Paul Tagliabue knows the fix can be in. He knows because it happened to him.
The 80-year-old former NFL Commissioner is only two months from his formal induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, so there is much on his mind as he reflects on his years running the NFL. One of those things, he told USA Today this week, is the growing influence of legalized gambling on pro football and his fear, long held by his predecessors in the commissioner’s chair, that the game may be tempting fate with its recent business partnerships with casinos and the online fantasy betting websites DraftKings and FanDuel.
Tagliabue’s concerns are not based on some irrational fear or a refusal to grow with the times now that gambling has been legalized in roughly half the states in the country. Rather, it is born from personal experience and the sad memory of a 1961 basketball game he played in between Georgetown and NYU.
“We beat the hell out of NYU,’’ Tagliabue told USA today this week. “It was the biggest victory in my three years of basketball at Georgetown. Turns out guys at NYU were taking money to shave points….I still worry about some young guy and someone says to him, ‘Take the money.’”
Tagliabue’s comments come at a time when his successor, Roger Goodell, has not only allowed a team to move to Las Vegas (a move Tagliabue says he would have fought) but also watched partnerships form between NFL teams and casinos, as well as owners investing in online fantasy gambling sites like FanDuel and DraftKings. They are now the official fantasy football arms of the league, sanctioned by its teams in exchange for a slice of the growing legalized betting action flowing in from all over America.
While players and owners remain banned from betting, that didn’t stop former Colts’ quarterback Art Schlichter from destroying his career and his life with gambling debts followed by gambler’s threats. How far a leap is it from piles of debts to affecting outcomes? Tagliabue wonders.
It is the same fear Bert Bell had when he was commissioner in the 1940s and 1950s, fears of a scandal he felt could ruin the sport. Bell hired ex-FBI agents to police the players and had his own crew of informants from inside the world of bookmaking to keep him abreast of suspiciously shifting point spreads and gambling rumors.
Pete Rozelle followed Bell into the commissioner’s office and so worried about the potential backlash a gambling scandal could cause that he suspended two of the sport’s biggest names, future Hall-of-Famers Paul Horning and Alex Karras, for betting as little as $50 on their own teams. He also threatened Joe Namath with suspension and possible banishment from the game if he refused to sell his interest in a Manhattan gin joint whose phones were sometimes used by bookmakers.
Now it is Tagliabue’s turn to warn those who run pro football that the search for ever expanding revenues could endanger the fans’ faith in the legitimacy of outcomes if temptation to shave points or throw games becomes too much for a player -- especially when gambling has been legalized by the Supreme Court and sanitized by NFL owners eager to get their hands on a piece of the multi-million dollar gambling revenues bet on their games.
Tagliabue quite rightly pointed out that if a gambler simply got control of a quarterback he could affect the outcome in any number of ways. This is true not only in fixing a game but also in the insatiable drive for fantasy points and manipulating point spreads. Think, too, of the many prop bets available in the Super Bowl and other big games. For example: Will or won’t complete the game’s first pass? What’s the big deal if quarterback A drills the ball purposely into the ground?
That is one of dozens of ways a player or players could manipulate America’s most popular sport. With banners and ads all over stadiums and TV broadcasts glorifying gambling, one could easily imagine a player thinking nothing of affecting the game illegally in exchange for money. Not tanking the game, just making sure the spread is not covered or fantasy points are piled up, or denied, some highly productive player.
Far-fetched? Perhaps so, but in 1961 Paul Tagliabue felt the same way about a basketball game in which his team trounced a good NYU team only to learn later the fix was in. If one minimizes the damage of such a moment, you miss the warning Tagliabue gave this week.
It has been 60 years since he played in that long forgotten basketball game and he still remembers. He remembers the shock, disbelief and shame, even though he was an unwitting opponent playing a team of cheaters. Now that computers track all matter of gambling data and courts have legalized sports betting, people say, “It can’t happen again. Not in the NFL, at least.”
As Bert Bell understood, the minute you start to believe, that is the moment you move a step closer to a scandal that could threaten your game. Gambling may be legal but shaving points, fixing games or valuing fantasy points over real ones are not.
Yet, as Paul Tagliabue knows all too well, that doesn’t mean it can’t happen. The more you normalize gambling and partner with it, the more you numb us all to the idea that gambling is not just an earning possibility. It’s a threat to your sport.