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How Organized Crime Influences Professional Football
By Dan E. Moldea
On Fixing Games and Inside InformationI once asked Pro Football Hall of Fame quarterback Len Dawson of the Kansas City Chiefs whether the fact that his team's games had been taken off the betting boards by bookmakers across the country during the late 1960s was an indication that they were fixed. Dawson replied, "It would be a dangerous thing to fix a game. To me, a player would be branded for life if he did that. His teammates would express shock and anger. I don't know how one guy could do it, even a quarterback. In our system, we ran the ball a lot. Even when I wasn't in there, it didn't make much difference who was quarterback, because the defense scored points to help win games.
"I suppose the quarterback could put the ball on the ground, with turnovers in crucial situations. It would certainly have a bearing on the game. Hell, a kicker could have as much to do with it just by missing. He has more control over it than sometimes the quarterback does."
Defensive back Dick "Night Train" Lane, formerly of the Detroit Lions and also a member of the Hall of Fame, told me that while he was a player he was once approached by Donald Dawson, the Detroit gambler who was later linked in a federal probe with Len Dawson, who was no relation. Recalling the incident, which he did not report to the NFL, Lane says, "Don told me, 'Quarterbacks do a lot of betting themselves. Did you know that?' I said [laughing], 'Get out of here.' He said, 'You know it can be done, Night Train. You're the only man between the goal post and a receiver. You can slip and fall and let the guy score.'"
When I asked Lane whether Don Dawson was really suggesting that he throw a game, Lane replied that that was clearly his impression. He added that he had known Dawson for years and worked for his cousin, a Detroit car dealer, during the off-season. Lane also said that Dawson talked about the other players with whom he did business--a fact confirmed by agents for the FBI, the U.S. Strike Force Against Organized Crime, and the IRS, among other federal agencies.
Don Dawson admitted to me that he had made that statement to Lane, whom he described as "a good friend of mine." Dawson says, "I'm sure I said that to him. Not that I was trying to bribe him, but he was probably trying to feel me out, too. Over the years, there were a lot of players I bet for, but they weren't necessarily doing any business [participating in a fix]. But some of them were prepared to do it. They came to me. I was a wealthy guy. I had money. The players weren't making any money. The owners were making all the money."
Former all-pro defensive back Bernie Parrish, an author of a 1971 book critical of the NFL whose playing career spanned from 1959 to 1966, told me, "Sure, there were players who participated in shaving points in games and that sort of thing. Yeah, I played in them. But I always heard about it after the game was over."
Don Dawson confessed to me that during the 1950s and 1960s, he had been personally involved in the fixing of no fewer than thirty-two NFL games.
That was the fear during the 1980s when, according to law enforcement officials, no fewer than nine NFL teams--the Cleveland Browns, Dallas Cowboys, Denver Broncos, Miami Dolphins, New England Patriots, New Orleans Saints, San Diego Chargers, San Francisco 49ers, and the Washington Redskins--found themselves the targets of investigations in which players had been allegedly given drugs by gamblers who were looking for an on-field edge. And, particularly in 1988, numerous other NFL teams found their players being disciplined by the league for using, buying, and/or selling drugs, which along with gambling are the two most lucrative enterprises of organized crime.
Don Dawson's shocking admission is a first. No one has ever stepped forward and claimed to have actually been involved in fixed games. Although such charges have occasionally been made through the years of the NFL's existence, they have traditionally been hard to prove. "They are cases where it's difficult to discover hard evidence as to who is involved," says Brian Gettings, a former Strike Force attorney in Miami who was responsible for prosecuting Gilbert Lee Beckley, the Mafia's onetime top layoff bookmaker. "You have to have an individual directly involved in the sports bribe or the fix to get a successful prosecution. And that is quite difficult."
Marty Kane, one of Beckley's top associates, told me, "If I wanted to fix a game, there're three players I'd get: the quarterback, the offensive center, and a defensive back. Then I would bet as much money as I could. I would have beards. I would have people all over the country trying to bet for me on this game."
