The NFL's Dirty Secret

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.

Al Capone

Al Capone

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.”

Art Modell

Art Modell

Sam Giancana

Sam Giancana

Vincent Alo

Vincent Alo

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.

Allen Glick

Allen Glick

Barron Hilton

Barron Hilton

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. ■

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Its all about money , entertainment, no real sport involved.

Almost all of the information in this column came from the thoroughly researched and footnoted book, "Interference: How Organized Crime Influences Professional Football," by Dan E. Moldea. However, I first learned of the role of the mob and gambling profession in pro football from Bernie Parrish's book, "They Call It a Game," published in the early 1970s. I interviewed Parrish and learned fascinating things. The major thesis of the book is just what you say: pro football is all about money and it isn't really a game. Parrish devoted an entire chapter to organized crime ties of NFL owners. Best, Don Bauder

Jeez, Don, this blog posting should have provoked a few dozen to a hundred comments already. All the "forts pans" who think that the NFL is the closest thing to heaven-on-earth should have taken you to task, raked you over the coals, and threatened you with who-knows-what, are all silent. One can only "wonner" what's happenin'. Nobody is reading the Reader? I doubt that. Hey Charger fan(atics), where are you with the ripostes? How about those who think that football is a social good? Make some comments for Heaven's sake.

It's the first week of July and unless you're a NO fan, no one gives a crap about football right now. Last Friday, Roger Goodell sent a memo to all 32 NFL teams in which he outlines the requirements for relocating a team to hear in Los Angeles. Unless I missed it, which is possible because we've bee pretty busy, there was nary a word about that either in the Reader or from DB. Like I said, summer time and nobody gives a crap.

Summer may not be a good time to launch an investigative series on anything -- and certainly not sports. Best, Don Bauder

The first year I was at the San Diego Union, 1973, I told the managing editor how NFL owners were high rollers and often linked to the mob. He thought it would make a great series. I called a guy on a Congressional investigative committee. He told me that the public just does not want to hear this. People want to believe that sports are pure, and also, if they gamble on games, they don't want to think that insiders have more information than amateur wagerers have. That's one reason that these owners with shady pasts are lauded as kindhearted celebrities and humanitarians on TV. (Incidentally, the Union series never did get off the ground; it was blocked at a higher level.) Best, Don Bauder

So I think the big question is: Are NFL games fixed? My gut reaction would be: No, it's too hard to pay off everyone necessary without getting caught.

Then again, I would have said the same thing about the NBA before the Tim Doaghy (sp?) referee got caught a few years ago. So my guess would be there have been some NFL referees and maybe even players bought off or blackmailed to influence games.

Point shaving has gone on in the past, and game-throwing was not unheard of decades ago. Now that the players are paid so much, there may be less point shaving, if any. The one game that I have always heard was fixed was the Super Bowl in which Namath supposedly led the Jets to an upset victory over the Colts. If it indeed was fixed, and there are quite plausible arguments that it was, the NFL might have done it to establish a faux parity between the NFC and the younger AFC. Remember that the quarterback for the Colts, Earl Morrall, filed a suit against the league, I believe (or possibly his team), and got a big settlement for those days. Morrall was overthrowing receivers in the game. Bernie Parrish told me that players believe the game was fixed, and others have said so, too. Best, Don Bauder

My guess would be that point-shaving by players isn't that common in NFL or NBA because of the high salaries. I bet at the college level it still goes on a fair amount - recent ASU and USD hoops scandals being examples. Moreover, the USD scandal seemed to be set up by a group of clowns who really didn't know what they were doing. So I would suspect a sophisticated organized crime ring could run a point-shaving ring in college football or basketball fairly easily. Once the organized crime group has a star player in debt to them with drug or gambling debts it would be pretty easy to manupulate that player I think.

