote Underwood. "To fully appreciate the pervasiveness of the gambling influence on the NFL, you must remember that the league's nativity was attended by gambling men and that the game owes its existence partly to their kind.
"G.A. Richards, the original owner of the Detroit Lions, was a two-fisted gambler who bet on his own games. Mickey McBride, the original Browns owner, operated a racetrack wire that was believed to service bookies. Tim Mara, a legal bookie and promoter, is said to have used money he had won the day before betting on the horses at Belmont to purchase the New York Giants for $500 in 1925. Art Rooney, founder of the Steelers, is a legendary horseplayer who once won more than $200,000 at the track on a single weekend. Charley Bidwill, the former Cardinals owner whose son Bill now owns the team, made his fortune operating racetracks. (TGS note: Underwood could have mentioned that Bidwill Sr. also had acknowledged ties to the one and only Al Capone, and that the Rooney family ran Yonkers Raceway, which it still owns, since 1972. Plus various other connections in NFL ownership to the underworld).
"The late Carroll Rosenbloom, who owned the Colts and later the Rams, gambled heavily and once had an interest in a casino in Cuba. Leonard Tose, who sold the Eagles last year, was thought to have done so partly because of heavy gambling debts. According to The Philadelphia Inquirer, he borrowed $400,000 in one night of gambling in Atlantic City. San Francisco 49ers owner Edward J. DeBartolo Jr. and his family have interests in three racetracks.
"Dave Meggyesy, the Western regional director of the NFL Players Association, says the one question he keeps asking himself whenever he hears about gambling connections with league owners is this: 'Where do they get these guys? There must be hundreds of qualified guys with plenty of money who'd love to own an NFL team. They had to know about Rosenbloom and Tose. It doesn't make sense.'"
What makes the SI/Underwood piece so intriguing (other than a reminder of the controversial Dave Meggyesy) is that in the nearly three decades since it was published, we can probably count on our hands the number of serious editorials in national publications and/or websites that have addressed the sports gaming topic, and the various shady characters who have long been involved with the NFL, in a similar manner. It's not as if the subject matter has gone away.
(Underwood, by the way, was one SI writer who was ahead of his time; in 1978 he also authored a compelling story about the increasing brutality in football, almost three decades before the headshot/concussion debate would touch the national consciousness).
As mentioned in our editorial pieces over the past two weeks, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, after losing previous rounds in federal court as he seeks to bypass the 1992 Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act (which limits sports gaming to Nevada, Delaware, Oregon, and Montana) in order to make sports betting legal in his state, is now petitioning the U.S. Supreme Court to hear his case. Even if we at TGS weren't peripherally involved in the industry, we'd think it would sound like pretty intriguing subject matter. But we're still waiting for someone in the national media to tackle the story as did John Underwood and SI almost thirty years ago.
And therein is our greater issue with the sports gaming debate, which could, pending Christie's success in getting heard by the Supreme Court, be bracing for the ultimate showdown in a decades-long standoff between countless numbers of sports enthusiasts and the pro (and college) sports leagues that have outwardly, and often forcefully, objected to the legalization of any form of sports wagering.
By us at TGS, however, the optics of this debate have long been out of focus. For that, blame not the NFL or other sports leagues, but rather the modern-day sports media that pick and choose its fights with the pro sports leagues, the NFL in particular, and only then when it has effective cover from the mainstream media. Which partly explains why socially-touchy subjects like the Rooney Rule, the Washington Redskins name, or the recent Richie Incognito "Bully-gate" get such extensive coverage from the sports media; those are all relatively safe territory for a modern-day sports journalist to explore and provide an almost no-risk forum to "challenge" the NFL, as SI's Peter King has done with his refusal to use the Redskins name. And why a hot potato topic like Christie's sports gaming challenge in New Jersey or the recent concussion lawsuit issue (a wide expanse of territory that has been researched in depth by very few journalists employed by one of the media concerns aligned with the NFL) remain off limits to most sports journalists, afraid to run afoul of their beloved NFL.
