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Prologue: Dealing with Myths

Excerpted from
Interference: How Organized Crime Influences Professional Football
by Dan E. Moldea

Years before he became president of the United States, actor Ronald Reagan portrayed Notre Dame’s George Gipp in the 1940 Warner Brothers movie Knute Rockne—All-American. Gipp had died of pneumonia in December 1920 after an illustrious college football career. His purported deathbed request to Rockne, “Win just one for the Gipper,” was used during a locker room pep talk and helped to inspire Rockne’s 1928 team in its upset victory against Army. And, as the Gipper incarnate, Reagan used the line to inspire voters to elect him to the California governor’s mansion and later the White House. To those who saw the movie and listened to Reagan utter those now-famous words, Gipp epitomized the virtues of good character, sportsmanship, and “the right way of living.”

History, however, now shows that Gipp, a man of truly questionable moral values, probably never made any such request on or off his deathbed; that Rockne, who was known for grasping at anything to incite his players, had fabricated the incident; and that Reagan’s movie further embellished the Gipp/Rockne charade.

Hollywood, which is notorious for cooking up such fantasies as the Gipp/Rockne story, realizes that most Americans view sports as a vehicle of inspiration and entertainment. Thus, sports history is routinely manipulated. Left unquestioned, stories like that of the Gipper become permanent fixtures of Americana. Regardless of the facts, the American public continues to believe the legend of George Gipp’s deathbed request to Knute Rockne.

The difficulties in debunking the myth about one college coach and one of his players is an indication of the problems in dispelling the legends about an entire institution, particularly one as popular as football. Powerful forces in America have built empires around these myths; and the preservation of these empires and the personal wealth of those who own them depend upon the maintenance of the legends.

In the Reagan movie myth of the lives of Rockne and Gipp, there is one scene in which Rockne chases away a gambler who is looking for an edge. Rockne, played by actor Pat O’Brien, tells him, “We haven’t got any use for gamblers around here. You’ve done your best to ruin baseball and horse racing. This is one game that’s clean and it’s going to stay clean.”

Considering that Gipp, with the knowledge of Rockne, was a notorious sports gambler, the O’Brien quote perhaps best illustrates my point. [1.]

To a large degree, the National Football League (the NFL) has become the embodiment of the Gipp/Rockne myth. It has wrapped itself around the American flag and strutted into America’s homes to the thrilling stir of brass and percussion music as the choreography of bone-crushing tackles in dramatic slow motion flashes across the nation’s television screens. Based upon the illusion, the country’s love affair with professional football has given sports fans confidence that the NFL is an institution unencumbered by corruption.

However, the greatest threat to professional football is also institutionalized: It is the institution of organized crime in America—and its control of illegal gambling and illicit drugs.

At least twenty-five million people bet a total of over $25 billion each year on National Football League games. Bobby Martin, the nation’s premier oddsmaker, told me, “Nobody really knows how much is bet. It could be twenty-five billion. It could be a hundred billion. Nobody knows for sure.”

Jack Danahy, the former security chief for the NFL, told me, “It was a joke trying to estimate the dollar figure. I remember I once got a call and was asked to provide a figure on how many bookies there were in New York. I made a fast call to the New York Liquor Authority, and I found out the number of licensed bars in the city. I multiplied it times two. I called back and said that I had it on an authoritative source that there were 14,756 bookmakers. Even though it was bullshit, he bought it. I figured that every decent bar in New York had at least two bookies.”

Indeed, betting on pro football games has become a veritable American institution-with individual gamblers averaging wagers of between $100 to $500 on a single sporting event. And of all the money that is wagered on NFL games, only a small percentage of that amount is placed in Nevada, the only state where sports gambling and bookmaking are legal. The situation has been further exacerbated by the media. Newspapers insist on printing the line, for upcoming games. The television networks have hired oddsmakers to predict the outcomes of games. Law-enforcement officials estimate that each time an NFL game is nationally televised, the volume of legal and illegal gambling increases by an estimated 600 percent. The dollars wagered increase dramatically during the play-offs. And bets skyrocket for the Super Bowl. More money is bet on pro football in a single month than on major-league baseball in an entire year.

Politicians and the media have failed to educate the public about the dangers of gambling, causing massive public insensitivity to the issue. During the spring of 1989, charges were filed against baseball great Pete Rose, the manager of the Cincinnati Reds, alleging that he had bet heavily on baseball games. In citing a Washington Post poll taken during the Rose investigation, sports columinst Thomas Boswell marveled that the survey showed “strong national support for Rose, even if he’s bet on baseball and, more amazing, even if he’s bet on the Reds. . . . In other words, almost half of all people who identified themselves as serious fans fundamentally disagree with the game’s long-standing rules [against baseball personnel gambling] that have not changed since the Black Sox scandal of 1919.”