Oddsmaker Bobby Martin remembers, "There were a lot of fixed games during the 1950s, but there's nothing like that anymore. Years ago, players bet, mostly on their own teams. They'd say, 'Oh, I see we're six point favorites or four-point underdogs. We'll win this game. We know much better than the people who post the odds about what we can do.' And then they'd bet $100 or $200.
"But, now, the players are paid too much money. There's too much of a spotlight on them. Oddsmakers want honest football. We don't want anything dishonest. It interferes with our handicapping if the games are fixed. I can't get a true picture of the value of the teams."
Mort Olshan, perhaps the most renowned football handicapper in the United States and the publisher of the widely-read Gold Sheet, agrees and told me, "The tip off on any fix is manifested in the movement of the odds and the appearance of 'unnatural' money. To orchestrate a fix would require the cooperation of a coach and one or more of his top players; no nonessential player or underpaid sub is in a position to affect the outcome. Even then there is no guarantee the culprits could pull it off. There are too many outside factors.
"To make the risk worthwhile, the high-salaried athlete would expect a sizable payoff. But the chief deterrent to a setup is that virtually the only source one can place a substantial bet with is a bookie. And just as soon as the first plunge is made, the odds will move dramatically. Since this would be no penny-ante venture, more bets would follow. To avoid instant suspicion, 'unnatural' money would be spread all over the nation's betting marts. Since bookmakers have telephones, word would spread faster than news of a nuclear attack. If the jackpot got too big the game would be taken off the board. The skullduggery would be spotted in no time."
Olshan also added that sporting contests have been fixed. "Sure, that kind of foul was going on in college basketball during the 1950s. Games were fixed, and points were shaved. For the handicappers and the bookmakers, it was corrupt and costly. Bookmakers were burned financially and the handicappers' figures became irrelevant. If you look at the college basketball fixes during the early 1950s, it had the effect of putting a lot of bookmakers out of business. When a game is fixed, they are the first ones to suffer the consequences."
A star of the 1969 Super Bowl, Jim Hudson, a former defensive back with the New York Jets, told me, "My theory always was: If somebody was going to buy me to fall down on a pass play, I would want to know when that son of a bitch was going to pay me. Now, if you're a gambler, would you pay me before the game? No. Would you pay me at halftime? No. You would say you'll pay me after the game. Now, I'm the player, and I'm going to say, 'Do you think I'm going to wait until after the game when I'm never going to see your ass again?'
"How are you going to bribe someone? Every bookie in the world is going to know about it. And that line is going to go crazy. I don't believe that things like that went on then or now."
Nevertheless, some argue that it doesn't make any difference whether a game is fixed to anyone who doesn't know that it is. Considering the economics of bookmaking, which will be discussed at length in this book, the uninvolved and innocent bettor still has a fifty-fifty chance of winning, whether or not the game is fixed. The only people a fixed game means anything to are those who know about it. They know they have a winner. And their large bets, strategically placed around the country to avoid suspicion, simply become a part of the multi-billion dollar pool of wagers booked on every NFL game.
To them, a fixed game is like insider trading on Wall Street. Everyday, there are a handful of people who know a sure thing is going to happen before it happens. Yet, even when it does happen, the investment markets in America somehow manage to survive--and usually no one outside of the fix ever finds out about it.
There is also the contention that it has been extremely rare that a member of the organized crime gambling syndicate ordered a member of a team to throw a game or to shave points. History shows that fixers are prosecuted, and they go to jail. When a sporting event has been fixed, the public becomes disillusioned and loses confidence in the sport in which the fix occurred. That means less bookmaking volume from those who gamble and less vigorish for those who book their bets.
When I asked Baton Rouge bookmaker Gene Nolan whether he had ever known anyone who ordered a fix, he replied, "I don't know that anybody ever told anyone what to do. I think someone just found out what a member of a team was going to do--on the basis of whether the player or the coach thought he could or couldn't win. I don't think anyone ever told someone to lie down--like a fighter."
Consequently, it is naive to think that the only litmus test of honest NFL football is whether or not its games are fixed. It is not. There are far more important considerations in making this determination. And those considerations must encompass the associations of NFL personnel with the underworld and, most importantly, the backgrounds and business relationships of those who rule professional football: the NFL team owners.
