SI Vault: Players are not just people: The NFL suspends its 'Golden Boy'
This story first ran in the April 29, 1963 issue of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED.
Each of the big professional sports in America is administered by one man. These sports bosses are all too often only glorified secretaries, mere shadowy projections of the club owners. They are hired by owners, fired by owners and are manipulated like puppets by the owners whenever important decisions have to be taken.
Alvin (Pete) Rozelle, the commissioner of the National Football League, does not seem to fit this string-dance pattern. He has just suspended Paul Hornung of the Green Bay Packers, the biggest star in pro football, and Alex Karras, All-Pro tackle who was the key to the Detroit Lions' superb defense; he has fined five other Lions, as well, all for betting on football. He took this action without accepting any advice or pressure from the club owners who elected him. In fact, he says he did not advise the owners of his action until just before the news was released.
So, if Rozelle is hiding nothing, we have here a strong commissioner; this may be the most important fact to emerge from last week's unpleasantness. Pro football is the sports phenomenon of the postwar era. With such spectacular success inevitably come dangers. The slightest indiscretion may seem monstrous to the public. To maintain pro football at its present pinnacle, the sport must be firmly controlled.
But if Rozelle is a strong commissioner, is he also a wise one? The immediate reaction to his drastic action was twofold: on the one hand, many fans felt that he had been too severe in his penalties; on the other, almost as many felt that he had tried to cover up more serious offenses by penalizing severely the things he could not conceal. Some fans fell that Hornung and Karras had been given prison terms for running a red light; some felt that they had indeed run a red light, but only in escaping the scene of a burglary.
"There is absolutely no evidence of any criminality," Rozelle says. "No bribes, no game-fixing or point-shaving. The only evidence uncovered in this investigation, which included 52 interviews with players on eight teams, was the bets by the players penalized. All of these bets were on their own teams to win or on other NFL games."
The penalties were harsh, and deservedly so. The decision he reached in exacting them, Rozelle says, was the "hardest of my life."
"I thought about it at length," he said. "The maximum penalty for a player would be suspension for life. That would be for failure to report a bribe attempt or for trying to shave points. This sport has grown so quickly and gained so much of the approval of the American public that the only way it can be hurt is through gambling. I considered this in reaching my decision. I also took into account that the violations of Hornung and Karras were continuing, not casual. They were continuing, flagrant and increasing. Both players had been informed over and over of the league rule on gambling; the rule is posted in every clubhouse in the league, as well. Yet they continued to gamble. I could only exact from them the most severe penalty short of banishment for life."
Rozelle also fined the Detroit management $4,000 for the laxity of its supervision. This seems no more than a slap on the wrist compared with the suspensions and $2,000 fines against the players. But it does represent the biggest fine Rozelle could constitutionally levy without consulting the owners. He preferred to act on his own and go with the smaller fine.
The $2,000 fines levied against the five Detroit players—John Gordy, Joe Schmidt, Wayne Walker, Gary Lowe and Sam Williams—were for a single bet on the Green Bay Packers against the New York Giants. Betting is as natural to many Americans as breathing, and these players were making a sociable bet on a game they were watching on television, something that happens in a million American living rooms every Sunday of the pro football season. But betting by a player is a direct violation of the NFL rules and is a far more serious thing than fan betting.
Broken-pattern betting by a player (SI, Jan. 28) can have very serious consequences. Suppose Karras, for instance, bets each week with a friend in his bar. If he bets consistently on the Lions, he establishes a pattern of confidence in his team which is clearly evident to the friend. Unless this friend is amazingly closemouthed, he will tell his friends that Karras is betting on his team. This may go on for four or five weeks; on the fifth or sixth week, Karras may have an unusual expense or be ill. So he does not make his customary bet. The immediate inference drawn by the friend and his intimates is that there is something wrong with that particular game.
On the other hand, suppose Karras should make a long series of losing bets? The tendency is to increase the size of the bet to try to make up the loss; if the losses mounted high enough, Karras would be open to blackmail by the man he is betting against. In any case, no matter how small the bets, it follows clearly that a professional football player cannot bet without indicating a preference in teams, whether he bets on his own team to win or not. (No evidence has been adduced of a player betting against his own team.)
It is hard not to conclude that Rozelle has been both judicious and unsparing in assessing these severe penalties. He was neither, alas, in his curious allusion to the "West Coast businessman" with whom Hornung placed his bets. Rozelle did not name him, but said he was a manHornung met when he went to San Francisco to play in the annual East-West Shrine game.
