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Prologue: Dealing with Myths

Excerpt­ed from
Inter­fer­ence: How Orga­nized Crime Influ­ences Pro­fes­sion­al Foot­ball [1]
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.