Your point about salaries is important. Consider a star college player who is not really good enough to make the NFL or NBA, or even play for European pro teams. That player, seeing the huge salaries of the pros (even the mediocre ones), could be very vulnerable to a bribe from a gambler, as in the incidents you cite. These days, a pro making $3 million or more a year would be less likely to take a bribe offer than, say, a couple of decades ago. BUT: consider the referees. They are not paid that much. They can influence games greatly. That's one place to look. A pro basketball ref was caught taking bribes from gamblers not long ago. Best, Don Bauder

The Jets were bigger, stronger, faster, just better. AFL teams beat NFL teams for many years after that. The result surprised because the two leagues never played each other, and the media thought the old NFL superior. The Green Bay Packers were superior, but the rest of the old NFL were proven, in game after game, to be no better than the AFL.

The Colts had been in the NFL before becoming one of the teams shifting to the AFC. And it is true that after that game, AFC teams did better than NFC teams for several years. Still, a large number of well-informed people think that Super Bowl was fixed. Best, Don Bauder

I agree with Psycholizard. The Jets were just plain better than the Colts. Earl Morral, was a journeyman quarterback. He played for 6 different teams in 20 yrs. He was BARELY a career 50% passer and threw almost as many interceptions as touch downs. In fact the ONLY two good seasons he had were 1968 fr Baltimore and 1972 in Miami. Unitas took over for Morrall in the 3rd quarter and didn't fair much better. Namath didn't have that great a day. The difference was Matt Snell, both rushing and receiving. I still have Super Bowl III on VHS and if I were to watch it right now I would say the same thing I opened with and that is that the Jets were just plain better than the Colts. Just my opinion. Opinions vary.

Well, I certainly admit that you, Tom, and Psycholizard have more expertise than I have about the game itself. I watch football but miss the nuances that devotees note. I am basing my opinion on what other knowledgeable people have said. Best, Don Bauder

Don Bauder, The first football game I went to was to see the Rams in the Coliseum, probably 1955 or 1956. Baseball is actually my favorite sport, probably because as a kid that's what we all played. But I've been a football fan for a long time. But let me clarify one thing. The Jets were most certainly the better team in Super Bowl III. In my opinion they controlled the game., even though it was relatively low scoring. But the line on the game at kick-off was something like 16 points, which is outrageous for a Super Bowl. Based on that, I don't think it's out of the realm of possibility that at least there was an attempt to fix the game. Remember, though that it was the NFL that initiated discussions for a merger, not the AFL and by the time of Super Bowl III, the agreement was in place so I don't know about the need to show some kind of parity between what would be the two future conferences. And I believe that by that time it had also been decided that Baltimore Cleveland and Pittsburgh would be in the AFC. My own feeling is that if there was an attempt or someone wanted to fix the game, it probably had more to do with making money off the spread than anything else.

You may well be right. If the game was fixed, and we suspect that it was, but do not know, the league may not have been involved. It could have been the gamblers making money off the spread. If it was the league, it would have been redolent of the latest revelations that the Bank of England has been involved in the rigging of the libor rate. A couple of points: Bernie Parrish has speculated that Namath had been given the Colts' defensive signals prior to the game. With the opposing quarterback able to know the opposition's defenses on every play, "the Colts wouldn't have had a chance," Parrish said. I don't remember his telling me that, but I interviewed him more than 40 years ago. Also, in that Super Bowl, Morrall completed only six of 17 passes for 71 yards, and was intercepted three times. Best, Don Bauder

I don't put much credence in Parrish's speculation. First off, any good QB can read defenses and has a pretty good idea what's coming, eeven more so when the defense is playing almost strictly zone pass coverage, which the Colts did most of the game. And Namath didn't have that good of a game; he didn't have a TD, I think he only 4 passes over 10 yds. and the Jets only scored 1 TD. Namath also didn't throw a pass in the 4th quarter because he hurt his thumb and couldn't grip the ball tight enough to throw it. I would have expected more if he had the signals. Despite Morralls poor passing, he had the Colts inside the Jets 20 3 times in the first half and came away with no points and barely ran a handful of plays in the 3rd quarter. I thought then and still do that Shula should have started Unitas in the 2nd half. But like I said, on that day the Jets were the best team, fix or not.

