Since its founding in 1920, the National Football League has proclaimed it opposes gambling, but the league was actually launched by gamblers and has been tied to and supported by gambling ever since. The league has closely monitored gambling-related activities of players, but team owners, often high rollers with mob ties, have gotten a free pass or a wrist tap.
Five years ago, the league’s commissioner, Roger Goodell, was being deposed in a lawsuit. An attorney asked, “What threats are there to the integrity of pro football in the United States?”
Replied Goodell: “Gambling would be number one on my list.” His nose extended out three feet. Early this year, he said, “We are not changing our position as it relates to legalized sports gambling.”
But league owners have approved a move by the Oakland Raiders to Las Vegas, the nation’s gambling mecca. Owners are claiming that Vegas is not the city it was years ago. Those owners’ noses are growing while their pants burn. It’s true that Vegas got hit in the Great Recession and has competition from gambling in many states and offshore, but leisure and hospitality jobs in Southern Nevada (overwhelmingly the Vegas area) have bounced back sturdily from the 2007–2009 crash and represent 32 percent of employment, compared with 11.2 percent nationally and 12.8 percent in San Diego. Casino hotels account for 12 of the 20 largest employers in the area. Vegas gambling is booming.
National Football League owners pretend that gambling means little to the league. Hogwash. Last year, Nielsen Sports and the American Gaming Association did a survey on whether betting on a game boosts a fan’s interest in the sport. In 2015, adults who bet on games watched 19 more games a year than non-bettors. Bettors watched 90.9 minutes of a game and non-bettors watched 79.2 minutes. Nielsen said that 84 percent of adults “say they’re more likely to watch a game they weren’t previously interested in when they bet on it,” according to the report, and 77 percent say placing a bet on a game makes watching it more enjoyable.
Of course, the American Gaming Association’s participation in this survey could skew results, but Nielsen is a reputable researcher. And the conclusions are intuitive. Certainly a bettor is more interested in a game than a non-bettor. The point is that the National Football League has known for decades that gambling heightens interest in the games and boosts the TV audience. (Each team makes a fat $226.4 million a year from games being televised.)
The league is lovey-dovey with fantasy-football operations such as DraftKings and FanDuel, which are gambling vehicles. NFL Sunday Ticket and NFL RedZone are beloved of gamblers. The NFL plays more and more games in London, where betting on games is legal. Newspapers print the point spread on games. Similarly, the league puts out information on which players are ailing before a game — critical information for gamblers and bookies.
Books and TV specials have exposed the NFL’s coziness with gambling. In 1971, former Cleveland Browns player Bernie Parrish wrote a book, They Call It a Game. One chapter laid out in detail the gambling and organized-crime relationships of owners. I asked him if he had been threatened with lawsuits. “Hell, no!” he said.
In 1983, the Public Broadcasting Service showed a documentary, An Unauthorized History of the NFL. It touched on gambling and game-throwing. Sports writers savaged it. Surprised?
In 1989, Dan E. Moldea published Interference: How Organized Crime Influences Professional Football. It was thoroughly researched and footnoted but still got panned.
When I arrived at the San Diego Union in 1973, I suggested a series on gambling and mob relationships of football owners. The idea was applauded by the managing editor but got killed at a higher level — no doubt because of the mob relationships and gambling proclivities of early Chargers owner Barron Hilton and then-owner Eugene Klein.
Here is an incomplete history of NFL owners and their backgrounds: Among the earlier team owners were George Halas of the Chicago Bears, who got loans from associates of Al (Scarface) Capone. A close Capone associate was gambler/bootlegger Charles W. Bidwill, owner of the Chicago Cardinals, which later moved to St. Louis, then Arizona. For years, the Bidwill company owned racetracks and horse stables. In recent years, Bidwill’s sons divided the gambling and football interests to please the league. The same was true in Pittsburgh. An early owner of the city’s pro team was Arthur Rooney, whose saloon was a center of gambling. The company went on to control racetracks, video slot and lottery machines, as well as a card room. Again, under 2008 pressure from the NFL, the elder Rooney’s children divided the empire between gambling and football.
Bob McNair, owner of the Houston Texans, for years had a horse stable that he sold in 2008. The founder of the Cleveland Browns was Arthur (Mickey) McBride, who had organized-crime ties through his horse-racing wire service supplying information to bookies. In the 1950s, the Senate’s Kefauver Committee called the horse wire “Public Enemy Number One.” In 1961, the team was sold to Art Modell, who later became a partner in a racetrack stable with Morris (Mushy) Wexler, whom the Kefauver Committee called one of the “leading hoodlums” in McBride’s wire. In 1969, Modell got married in the Las Vegas home of Caesars Palace head William (Billy) Weinberger, whom the Las Vegas Sun called the “dean of casino gambling.”
Ralph Wilson, founder of the Buffalo Bills, was involved in thoroughbred horse breeding while owning the Bills. Al Davis, former Chargers coach who went on to head the Raiders, was in a retail deal with San Diegan Allen Glick, a casino owner whom the Justice Department said was tied to organized crime. Eddie DeBartolo Jr. got the San Francisco 49ers from his billionaire father, a developer with mob ties. The younger DeBartolo got caught giving a $400,000 bribe to get a Louisiana gambling license. The league’s punishment: a one-year suspension. He went back to the family company anyway, which had long been involved in casinos and racetracks.