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Authors: Dan E. Moldea

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BOOK: Interference
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“I suppose the quarterback could put the ball on the ground, with turnovers in crucial situations. It would certainly have a bearing on the game. Hell, a kicker could have as much to do with it just by missing. He has more control over it than sometimes the quarterback does.”

Defensive back Dick “Night Train” Lane, formerly of the Detroit Lions and also a member of the Hall of Fame, told me that while he was a player he was once approached by Donald Dawson, the Detroit gambler who was later linked in a federal probe with Len Dawson, who was no relation. Recalling the incident, which he did not report to the NFL, Lane says, “Don told me, ‘Quarterbacks do a lot of betting themselves. Did you know that?' I said [laughing], ‘Get out of here.' He said, ‘You know it can be done, Night Train. You're the only man between
the goalpost and a receiver. You can slip and fall and let the guy score.'”

When I asked Lane whether Don Dawson was really suggesting that he throw a game, Lane replied that that was clearly his impression. He added that he had known Dawson for years and worked for his cousin, a Detroit car dealer, during the offseason. Lane also said that Dawson talked about the other players with whom he did business—a fact confirmed by agents for the FBI, the U.S. Strike Forces Against Organized Crime, and the IRS, among other federal agencies.

Don Dawson admitted to me that he had made that statement to Lane, whom he described as “a good friend of mine.” Dawson says, “I'm sure I said that to him. Not that I was trying to bribe him, but he was probably trying to feel me out, too. Over the years, there were a lot of players I bet for, but they weren't necessarily doing any business [participating in a fix]. But some of them were prepared to do it. They came to me. I was a wealthy guy. I had money. The players weren't making any money. The owners were making all the money.”

Former all-pro defensive back Bernie Parrish, an author of a 1971 book critical of the NFL and whose playing career spanned from 1959 to 1966, told me, “Sure, there were players who participated in shaving points in games and that sort of thing. Yeah, I played in them. But I always heard about it after the game was over.”

Don Dawson confessed to me that during the 1950s and 1960s he had been personally involved in the fixing of no fewer than thirty-two NFL games.

That was the fear during the 1980s when, according to law-enforcement officials, no fewer than nine NFL teams—the Cleveland Browns, Dallas Cowboys, Denver Broncos, Miami Dolphins, New England Patriots, New Orleans Saints, San Diego Chargers, San Francisco 49ers, and Washington Redskins—found themselves the targets of investigations in which players had been allegedly given drugs by gamblers who were looking for an on-field edge. And, particularly in 1988, numerous other NFL teams found their players being disciplined by the league for using, buying, and/or selling drugs, which along with gambling are the two most lucrative enterprises of organized crime.

Don Dawson's shocking admission is a first. No one has ever stepped forward and claimed to have actually been involved in
fixed games. Although such charges have occasionally been made through the years of the NFL's existence, they have traditionally been hard to prove. “They are cases where it's difficult to discover hard evidence as to who is involved,” says Brian Gettings, a former Strike Force attorney in Miami who was responsible for prosecuting Gilbert Lee Beckley, the Mafia's onetime top layoff bookmaker. “You have to have an individual directly involved in the sports bribe or the fix to get a successful prosecution. And that is quite difficult.”

Marty Kane, one of Beckley's top associates, told me, “If I wanted to fix a game, there're three players I'd get: the quarterback, the offensive center, and a defensive back. Then I would bet as much money as I could. I would have beards. I would have people all over the country trying to bet for me on this game.”

Oddsmaker Bobby Martin remembers, “There were a lot of fixed games during the 1950s, but there's nothing like that anymore. Years ago, players bet, mostly on their own teams. They'd say, ‘Oh, I see we're six-point favorites or four-point underdogs. We'll win this game. We know much better than the people who post the odds about what we can do.' And then they'd bet a hundred or two hundred dollars.

“But, now, the players are paid too much money. There's too much of a spotlight on them. Oddsmakers want honest football. We don't want anything dishonest. It interferes with our handicapping if the games are fixed. I can't get a true picture of the value of the teams.”