The West Coast businessman is Bernard Maurice Shapiro, 39, who has been in business in Las Vegas, Nev. since 1956, when he purchased a 4½% interest in the Royal Nevada Hotel, which included a gambling casino. After the Royal Nevada went out of business, Shapiro started the United Coin Machine Co.; he now operates 54 amusement devices in Las Vegas, including 31 payoff pinball machines, 20 amusement games and three miscellaneous machines. When he lived in Hillsborough, Calif. he operated the B&B Novelty Co., a coin-machine business. His business reputation in San Francisco and Las Vegas is good, but a gambler is hardly the common conception of a "businessman," though gambling is, of course, legal in Nevada.
"The other big gamblers were just envious of his source," says one Las Vegas informant of Shapiro's football betting.
Hornung himself has identified Shapiro as the friend through whom he placed his bets. "There's nothing mysterious or secret about it," Hornungsaid. "My friend is Barney Shapiro of San Francisco, who recently moved to Las Vegas. In 1956 I met him on a trip to San Francisco. He was and is a highly successful businessman. I have always considered Barney a very good friend and I still do. He has been, to my knowledge, only a businessman, the owner of a large novelty company, which he operated from San Francisco until last year when he moved to Las Vegas. Barney and I have talked together during the season and during the off season. I considered betting on some games solely because of his interest in the games, and I bet only through him as a personal friend."
In his report of the league investigations, Rozelle says: "The businessman bet on college and professional games and developed the habit of querying Hornung by telephone regarding his opinion of the outcome of various games. Investigation indicates that Hornung's friend is a personal bettor, not a bookmaker.
"In late summer 1959 Hornung began placing bets on NFL and college games through his friend. They normally talked by telephone twice a week with Hornung counseling on various games, including those involving Green Bay, and usually making bets of $100 to $200. In several instances his bets reached $500.
"The pattern continued through the seasons of 1960 and 1961. During the preseason of 1962 Hornung ceased placing bets. Except for one season when he won $1,500, Hornung broke approximately even on his betting."
Rozelle obviously should have revealed all he knew. All he has accomplished by so euphemistically describing the man with whom Hornungplaced his bets is to fan suspicion that worse is being concealed. Fortunately, that suspicion appears to be unjustified. Although the accused players could not be made to testify under oath, Rozelle's announcement followed a long and careful inquiry, and it was made with the McClellan Committee peering over his shoulder.
Rozelle has worked closely with the McClellan group and feels that it has uncovered no more information than that contained in his release. The assumption must be that this be true, for Rozelle would be in an untenable position if he announced these infractions, said there were no others and was proved to be wrong soon thereafter. (Rozelle was careful to note that his investigation of the alleged betting proclivities of Carroll Rosenbloom, owner of the Baltimore Colts, has not yet been completed.)
One of Rozelle's most pressing tasks now is to make certain that any betting player will be detected immediately and punished. He already has looked ahead to this. At the spring meeting of the National Football League the owners will be clearly informed of their responsibilities in surveillance over their players. Rozelle will insist on close contact between clubs and local law-enforcement agencies. It was from the Detroit police department that the Lions first learned of the undesirable associations of Karras; their failure to report this at once to the league office really accounts for their $4,000 fine. Rozelle used the second count—that of allowing unauthorized personnel on the sidelines during a game—to bring the total penalty as high as he could by fining the club the maximum on two counts instead of one.
Rozelle will ask for more money to strengthen the league investigative force, too, although the NFL spends more money on surveillance than any professional sports organization other than the Thoroughbred Protective Association. He would like to be given the power to assess fines in excess of $2,000 against clubs or players on his own judgment instead of having to resort to the club owners for permission.
In the three years that he has been commissioner of the National Football League, Rozelle has had many tough problems. He saw his league win a $10 million antitrust suit brought against it by the American Football League; he lobbied for and saw passed legislation that allowed the NFL to consolidate its television on a single network; he settled the dispute between the Los Angeles Ram owners and set up a satisfactory bidding procedure for purchase of the club; he presided over expansion of the league by the addition of Dallas and Minnesota, and he persuaded the Chicago Cardinals to move to St. Louis.
He has been a strong commissioner. It is hoped that he will continue to be. In his strength may lie the future of professional football.