The organized-crime gambling syndicate believes that inside information is necessary in order to discover what a member of a team is doing or might be doing. Aside from the rare fix, inside information is the commodity that professional gamblers will bank on. The mob wants to learn everything it can about the players' health, their marital problems, deaths in their families, drug dependencies, internal team problems, and anything else that might affect on-field performances, especially those situations that are not immediately reported in a public forum.
Los Angeles mobster-turned-government informant Jimmy Fratianno told my associate, William Scott Malone, that from personal experience inside information is key for organized-crime figures and their associates. "They get information, like, a person might know the coach, and some guy might have gotten hurt on Monday in practice, a key player. They [the team] won't reveal that until probably later on in the week, because they don't want the opposite team to get prepared for it. They get hurt on Monday; they reveal it on Thursday. Somebody finds out about it, and they bet on the game. Well, as soon as it is revealed that this person is hurt, then the odds will change. The guy that had the information already is in with maybe three or four points to the best of it."
On the importance of injury reports, Mort Olshan only partially agrees with Fratianno. "Ninety-five percent of the rumors [about injuries] are baloney and wouldn't have a bearing on the game even if they were true," Olshan says. "The most meaningful reports are those where multiple injuries occur on the same team, thereby wrecking the club's cohesiveness and causing either the defense or the offense to overwork."
Organized-crime expert G. Robert Blakey, a former top Justice Department lawyer who is now a professor of law at Notre Dame, told me, "The Mafia wants an honest game, because they know they have the contacts within the NFL teams to determine how to bet as accurately as possible. That's the only edge they need. Providing inside information happens every week of the season. And that's what goes to the heart of the integrity of the NFL."
Another top crime expert, Vincent Piersante, who headed the organized-crime unit of the Michigan attorney general's office, explained to me, "The Mafia wants ace-rock information so that they can set a realistic point-spread. They just want the public to bet. They make their ten percent commission on losing bets, so, as long as their bookmakers balance their books, what the hell do they care which team wins or loses. The old-line mob guys recognize the danger of trying to fix one game and destroying the whole structure. They just want the inside information that can help predict a player's performance."
Al Davis, the owner of the Los Angeles Raiders, also appears to agree with Fratianno, and the others about the importance of the mob's inside information: "They [the bookmakers] have contacts with every owner in the league."1
Gene Klein, the former owner of the San Diego Chargers, told me, "I've heard rumors [about fixed games], but I probably closed my mind to it. I have had people come up to me and say, 'How could the gamblers hit the points so well?' But I am convinced that most the owners are goddamn decent people.
"Yet, everybody is looking for inside information. Everyone wants the edge. That's the great thing about [the NFL's] publishing the injury reports. That's the source of information. The league is very, very forceful on that point so that everyone has the same information."
The league's former commissioner, Pete Rozelle strongly opposed legalizing sports gambling. He has said that "gambling is more serious than drugs because it goes to the integrity of the game." Rozelle knew this better than anyone. He was forced to deal with a gambling problem of one kind or another every year since he was elected the NFL's chief executive officer in 1960. The fact that most fans can't recall much about the NFL's gambling scandals is testimony to his ability to enhance the league's public image while he policed the conduct of its personnel.
"We have a basic rule in the NFL," says a former law enforcement official who advises the NFL on security matters. "It is to keep it upbeat and keep it positive. But, above all, they want to keep everything quiet."
Rozelle's ability to keep things quiet earned him criticism, as well as admiration, in some quarters. A top NFL official is adamant in his defense of Rozelle. "Why should the NFL publicize hearsay and innuendo? If the commissioner publicized a matter under investigation, that would be irresponsible. It's our policy not to create a problem that might not be there. And if it is a problem, we handle it ourselves. And if the problem hits the newspapers, then we respond publicly."
The security consultant replies, "Rozelle's job [was] that of the protector of the appearance of integrity within the NFL. To Rozelle, a problem with a player's gambling or an owner's having some Mafia associations [didn't] really become a major problem until the situation received publicity. Then he [was] forced to act in a public way.
