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Authors: Dan E. Moldea

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“Rozelle is an honest guy. He [had] a long-term contract and a half-a-million-dollar-a-year salary to guarantee that. But his job [was] really dependent on the goodwill of the twenty-eight owners in the NFL to whom he [was] accountable … And when you consider the investments they have in their teams, none of them wants bad publicity. It's bad for business.”

Since the underworld's attempt to fix the NFL's 1946 championship game—after which two New York Giants players, Frank Filchock and Merle Hapes, were suspended—the league has become especially conscious of occasional maneuvers by organized-crime figures, bookmakers, and gamblers to guarantee the outcomes of football games. When Bert Bell was the league's commissioner from 1946 to 1959, he maintained close contacts with members of the nation's gambling community in order to
monitor unusual fluctuations in the betting line and unusually large, suspicious bets that were placed on games.

Because of the concerns of Bell and Rozelle, a notice in bold letters now hangs in every locker room to warn NFL personnel of the league's rules on gambling. The league prohibits players from betting on NFL games, from accepting bribes or agreeing to throw or fix games, from failing to promptly report offers of bribes or attempts to throw or fix games, and from associating with gamblers or with gambling activities in a manner that would discredit the NFL. “Any such conduct,” reads the sign, “may result in severe penalties, up to and including a fine and/or suspension from the NFL for life.”

Rozelle's antigambling policy has been publicly supported by the NFL's team managements. During my interview with Steve Gutman, the president of the New York Jets, he said, “My views about gambling are precisely those of the league. I wouldn't want to characterize them in any way to deviate from that. And I would want to stand on that.”

As is well known, defensive tackle Alex Karras of the Detroit Lions and running back Paul Hornung of the Green Bay Packers each received one-year suspensions from the NFL in 1963 because of their admitted gambling activities. Since then, only one other person has been suspended for gambling: Art Schlichter, a rookie quarterback with the Baltimore Colts. In 1983, he admitted to associating with gamblers and losing more than $700,000 in bets on NFL games and other sporting events.

As a result of the 1963 players betting scandal, Rozelle created NFL Security and selected Jim Hamilton, the former chief of intelligence with the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD), as its first chief. In 1966, Hamilton, who died after a long illness, was replaced by William Hundley, the chief of Robert F. Kennedy's organized-crime division in the Justice Department. Hundley was succeeded by Jack Danahy, a New York FBI agent, in 1968. Danahy held the position until 1980, when he was followed by the current director of NFL Security, Warren Welsh, a former Miami-based FBI agent.

The directors of NFL Security have attempted to safeguard the league against the corruption of its players, trainers, coaches, owners, and referees, all of whom are potential targets for blackmail and payoffs in exchange for inside information and other favors. NFL Security is supported by a network of private investigators
, mostly former officials with the Justice Department and other law-enforcement agencies, who are stationed in the twenty-six cities where the twenty-eight NFL teams are based (New York and Los Angeles each support two teams).

“These representatives are on retainer to the league, and they specifically report to the league,” Warren Welsh told me. “In addition to their game-day coverage and their liaison with the local law-enforcement community, they would also do background investigations that we might have for game officials, an ownership group, impersonations, misrepresentations, whatever it might be, as opposed to just working for the local team.”

The NFL, under Rozelle, followed Bert Bell's policy of maintaining regular contacts with members of the gambling underworld in order to monitor the betting on NFL games.

Warren Welsh explains, “We're very cognizant that the early line comes out on Sunday, and we have somebody in Vegas that follows that for us. And then we have our security reps all over the country report in to us and give us the opening line. And then if there are changes in the line that are over two points, they report that immediately. If not, then the security reps report to us on Friday at about noon. And then we are able to disseminate the line and any changes to our key executives so that they are aware of the information and any changes.”

Monitoring NFL personnel, as well as the line, may be unpalatable, but it is necessary. Two years before the Schlichter suspension, several members of the Denver Broncos were quietly disciplined by the league for receiving cocaine from gambling figures. And, in 1986, the league began an investigation of Irving Fryar, a wide receiver for the New England Patriots who was accused of betting on NFL games. Fryar had been named by his team's officials as one of six Patriots players who used illegal drugs. The investigation remains open.