Mort Olshan, perhaps the most renowned football handicapper in the United States and the publisher of the widely read
Gold Sheet
, agrees and told me, “The tip-off on any fix is manifested in the movement of the odds and the appearance of ‘unnatural' money. To orchestrate a fix would require the cooperation of a coach and one or more of his top players; no nonessential player or underpaid sub is in a position to affect the outcome. Even then there is no guarantee the culprits could pull it off. There are too many outside factors.

“To make the risk worthwhile, the high-salaried athlete would expect a sizable payoff. But the chief deterrent to a setup is that virtually the only source one can place a substantial bet with is a bookie. And just as soon as the first plunge is made, the odds will move dramatically. Since this would be no penny-ante venture, more bets would follow. To avoid instant suspicion, ‘unnatural
' money would be spread all over the nation's betting marts. Since bookmakers have telephones, word would spread faster than news of a nuclear attack. If the jackpot got too big the game would be taken off the board. The skullduggery would be spotted in no time.”

Olshan also added that sporting contests have been fixed. “Sure, that kind of foul was going in college basketball during the 1950s. Games were fixed, and points were shaved. For the handicappers and the bookmakers, it was corrupt and costly. Bookmakers were burned financially and the handicappers' figures became irrelevant. If you look at the college basketball fixes during the early 1950s, it had the effect of putting a lot of bookmakers out of business. When a game is fixed, they are the first ones to suffer the consequences.”

A star of the 1969 Super Bowl, Jim Hudson, a former defensive back with the New York Jets, told me, “My theory always was: If somebody was going to buy me to fall down on a pass play, I would want to know when that son of a bitch was going to pay me. Now, if you're a gambler, would you pay me before the game? No. Would you pay me at halftime? No. You would say you'll pay me after the game. Now, I'm the player, and I'm going to say, ‘Do you think I'm going to wait until after the game when I'm never going to see your ass again?'

“How are you going to bribe someone? Every bookie in the world is going to know about it. And that line is going to go crazy. I don't believe that things like that went on then or now.”

Nevertheless, some argue that it doesn't make any difference whether a game is fixed to anyone who doesn't know that it is. Given the economics of bookmaking, which will be discussed at length in this book, the uninvolved and innocent bettor still has a fifty-fifty chance of winning, whether or not the game is fixed. The only people a fixed game means anything to are those who know about it. They know they have a winner. And their large bets, strategically placed around the country to avoid suspicion, simply become a part of the multibillion-dollar pool of wagers booked on every NFL game.

To them, a fixed game is like insider trading on Wall Street. Every day, there are a handful of people who know a sure thing is going to happen before it happens. Yet, even when it does happen, the investment markets in America somehow manage to survive—and usually no one outside of the fix ever finds out about it.

There is also the contention that it has been extremely rare that a member of the organized-crime gambling syndicate ordered a member of a team to throw a game or to shave points. History shows that fixers are prosecuted, and they go to jail. When a sporting event has been fixed, the public becomes disillusioned and loses confidence in the sport in which the fix occurred. That means less bookmaking volume from those who gamble and less vigorish for those who book their bets.

When I asked Baton Rouge bookmaker Gene Nolan whether he had ever known anyone who ordered a fix, he replied, “I don't know that anybody ever told anyone what to do. I think someone just found out what a member of a team was going to do—on the basis of whether the player or the coach thought he could or couldn't win. I don't think anyone ever told someone to lie down—like a fighter.”

Consequently, it is naïve to think that the only litmus test of honest NFL football is whether or not its games are fixed. It is not. There are far more important considerations in making this determination. And those considerations must encompass the associations of NFL personnel with the underworld and, most important, the backgrounds and business relationships of those who rule professional football: the NFL team owners.