"Rozelle is an honest guy. He [had] a long-term contract and a $500,000-a-year salary to guarantee that. But his job [was] really dependent on the goodwill of the twenty-eight owners in the NFL to whom he [was] accountable . . . And when you consider the investments they have in their teams, none of them wants bad publicity. It's bad for business."
Since the underworld's attempt to fix the NFL's 1946 championship game--after which two New York Giants players, Frank Filchock and Merle Hapes, were suspended--the league has become especially conscious of occasional maneuvers by organized-crime figures, bookmakers, and gamblers to guarantee the outcome of football games. When Bert Bell was the league's commissioner from 1946 to 1959, he maintained close contacts with members of the nation's gambling community in order to monitor unusual fluctuations in the betting line and unusually large, suspicious bets that were placed on games.
Because of the concerns of Bell and Rozelle, a notice in bold letters now hangs in every locker room to warn NFL personnel of the league's rules on gambling. The league prohibits players from betting on NFL games, from accepting bribes or agreeing to throw or fix games, from failing to promptly report offers of bribes or attempts to throw or fix games, and from associating with gamblers or with gambling activities in a manner that would discredit the NFL. "Any such conduct," reads the sign, "may result in severe penalties, up to and including a fine and/or suspension from the NFL for life."2
Rozelle's antigambling policy has been publicly supported by the NFL team managements. During my interview with Steve Gutman, the president of the New York Jets, he said, "My views about gambling are precisely those of the league. I wouldn't want to characterize them in any way to deviate from that. And I would want to stand on that."
As is well-known, defensive tackle Alex Karras of the Detroit Lions and running back Paul Hornung of the Green Bay Packers each received one-year suspensions from the NFL in 1963 because of their admitted gambling activities. Since then, only one other person has been suspended for gambling: Art Schlichter, a rookie quarterback with the Baltimore Colts. In 1983, he admitted to associating with gamblers and losing more than $700,000 in bets on NFL games and other sporting events.
As a result of the 1963 players' betting scandal, Rozelle created NFL Security and selected Jim Hamilton, the former chief of intelligence with the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD), as its first director. In 1966, Hamilton, who died after a long illness, was replaced by William Hundley, the chief of Robert F. Kennedy's organized-crime division in the Justice Department. Hundley was succeeded by Jack Danahy, a New York FBI agent, in 1968. Danahy held the position until 1980, when he was followed by the current director of NFL Security, Warren Welsh, a former Miami-based FBI agent.
The directors of NFL Security have attempted to safeguard the league against the corruption of its players, trainers, coaches, owners, and referees, all of whom are potential targets for blackmail and payoffs in exchange for inside information and other favors. NFL Security is supported by a network of private investigators, mostly former officials with the Justice Department and other law-enforcement agencies, who are stationed in the twenty-six cities where the twenty-eight NFL teams are based (New York and Los Angeles each support two teams).
"These representatives are on retainer to the league, and they specifically report to the league," Warren Welsh told me. "In addition to their game-day coverage and their liaison with the local law-enforcement community, they would also do background investigations that we might have for game officials, an ownership group, impersonations, misrepresentations, whatever it might be, as opposed to just working for the local team."
The NFL, under Rozelle, followed Bert Bell's policy of maintaining regular contacts with members of the gambling underworld in order to monitor the betting on NFL games.
Warren Welsh explains, "We're very cognizant that the early line comes out on Sunday, and we have somebody in Vegas that follows that for us. And then we have our security reps all over the country report in to us, and give us the opening line. And then if there are changes in the line that are over two points, they report that immediately. If not, then the security reps report to us on Friday at about noon. And then we are able to disseminate the line and any changes to our key executives, so that they are aware of the information and any changes."
Monitoring NFL personnel, as well as the line, may be unpalatable, but it is necessary. Two years before the Schlichter suspension, several members of the Denver Broncos were quietly disciplined by the league for receiving cocaine from gambling figures. And, in 1986, the league began an investigation of Irving Fryar, a wide receiver for the New England Patriots who was accused of betting on NFL games. Fryar had been named by his team's officials as one of six Patriots players who used illegal drugs. The investigation remains open.