The conditions under which players may be compromised are clear and present in the NFL today. “Our worst case would be the athlete who is strung out on drugs and has a line of credit with his drug dealer and can't pay the bill,” says Welsh. “Then he gets that knock on the door. And [the player] says, ‘Hey, I told you. I can't pay the bill.' And then [the dealer] says, ‘Hey, I don't want your money, but now you're going to work for us.'”

A major West Coast bookmaker agrees. “A lot of players have gotten involved in cocaine and are well over their heads—as
much as ten thousand to twenty thousand dollars a month in cocaine. There is a very real danger that if they can't pay their debt, they give information and do make some mistakes in a ball game so that the dealer can make a bet and even out. And that's a great opportunity for a bookmaker, too: to set up something for a cocaine dealer and find out information that way.”

Michael Roxborough of Las Vegas, who has succeeded Bobby Martin as the nation's most influential oddsmaker on NFL games, told me, “The NFL is not doing a very good job in the area of drug enforcement. But people just don't think that there is a problem with the manipulation of the outcome of NFL games. Most people think that drugs aren't a very serious problem. Until the public demands that it gets cleaned up, the NFL isn't going to feel that it has to do very much.”

Former Olympic gold medalist Bob Hayes, who was also a receiver for the Dallas Cowboys and pleaded guilty to setting up a cocaine deal after he retired from football, told me, “It goes a lot further than just saying no to drugs. And the NFL has been unrealistic about that because they treat drug abuse as a problem, not a disease. The use of drugs is a disease. And when you have a disease, you are a sick person and you need to get well. Until then, people are going to try to take advantage of you.”

Criticism of the NFL's security system is generally not targeted at the commissioner or the security director. Instead, it's directed at the NFL owners, who establish the league's policies.

Aaron Kohn, the former executive director of the Metropolitan Crime Commission of New Orleans, told me, “They [the NFL owners] have a tendency to employ as security people former FBI agents and other people of confidence who do competent investigations and do accumulate adverse information. But at the policy-making level, the decisions are not made consistent with the fact-finding.

“I know that the NFL can't go too far. They are going to do whatever they have to to prevent the problems of their owners and players and their overall profits from becoming subjects of public scrutiny.”

Some critics say that the league enforces its rules selectively. “Rozelle [couldn't] enforce the rules against the owners because he [worked] for them,” Gene Upshaw, the executive director of the NFL Players Association (NFLPA) and a former all-pro guard for the Oakland Raiders, told me. “There's no way he [could] say,
‘I'm going to punish you because you own a racetrack, because you're involved in Las Vegas, or because you do business with people who are involved in gambling.' But I would like to think that the rules of suspension and banishment should also apply to the owners.”

One top NFL official says, “We've had owners that have supposedly been friends or associates of mobsters, and when we looked into it they had dinner in a restaurant, maybe four or five times in a year.” Nevertheless, the NFL did nothing about these owners who socialized with underworld figures.

Another football insider says that many investigations of NFL owners have ended up in “a black hole” and were never disclosed. “To me,” he says, “NFL Security is a special police force that monitors the players but protects the owners. It's one thing to monitor the activities of the players, because they come and go. It's quite another to monitor the activities of the owners. They seem to last forever.”

Patrick Healy, the former executive director of the Chicago Crime Commission, told me, “The NFL tries to give you the public Kiwanis Club talk: ‘We have very little gambling; we have very little drugs. We have everything under control. We have FBI agents working for us, and whenever any rumor comes out they pounce on it. They discover it. They investigate it.' Actually, the whole thing is really just a witch tale.”

Former Senate investigator Phil Manuel, another critic of the NFL security system, told me, “The oldest trick in the world is to hire old Justice Department officials and then make them understand that the security they are to protect is the security of the NFL owners.

