Two men were needling the Green Bay Packers' Ron Kramer last week at the Athletic Club of Columbus, Ohio. Kramer, the massive offensive end for the Packers, had come to Columbus to accept an award from the Columbus Touchdown Club.
"Come on, Ron," one of the needlers said. "All the players bet on games."
"That," said the large and ominous-looking Kramer, "is a lot of baloney. I guess you're talking about Alex Karras. I don't know how much he bet, if anything. But don't let anybody kid you. We don't bet much, like I've read in the papers. The players, I mean. Oh, a little, maybe, but nothing big. It's in our contracts not to, and the guys honor their contracts. I mean it."
No one who has watched Kramer play football would ever suspect for a moment that he does not exert all of his energy for the Packers. Nor would anyone believe that Alex Karras, the superb defensive tackle for the Detroit Lions, does any less than his best for his club. That, however, is not the point.
Karras and Kramer figure in the recent wave of publicity attending allegations of betting scandals in the National Football League. The furor was touched off by George Halas, the owner of the Chicago Bears, who issued a gratuitous statement denying any wrongdoing on the part of the Bears even though the team has not been accused. On the heels of Halas' statement, Bear Fullback Rick Casares said that he had taken—and passed—two lie detector tests. Then Karras, on a national television hookup, said that he had bet minimal amounts on games. On the face of it, small bets by players on their own teams to win—Karras said he bet cigarettes and cigars—seem rather innocuous. Not so.
Pete Rozelle, the young commissioner of the National Football League, employs a large staff of former FBI agents whose sole duty is the investigation of rumors of betting or of unsavory association by the players in the league. Each year he tours the training camps to speak to the squads, and a major part of each talk is devoted to explaining precisely how dangerous it is for a player even to be seen in the company of a known gambler. Any player—or any owner—can be thrown out of the league if it is proved that he has bet on a pro football game. Rozelle, now in the midst of the investigations brought on by Halas' statement, has yet to take a drastic step. It might be good for pro football if he did.
"We have found nothing of a criminal nature," Rozelle said the other day. "We have found no evidence of bribes or of point shaving. Weare presently investigating rumors involving individuals on four different teams. In a sport which has grown to the size of professional football, these rumors are inevitable. We investigate four or five each year—no more and no less than we are investigating this year."
Rozelle did not name the four teams. An educated guess would most likely include Detroit, Chicago, Green Bay and Pittsburgh; and to date no evidence is available that any player on any of these teams has bet more than $5 or $10 on any one game.
Sixteen years ago, this problem presented itself to the league and immediate and dramatic action was taken. Two players for the New York Giants—Quarterback Frank Filchock and Fullback Merle Hapes—were offered bribes before the 1946 championship game. They did not take the bribes, but they did not report them, either. Both were suspended indefinitely from the NFL.
Neither of them was accused of betting. Bert Bell was commissioner of the NFL at that time and the action he took was quick, fierce—and right. His successor, faced with less of a problem, must act as dynamically.
An accusation involving far more than minor sums is on Rozelle's desk right now. Carroll Rosenbloom, owner of the Baltimore Colts, has been accused of betting heavily on pro football. The charge was made by Mike McLaney, a disgruntled former associate of Rosenbloom's who two years ago lost a suit involving the owner of the Colts.
"The complaints about my betting," says Rosenbloom, "are absolutely false and totally unfounded. I am convinced the evidence I have submitted to the league will prove this."
The only difference between this season and the last eight or 10 in the NFL, so far as gambling goes, is that the continuing surveillance of the league has been brought into the open. To date the investigations have always proved that the rumors were false. Once a very famous quarterback on the West Coast was accused of having bet thousands of dollars on his own team to win. The investigation showed that this particular, rumor started in a bar in Beverly Hills when an elderly gambler from Texas, under the influence of innumerable cocktails, told the entire population of the bar that the quarterback used him as the front man for placing the bets. Rozelle's investigators located the man and discovered that he had never even met the quarterback and certainly had never placed a bet for him.
This is not to say that the present storm is inconsequential. No player has the right to bet, even on his own team to win. Almost all betting today is on the point-spread system. To take an example, let's say Detroit is a three-point favorite over Green Bay and leads by one point with two minutes to play. Johnny X has bet on Detroit and so have many of his Detroit teammates. In possession of the ball, the Lions elect to stick to the ground and run out the clock. But now merely winning will not help the bettors—they must try to get their three-point margin. So the gambling Lions try to get into position for a field goal. The risky maneuver backfires as the Packers intercept a pass and come from behind to win the game.
The small wagers in this hypothetical case thus reverse the final score. If the players continued betting they might conceivably become so deeply in debt that they would be liable to blackmail. This has not happened so far and may never happen, but pro football has reached so imposing a stature on the national sports scene that even the slightest suspicion must be a matter for deep concern.
Some people have said it is too difficult to shave points in football. That simply is not true. You would not have to bribe a quarterback; any player on an offensive team could affect the point spread in a given game fairly easily. A missed block or two could do the trick. Or, with first and goal to go on your opponent's five, all you have to do is move just before the snap of the ball and draw a five-yard penalty. Enough of these penalties scattered strategically through a game would certainly affect its outcome.
It is good to know that Rozelle and the NFL are checking all rumors thoroughly. It seems unlikely that the charges against Rosenbloom will be substantiated or that the investigation of betting by players will reveal anything to discredit pro football. But if the game is to retain the high esteem in which it now is held Rozelle must do more than investigate; he must make it clear to the Alex Karrases—and everybody else—that bets of $5 and $50,000 are equally forbidden, and he must convince owners, players and the public that severe penalties will be imposed if the ban is breached in the future.