We have long maintained, as the Underwood story hinted almost thirty years ago, that the objections of the NFL (and all of the pro leagues) to sports wagering have always been mostly illusory. Underwood suggested that then-commissioner Pete Rozelle knew full well of the mass appeal of sports gaming and that it was of great benefit to his NFL enterprise, and only when effectively pressed would resort to punitive measures internally for offending parties such as Alex Karras and Paul Hornung in 1963, and Art Schlichter two decades later.
But Rozelle certainly never led any crusades to stamp out sports gaming; after all, the NFL never expended any resources to repeal law in Nevada, where the sort of sports gaming that the NFL so vehemently opposes is alive and well.
The NFL's public stance on gaming, like most of its modus operandi, was formulated by Rozelle more than a half-century ago. And at its base involves a sort of "faux morality" that effectively must distance the NFL from any taint that might arise from the downside of wagering. By publically decrying gambling on the games, the NFL and other sports leagues, understandably so, build an effective p.r. wall between themselves and any potential related scandal.
In the past, however, those objections were mostly superficial; the NFL has always known (at least it did in the era of a savvy commissioner like Rozelle; we're progressively less sure about his successors, the stiff Paul Tagliabue or the joyless Roger Goodell) that much of its allure is based on the wagering aspect, of which even the "fantasy football" industry derives most of its appeal. Again, angles in which most of the modern sports media would dare not explore.
We certainly aren't holding our breath for any NFL-influenced journalist to do any bidding for us and "tell it like it is" the way a Howard Cosell might have done decades ago. Indeed, as far as we could tell, no major media sources took the bait we offered in one of our earlier editorials last year regarding the New Jersey subject when we invited sports journalists to drill just a little bit deeper and uncover what might be some hard-to-explain associations for the Goodell NFL and its anti-gaming stance. Such as regarding Rupert Murdoch's all-powerful NewsCorporation, under whose umbrella are the Fox Networks (an NFL and MLB broadcaster in the states) and, overseas, BSkyB. Sky's subsidiaries also include SkyBet, a heavyweight sports wagering company based in England that accepts various wagers on American sports. Nothing wrong with NewsCorp's Sky holding an interest in SkyBet, although we would like to hear Goodell (or one of his media sycophants) argue with a straight face about the evils of sports gaming when it is a peripheral enterprise of one the league's broadcast partners.
In fact, various NFL team owners now have ownership stakes in overseas professional soccer teams, including some very visible English Premier League entries that either have interests in, or advertising agreements with, any number of sports books that take wagers on NFL games overseas. Would someone in the media please ask Goodell why this is not in conflict with NFL policy?
It is also not as if the electorate is dictating the NFL's challenge to Christie in the courts. Indeed, the only political constituencies that would be simpatico with Goodell's stance that sports gaming is truly objectionable would be counted among moral conservatives and evangelicals, far-right elements that have been mostly marginalized, if not downright vilified, by the mainstream media, and far removed from the modern NFL. How can these sorts be driving a debate and effectively embraced by supposedly "progressive" entities as the NFL and NCAA? And what would Goodell do if reminded that his position on sports gaming and the Christie challenge would probably be wholeheartedly supported politically only by those such as Pat Robertson and Ralph Reed? Hardly the type of allies with whom Jeffrey Lurie, Bob Kraft, Arthur Blank, and many NFL owners would want to outwardly identify with on any matter.
Mostly, we would like some media member to ask Goodell how the NFL can be making any kind of a morality play regarding sports gaming to the public when the league has been a haven for so many countless louses, with ties to gaming and other "objectionable" pursuits, in one form or another, over the decades?
Whatever. Before we get an answer to that and other questions, we should find out the fate of the Christie request to be heard by the Supreme Court. Time stops on the sports gaming subject until we at least get that next answer. As always, rest assured we'll have an update when there is more to report. Stay tuned.