“These retired law-enforcement guys maintain their ties to their old agencies, and they can then tell which investigations are being done and whether they might be troublesome. When some wrongdoing is ready to go public, the NFL Security people can go to their old fellow workers and say, ‘We can handle this ourselves. Give us a chance to straighten the mess out without all the attention your public investigation will bring.'”

Ralph Salerno, the former supervisor of detectives for the New York Police Department, goes even further. “How does the NFL protect itself with one guy in each NFL city? They do it illegally. The local NFL Security guy takes the local police commissioner, the chief of detectives, and any other important law-enforcement
official and gives him season tickets and box seats. They get wined and dined and taken out to play golf.

“And then these public employees who are paid with public funds come up with criminal information and turn it over to profit-making corporations, like the New York Giants, the Cincinnati Bengals, and so on. And that is illegal. Do the police do that for every trucking company or every furniture manufacturer? Of course not. It would be illegal for them to do it with anyone. But they do it for the NFL. That whole NFL Security operation that Rozelle [bragged] about is simply an illegal operation.”

Welsh defends the current system. He insists that he is a “fact finder” and has never been asked to halt an investigation of any NFL personnel. “And there have never been any roadblocks put up in my path in terms of investigating anything that would have to do with a member club—whether it was a player, coach, or an owner.”

That might be true: Warren Welsh and his predecessors have all been men of high integrity. But they have had no final decision-making powers. Thus, the real question is: What have their bosses, the NFL owners, done once they received the results of their investigations? The evidence is clear that they have protected themselves and their investments—sometimes to the detriment of the sport they represent.

2 Getting Organized

EARLY PROFESSIONAL FOOTBALL POSSESSED little finesse and only basic strategies. The public's draw to the game was based upon its display of legal violence. During his eight-year tenure as president, Theodore Roosevelt had actively tried to ban the game because of its inherent brutality. For the most part, the players—who looked like faces on a post office wall—were picked for their size and toughness rather than their agility, intelligence, and speed. Many of them carried railroad ties, chopped wood, and cow-poked during the rest of the week. Fans came to football games to see dogfights—and to gamble.

The only known successful bribery incident in the pre-NFL period took place back in November 1906, in the midst of an early attempt to organize a professional football league. During a two-game series between the Canton Bulldogs and the Massillon Tigers in Ohio, Blondy Wallace, the head coach of the Canton team, and Walter R. East, a key Massillon player, made a deal in which Canton was to win the first game and Massillon was to win the second, forcing a third game—with the biggest gate—to be played legitimately. Several gamblers involved with Wallace and East had also offered a $5,000 bribe to the Massillon coach and members of his team, but without success.

When the rumors of the attempted bribery became widespread, East, who had boasted of fixing a college football game the year before, as well as a baseball game that same year, was fired from the Massillon team. The Canton-Massillon incident
became the first known case of professional gamblers' attempting to fix a professional sport.

Professional football had emerged during the early part of the twentieth century in small towns and cities without major colleges. In the large cities, college football was still king. The American Professional Football Association (APFA) was officially formed on August 20, 1920, during a meeting at the brick, three-story Odd Fellows building that housed the Hupmobile and Jordan automobile dealership of Ralph Hay, the general manager of the Canton Bulldogs in Canton, Ohio. By the beginning of its first season, the association consisted of fourteen teams from five states.
Each owner was required to pay $100 for his franchise.

Among those initial teams created in 1920 were the Racine (Avenue in Chicago) Cardinals, organized in 1899 by South Side Chicago contractor Chris O'Brien. Another was the Decatur Staleys, sponsored by a manufacturing company and represented by twenty-five-year-old ex-sailor George Halas. Formerly a New York Yankees right fielder, Halas's baseball career had been cut short by a hip injury. Later, after receiving loans from his mother and Chicago businessman Charles Bidwill, an associate of the Al Capone mob, Halas bought the football team from his employer, A. E. Staley. In 1921, Halas moved his team to Cubs Park in Chicago where it became the Chicago Bears.

BOOK: Interference
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