The organized-crime gambling syndicate believes that inside information is necessary in order to discover what a member of a team is doing or might be doing. Aside from the rare fix, inside information is the commodity that professional gamblers will bank on. The mob wants to learn everything it can about the players' health, their marital problems, deaths in their families, drug dependencies, internal team problems, and anything else that might affect on-field performances, especially those situations that are not immediately reported in a public forum.

Los Angeles mobster-turned-government-informant Jimmy Fratianno told my associate, William Scott Malone, that from personal experience inside information is key for organized-crime figures and their associates. “They get information, like, a person might know the coach, and some guy might have gotten hurt on Monday in practice, a key player. They [the team] won't reveal that until probably later on in the week, because they don't want the opposite team to get prepared for it. They get hurt on Monday; they reveal it on Thursday. Somebody finds out about it, and they bet on the game. Well, as soon as it is revealed that this person is hurt, then the odds will change. The guy that
had the information already is in with maybe three or four points to the best of it.”

On the importance of injury reports, Mort Olshan only partially agrees with Fratianno. “Ninety-five percent of the rumors [about injuries] are baloney and wouldn't have a bearing on the game even if they were true,” Olshan says. “The most meaningful reports are those where multiple injuries occur on the same team, thereby wrecking the club's cohesiveness and causing either the defense or the offense to overwork.”

Organized-crime expert G. Robert Blakey, a former top Justice Department lawyer who is now a professor of law at Notre Dame, told me, “The Mafia wants an honest game because they know they have the contacts within the NFL teams to determine how to bet as accurately as possible. That's the only edge they need. Providing inside information happens every week of the season. And that's what goes to the heart of the integrity of the NFL.”

Another top crime expert, Vincent Piersante, who headed the organized-crime unit of the Michigan attorney general's office, explained to me, “The Mafia wants ace-rock information so that they can set a realistic point spread. They just want the public to bet. They make their ten percent commission on losing bets, so, as long as their bookmakers balance their books, what the hell do they care which team wins or loses. The old-line mob guys recognize the danger of trying to fix one game and destroying the whole structure. They just want the inside information that can help predict a player's performance.”

Al Davis, the owner of the Los Angeles Raiders, also appears to agree with Fratianno and the others about the importance of inside information: “They [bookmakers] have contacts with every owner in the league.”
1

Gene Klein, the former owner of the San Diego Chargers, told me, “I've heard rumors [about fixed games], but I probably closed my mind to it. I have had people come up to me and say, ‘How could the gamblers hit the points so well?' But I am convinced that most owners are goddamn decent people.

“Yet, everybody is looking for inside information. Everyone wants the edge. That's the great thing about [the NFL's] publishing the injury reports. That's the source of information. The league is very, very forceful on that point so that everyone has the same information.”

The league's former commissioner, Pete Rozelle, strongly opposed legalizing sports gambling. He has said that “gambling is more serious than drugs because it goes to the integrity of the game.” Rozelle knew this better than anyone. He was forced to deal with a gambling problem of one kind or another every year since he was elected the NFL's chief executive officer in 1960. The fact that most fans can't recall much about the NFL's gambling scandals is testimony to his ability to enhance the league's public image while he policed the conduct of its personnel.

“We have a basic rule in the NFL,” says a former law-enforcement official who advises the NFL on security matters. “It is to keep it upbeat and keep it positive. But, above all, they want to keep everything quiet.”

Rozelle's ability to keep things quiet earned him criticism, as well as admiration, in some quarters. A top NFL official is adamant in his defense of Rozelle. “Why should the NFL publicize hearsay and innuendo? If the commissioner publicized a matter under investigation, that would be irresponsible. It's our policy not to create a problem that might not be there. And if it is a problem, we handle it ourselves. And if the problem hits the newspapers, then we respond publicly.”

The security consultant replies, “Rozelle's job [was] that of the protector of the
appearance
of integrity within the NFL. To Rozelle, a problem with a player's gambling or an owner's having some Mafia associations [didn't] really become a major problem until the situation received publicity. Then he [was] forced to act in a public way.

BOOK: Interference
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