Picture a couple cozily cohabitating for more than 90 years but publicly pretending they aren't conjoined. That's the National Football League and the gambling industry (both legal and illegal).
This faux separation is in the news again. Today, Nevada is the only state in which sports gambling is legal, regulated, policed, and taxed, but it only accounts for about 1 percent of sports wagering, according to the American Gaming Association. New Jersey wants sports gambling permitted at its racetracks and in Atlantic City; other revenue-hungry states want in on the action, too.
The National Football League, which earlier beat back Delaware when it wanted to have Nevada-like privileges, might sue New Jersey. Well, sue with a wink. Commented one wag on the ProFootballTalk website, “NFL has its headquarters in New York, but ‘dey keep de books in Joisey.’” In reality, Joisey’s all-powerful mob will probably decide whether the state goes for legalized sports gambling. Dem kneecappers may prefer to keep it in their own hands, although if they surreptitiously control the Atlantic City casinos and state racetracks (quite possible), they might want sports gambling legalized. In either case, the league will quietly rejoice.
The National Football League’s feigned indignation about gambling is a joke. A conservative estimate is that $80 billion to $100 billion is wagered on NFL games each year, only a fraction legally. People place their bets through bookies, office pools, fantasy football, and the like. This gambling clearly boosts attendance and TV revenue, the mother’s milk of the sport. When you have money in a game, your interest is intensified. (Would you even bother to watch a horse race if you had no cash on a nag?)
The National Football League’s actions belie its supposed contempt for gambling. For example, the league requires teams to state before games what players may have to sit out because of injury and what players are questionable. That information only benefits gamblers. And does the league complain that newspapers run the point spreads on the games? Of course not.
The long-running but secret alliance of pro football and gambling has been chronicled thoroughly in the book Interference: How Organized Crime Influences Professional Football, by Dan E. Moldea (Morrow). In the early 1920s, one George Halas turned to Charles Bidwill, a bootlegger, gambler, racetrack owner, and associate of Chicago’s Al (Scarface) Capone’s mob, to finance the Chicago Bears. Later, Bidwill bought the Chicago Cardinals. The Bidwill family now owns the Arizona Cardinals.
In 1925, bookie Tim Mara bought the New York Giants. His heirs still have half the team. Notorious gambler Art Rooney took over the Pittsburgh Steelers. His family still controls the team; the Rooney empire is purportedly breaking up so that the racetracks and casinos won’t be mixed with the football team.
In the sport’s first half-century, one team after another was owned by high rollers, often with sordid connections. The Cleveland Browns were owned by crime syndicate bookmaker Arthur (Mickey) McBride, head of the Continental Racing Wire, the mob’s gambling news service. The U.S. Senate’s Kefauver Committee called that news service “Public Enemy Number One.”
In 1961, the team was sold to Art Modell, who, among many things, was a partner in a horse-racing stable with one Morris (Mushy) Wexler, whom the Kefauver Committee named one of the “leading hoodlums” in McBride’s wire service. In 1969, Modell got married in the Las Vegas digs of William (Billy) Weinberger, president of Caesars Palace, whose hidden owners included such dignitaries as Tony (Big Tuna) Accardo, Sam (Momo) Giancana, and Vincent (Jimmy Blue Eyes) Alo. When he died in 1996, the Las Vegas Sun called Weinberger “the dean of casino gaming.”
A 1969 happening spotlights the National Football League’s blatant hypocrisy. New York Jets quarterback Joe Namath invested in a Manhattan bar. The National Football League told him to sell his shares because the joint had ties to big-time gamblers and unsavory individuals. The league said nothing about Modell’s ties — or the unsavory ties of numerous other team owners. (The late Carroll Rosenbloom, a high roller with a major interest in a mobbed-up Bahamian casino, owned the Baltimore Colts and Los Angeles Rams at different times. His second wife and widow, entertainer Georgia Frontiere — who had been married five times before latching on to Rosenbloom — inherited control of the Rams and moved them to St. Louis when she got a stadium 96 percent funded by taxpayers.)
There have been too many incidents to recount here. The Youngstown DeBartolo family, long involved in casinos and racetracks, owns the San Francisco 49ers. In the late 1990s, Edward DeBartolo Jr., then head of the 49ers, paid a Louisiana governor $400,000 to get a riverboat casino license. The governor went to the slammer; DeBartolo got a wrist slap but had to leave the 49ers. The family still runs the team, while DeBartolo Jr. runs the company that is based back in Youngstown.
Not surprisingly, San Diego has been in the middle of the NFL/gambling love affair. The late Pete Rozelle, Rancho Santa Fe resident and onetime head of the NFL, deftly tiptoed around team owners’ mob/gambling ties, Moldea shows in his book. Rozelle stepped on players suspected of consorting with gamblers (but never told them not to associate with their mobbed-up team owners).
The Chargers were founded by longtime gambler Barron Hilton, who had both a business and personal relationship with Los Angeles attorney Sidney Korshak, who was described by law enforcement officials as “the link between the legitimate business world and organized crime.” A later owner was Eugene Klein, another Korshak friend with mob and gambling associations. The late Al Davis, a former Chargers coach who wound up owning the Oakland Raiders, was a business associate of San Diego casino owner Allen Glick. Davis’s survivors still control the Raiders. Several Chargers players got into deals with Glick.
Eventually, American states — if not New Jersey — will get their way. You can bet on it. ■