“The only thing that keeps the NFL going is gambling,” former all-pro defensive lineman Alex Karras, who was suspended from the NFL for gambling in 1963, told me, “and I have objected to the hypocrisy within the NFL for not facing up to that.” Karras is probably right. Gambling has made football more interesting for millions of Americans. But gambling has also brought Mafia figures, bookmakers, layoff operators, loan sharks, and juice collectors into the game. Law-enforcement authorities say that the largest source of revenue in organized crime’s gambling operations comes from wagers on NFL games.

Donald Dawson of Detroit, a convicted sports gambler, told me, “The NFL turns their collars around and pretends that they’re holier than thou. They say, ‘Oh, we can’t have gambling on football games.’ And up in the stands there are eighty thousand people who have money down on their favorite teams. Betting has made football, and the NFL knows it. It’s the bettors who made bookmakers. The bookmakers didn’t make bettors out of people who didn’t want to gamble. People like to bet on sports, and the NFL has profited from it.”

As all gamblers know, bookmakers are not too concerned with which team wins or loses a particular game. They are concerned only with balancing their books, hoping that an equal amount of money is wagered on both teams in any given contest. Bookmakers collect a 10 percent commission on the losing bets they book. Consequently, all a bookmaker wants out of life is a volume business and a balanced book.

The effective manipulation of the point spread—a form of handicapping in which oddsmakers predict how many points one team needs against another in order to even out the public betting on a game—will help ensure the bookmakers’ vigorish, or commission. The total pool of bets—and how those bets have been placed—will cause the point spread to be adjusted, up or down, before a game is played.

Ronald Goldstock, the chief of the New York Organized Crime Task Force, told me, “If a bookmaker can’t balance his books and suffers a major loss he can’t cover, he will be forced to go to some Mafia loan shark and borrow the money at a five percent weekly interest rate. If he loses the following week, too, he’ll be forced to borrow again. Sooner or later, he’ll have to pay—one way or the other. Bookmakers, like gamblers who bet borrowed money, dread that visit from the mob’s juice collector, who will break their legs or worse if they don’t pay up.” Thus, the idea that gambling and bookmaking are victimless crimes is another myth.

There is also a myth that today most bookmakers in the major cities are independent contractors. Special agent Charlie Parsons, formerly of the Las Vegas FBI office, told me, “It’s difficult to find any truly independent bookmakers in New York, Chicago, Detroit, and in the other big cities who operate without the permission of the mob. There are actual members of the LCN [La Cosa Nostra] who are bookmakers themselves—and that’s their major source of revenue. They take the layoff action themselves, while others [who are independent] pay a percentage to the mob to do the same thing.”

To ensure its investments, the underworld has infiltrated every level of the NFL—from the players’ locker rooms to the owners’ luxury boxes. For years, mobsters, bookmakers, and big-money gamblers have maintained relationships with NFL team owners, coaches, players, trainers, and game officials—relationships that have threatened the integrity of professional football. And these associations pose more far-reaching dangers to the game than the specter of a fixed game.

At present, the NFL confirms that there have been only two attempts to fix NFL games. The first was in 1946 when gamblers tried to bribe two New York Giants players to throw the NFL championship game. The other was in 1971 when a player with the Houston Oilers was allegedly approached and offered money by a former teammate to shave points. According to the NFL, neither attempt was successful.

However, this is also a myth. This book will provide evidence that there have been many other attempts to compromise the integrity of the game—with far greater success.

Today, NFL games are rarely, if ever, fixed. The mechanics of bribing a team member or a referee who can guarantee the outcome of a game without raising suspicion are so intricate that the risk far outweighs the return. Seemingly everyone, from the NFL commissioner’s office to the highest echelon of the organized-crime syndicate, appears to be concerned about maintaining the integrity of the game.

When I asked Jack Danahy whether there had been attempts to fix NFL games while he headed the league’s security unit from 1968 to 1980, he replied, “I’m sure there were. I think that in ninety percent of the cases, the ballplayer didn’t even bother to report it. He didn’t want to go through the hassle. It’s a lot easier to say, ‘Look, you bastard, I’ll hit you in the mouth if you don’t get lost.’

“Approaches are very, very subtle. A guy isn’t going to walk right up to a player, and say, ‘Here’s ten grand. And I want you to drop that key pass at the crucial moment in the game on Sunday.’ In some instances, the player probably didn’t even realize that he was being approached.

“That’s the danger of drugs. They can potentially compromise the players. Thomas ‘Hollywood’ Henderson [a former Dallas Cowboys star linebacker] would’ve been an ideal situation. There’s a guy who played a hell of a Super Bowl. Of course, he was a colorful guy. He was attracting as much attention as the rest of the team put together. Within a year after that, he confessed that he had a terrible habit, and that he had shot something like a hundred and sixty thousand dollars on cocaine. That’s a dangerous situation—because the potential was there for him to be compromised by his dealer.”