The AFC had more wide open offenses, especially the passing game, and that made the difference then, and even today. The teams that win today do it with offense first, defense second......Joe Namath was the top QB in the league, and he knew it, and so did everyone else, they needed to shut him down to win the SB, and they couldn't. Same with the Raiders-wide open passing game....BTW did you guys see that Big Ben Davidson died a few days ago, I saw him at Gold's Gym in El Cajon back in 1986-6'8 and his voice was unforgettable, like James Earl Jones, voices that are very commanding.

But I have read somewhere that Namath's career statistics aren't really so hot. I haven't looked it up, though. Best, Don Bauder

After Morrall stunk up the joint, Unitas finally replaced him. But maybe the Colts' coach should have made the change earlier. Best, Don Bauder

I don't know that the "mob" has such a large presence or hold on pro sports as it once may have.DB has his opinion and I have mine and let's just say they are not the same and leave it at that. However, gambling in one form or another has been in pro sports, including from the players side probably as long as sports have been around. Pick a sport, pick a country and there have been scandals. Same goes for college. I recall a scandal at one of the SD schools not that long ago. I think it would be at least naive if not downright foolish to think it still isn't going on at some level in many, if not most sports. But as I said, mob controlled, I think not so much anymore.

I don't think team owners are as mob-related today as they were in the early days of the league, and I didn't mean to convey that conclusion in the article. I do think that there is still a lot of gambling by owners who, after all, have inside information about their own team. Pro football began in the 1920s as a gambling vehicle; that continued for many decades, and that is why gangster money went into the capitalization of teams. In the 1930s, many of these mobsters were bootleggers who lost their source of income with the end of Prohibition. Many of them set up illegal gambling operations in such places as Kentucky. Then the mob took over Las Vegas casinos. The city brags about its mob past, but claims it is no longer controlled by the Mafia. I have trouble believing that. But you are right: there is gambling and point shaving going on at the college level right now. The recent University of San Diego scandal was in basketball. Best, Don Bauder

I heard it from an ex-Sixer. He said the games are produced by the owners. In other words many games are put-on productions. They want interesting and close games for the lucrative TV ratings. Money is the number one priority. Who wins is secondary. Give you an example of how it works. NE Pats in 2011 I think it was, go into Cleveland. The NE owner tells the coach and key players they are "letting" the Cleveland franchise have one. The owner lets the Vegas sports books know. Instead of Vegas making the Pats a 7 or 8 point favorite, they make the Pats a 4 point favorite because they know ahead of time that the Pats and Brady are going to tank it. This gets extra money on the NE side. Guess what happens? Cleveland wins the game 34-14! Now how did Vegas know to make the line so cheap? They were tipped off by the NE owner. It is all fixed and pro bball is just as bad. Bottom line is this: there is just way too much money involved in pro sports to play all of the games for real all of the time. The NFL is one big "family" and the better teams occasionally tank it to the weaker teams to keep them competitive and for the the good of the league as a whole. The FBI should get involved but I guess it is a hard thing to prove. Ever read the back of an NFL ticket? it says "For ENTERTAINMENT purposes only." I'm at [email protected] for more on this. Larry

Brute Krulak probably killed Don's series on Mafia involvement in the NFL. Nicholas Von Hoffman wrote a column in 1973 attacking Brute and the San Diego Union for "sunshine journalism."


Brute Krulak may not have killed the planned series. My guess is that Sports Editor Jack Murphy convinced Editor Gene Gregston, a former sportswriter for the Tribune, that it was a bad idea. Barron Hilton, first Chargers owner, would have been in the series, and so would Gene Klein, Chargers owner at the time. Both had unsavory connections. And other Chargers-related people might have made it into the series, too. A lot of people then wanted to keep this gambling/NFL relationship secret then. It's also true today. The "sunshine journalism" column you refer to was primarily about the fact that the Union buried the story about the government's seizure of C. Arnholt Smith's bank in the second section, and the story didn't even mention the takeover until several paragraphs down. This was an egregious, embarrassing example of putrid journalism, and Krulak gets the blame for that. My byline was on that story, but Krulak had removed the best parts, and had made the horrible decision to bury the story. Best, Don Bauder

Krulak was a fine marine and officer, actually one who had some intellect and used it in planning for future warfare. But did that qualify him to manage a newspaper? That authoritarian, spit-and-polish background didn't prepare him or any one like him for journalism. His involvement in the paper seemed a typical military-worship job given by the establishment without thinking it through.

Absolutely true. Krulak had no business in editorial journalism, and I believe the same is probably true of any high-ranked, career military officer. However, a story I have told before is worth repeating. In my early days at the Union, I wrote a column about a lawyer who had been named to a very high government post. In private practice, this lawyer had greased the way for a number of stock market swindles that had been pulled by a mobbed-up brokerage house, for which he was attorney. But the lawyer completely conned Krulak (as well as the Union's rather dense lawyer) and the Union ran a piece, under my byline, completely apologizing for the piece. (I didn't write it.) Within weeks, it came out that the lawyer had been under investigation at the time, and would not be allowed to have a second term. Krulak apologized to me and said he knew that he had been conned and even was having trouble sleeping over the incident. That is the only time in my almost 50 years of financial journalism that any editor that got conned has admitted it to me and apologized. After that, Krulak and I remained friends. Best, Don Bauder

That revelation makes me think better of Krulak. He was a forward thinker in the Corps and rather a "Young Turk" shortly after WWII. Some of his ideas are part and parcel of their tactics now.

A recent biography of his Marine career is very flattering, I understand. (I haven't read it.) However, I think that the almost unanimous feeling of those who worked at the Union and Tribune when he headed the editorial operation would be that he was ill-fitted for journalism. Best, Don Bauder

Excellent story and research! It is a Holiday weekend and people are away, comments will come!

What's most interesting is that there is so much. Here are some other names you may have heard of that could be covered in depth: George Preston Marshall, Walter Annenberg, Gilbert (the Brain) Beckley, Ron Mix, Meyer Lansky, Clint Murchison Jr., Edward Bennett Williams, George Steinbrenner, Bebe Rebozo, Richard Nixon, Morris (Mo) Dalitz, Frank (the Bomp) Bompiensiero, Paul Hornung, and many, many others. Best, Don Bauder

I had never heard of Walter Annenberg being linked to organized crime, though I have read that his father may have had connections to the Chicago mob. please elaborate.

Walter Annenberg's father Moses Annenberg had run the Nationwide News Service in Chicago. Its collapse permitted Mickey McBride to found and prosper from the Continental Racing Wire. Moses Annenberg was indicted for criminal tax fraud in 1939, and according to Moldea, made a deal with the government that similar charges be dropped against his son, Walter. In return, Moses pleaded guilty, paid $9.5 million in back taxes and went to prison. Walter Annenberg then closed down Nationwide and book over his father's publishing empire, including the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Daily Racing Form, which his father had bought in 1922. Some say he spent much of his life in diplomacy and philanthropy to help erase the bad odor of his father, in whose activities he had been involved in his early life. Best, Don Bauder

Ironic that the Annenberg Foundation financed some of the better Corporation for Public Broadcasting series that are still in use today, twenty and more years after they were produced.

There is no question that Annenberg's eleemosynary activities were exemplary. Best, Don Bauder

No different from JFK's father, yet we get on our collective horses to point fingers at other countries.

No different from JFK's father, yet we get on our collective horses to point fingers at other countries.

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