Despite the fact that organized crime has always enjoyed a financial bonanza through its control of gambling on NFL football games, local, state, and federal governments have done little to stop it. Professional football has become a sacred cow, seemingly immune to anything more than incomplete probes by law-enforcement agencies. This book will document numerous examples of collapsed and even suppressed investigations.

Much of this material has never before been published. With the help of my associate, William Scott Malone, I have uncovered a wealth of government documents and conducted dozens of public records searches, as well as over two hundred interviews. Because former NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle and the NFL team owners refused to be interviewed for this book, I have been forced to use selected statements made by them that have been obtained by other reporters with whom they have cooperated. In those cases in which previous reporting has been done, I have been scrupulous in crediting those who were responsible for it. And when describing a previously reported situation, I have attempted to advance the current state of evidence.

I am a crime reporter, not a sportswriter. My job is not contingent on maintaining access to and the goodwill of the personnel of any particular team or sports institution. Friends of mine who do write about sports have expressed the need “to behave” and admit that they have willingly become a part of the NFL’s sophisticated public-relations machine on occasion in order to maintain their sources of information. I believe that the need for this professional access and goodwill has prevented a fair and responsible analysis of the relationship between professional sports and organized crime by all forms of the sports
media.

Punitive action has been the norm against those who cover sports and are critical of their local team management. One close friend, Washington reporter and author Robert Pack, wrote an article critical of Washington Redskins owner Jack Kent Cooke and was banned from the Redskins’ front office, locker room, and even the stadium, which is paid for by public funds.

Further, this story doesn’t presume criminal guilt by association—although associations between NFL personnel and gamblers clearly violate the NFL’s own rules. Yet, organized crime is “enterprise crime,” crime by association, and operates accordingly. The leaders of the underworld have developed conspiracies that have resulted in criminal empires. And the NFL has often fallen prey to them.

What this book does is outline the patterns of association that have been tolerated by the NFL while the league and the federal government were claiming to take a hard line against organized crime and its influence on professional sports. In fact, the NFL has too often been lax in the enforcement of its own rules, and law-enforcement agencies have permitted the NFL to get away with it. This sweetheart relationship has greatly contributed to the myth about the integrity of the NFL.

Consequently, the NFL is sure to attempt to discredit this book, which strikes at the heart of the business of professional football, in any way it can-just as it did with an article I wrote about this subject after the 1987 regular season. An unnamed league spokesman said that the story “was a cut-and-paste job and not very factual. It was filled with inaccuracies, gossip and innuendo.” [2.] But that response was a complete turnabout.

In fact, I read my article to the current NFL Security director, Warren Welsh, prior to publication to solicit whatever changes he felt were required. And, because of Welsh’s expertise and inside information, I trusted him and made several necessary modifications upon his advice. In the end, he told me that it was a “fair and accurate” report. However, the NFL, for reasons only its unnamed spokesman can explain, changed its tune after the story was made public. But no one from the league would meet me face-to-face in a public forum to explain what its specific objections we
re, even after having been invited to do so on two national television programs on which I appeared.

Predictably, with the publication of this book, the league’s now-familiar tactic will be to remain aloof from the charges, deny them from afar, and then send its front line of defense, the loyal sportswriters, to attack the messenger. But, once again, in good faith and asking only for confidentiality, I offered this manuscript to Welsh for his review. But neither he nor anyone else from the NFL responded.

For the record, this book, just like my article, has been fact-checked extensively, read by sports and law-enforcement experts, and closely reviewed by attorneys. Sooner or later, the fans of honest football will be forced to enter this or a similar fray and finally demand accountability from the NFL.

—DAN E. MOLDEA
Washington, D. C.

Notes:

1. Grantland Rice often told a story about an incident that occurred during halftime of a 1920 game, just before Gipp’s death. Rice reported that he had been told by an assistant coach for the Irish, “Being behind by three points, Rock was really laying into the boys. He had about finished when Gipp, standing nearby, asked me for a drag of my cigarette. Rock looked up and spotted Gipp leaning against the door, his helmet on the back of his head, puffing the cigarette.

“Rock exploded, ‘As for you, Gipp, I suppose you haven’t any interest in this game . . . ?’

” ‘Listen, Rock,’ replied Gipp, ‘I’ve got five hundred dollars bet on this game; I don’t aim to blow any five hundred!’ “

Rockne said nothing and never disciplined his player who had been gambling on the outcome of his own games.

2. “Page Six,” New York Post, 9 January, 1989.

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