The conditions under which players may be compromised are clear and present in the NFL today. "Our worst case would be the athlete who is strung out on drugs and has a line of credit with his drug dealer and can't pay the bill," says Welsh. "Then he gets that knock on the door. And [the player] says, 'Hey, I told you. I can't pay the bill.' And then [the dealer] says, 'Hey, I don't want your money, but now you're going to work for us.'"
A major West Coast bookmaker agrees, "A lot of players have gotten involved in cocaine and are well over their heads--as much as ten thousand to twenty thousand dollars a month in cocaine. There is a very real danger that if they can't pay their debt, they give information and do make some mistakes in a ball game so that the dealer can make a bet and even out. And that's a great opportunity for a bookmaker, too: to set up something for a cocaine dealer and find out information that way."
Michael Roxborough of Las Vegas, who has succeeded Bobby Martin as the nation's most influential oddsmaker on NFL games, told me, "The NFL is not doing a very good job in the area of drug enforcement. But people just don't think that there is a problem with the manipulation of the outcome of NFL games. Most people think that drugs aren't a very serious problem. Until the public demands that it gets cleaned up, the NFL isn't going to feel that it has to do very much."
Former Olympic gold medalist Bob Hayes, who was also a receiver for the Dallas Cowboys and pleaded guilty to setting up a cocaine deal after he retired from football, told me, "It goes a lot further than just saying 'no' to drugs. And the NFL has been unrealistic about that because they treat drug abuse as a problem, not a disease. The use of drugs is a disease. And when you have a disease, you are a sick person and you need to get well. Until then, people are going to try to take advantage of you."
Criticism of the NFL's security system is generally not targeted at the commissioner or the security director. Instead, it's directed at the NFL owners, who establish the league's policies.
Aaron Kohn, the former executive director of the Metropolitan Crime Commission of New Orleans, told me, "They [the NFL owners] have a tendency to employ as security people former FBI agents and other people of confidence who do competent investigations and do accumulate adverse information. But at the policy-making level, the decisions are not made consistent with the fact-finding.
"I know that the NFL can't go too far. They are going to do whatever they have to to prevent the problems of their owners and players and their overall profits from becoming subjects of public scrutiny."
Some critics say that the league enforces its rules selectively. "Rozelle [couldn't] enforce the rules against the owners because he [worked] for them," Gene Upshaw, the executive director of the NFL Players Association (NFLPA) and a former all-pro guard for the Oakland Raiders, told me. "There's no way he [could] say, 'I'm going to punish you because you own a racetrack, because you're involved in Las Vegas, or because you do business with people who are involved in gambling.' But I would like to think that the rules of suspension and banishment should also apply to the owners."
One top NFL official says, "We've had owners that have supposedly been friends or associates of mobsters, and when we looked into it they had dinner in a restaurant, maybe four or five times in a year." Nevertheless, the NFL did nothing about these owners who socialized with underworld figures.
Another football insider says that many investigations of NFL owners have ended up in "a black hole" and were never disclosed. "To me," he says, "NFL Security is a special police force that monitors the players but protects the owners. It's one thing to monitor the activities of the players, because they come and go. It's quite another to monitor the activities of the owners. They seem to last forever."
Patrick Healy, the former executive director of the Chicago Crime Commission, told me, "The NFL tries to give you the public Kiwanis Club talk: 'We have very little gambling; we have very little drugs. We have everything under control. We have FBI agents working for us, and whenever any rumor comes out they pounce on it. They discover it. They investigate it.' Actually, the whole thing is really just a witch tale."
Former Senate investigator Phil Manuel, another critic of the NFL security system, told me, "The oldest trick in the world is to hire old Justice Department officials and then make them understand that the security they are to protect is the security of the NFL owners.
"These retired law enforcement guys maintain their ties to their old agencies, and they can then tell which investigations are being done and whether they might be troublesome. When some wrongdoing is ready to go public, the NFL Security people can go to their old fellow workers and say, 'We can handle this ourselves. Give us a chance to straighten the mess out without all the attention your public investigation will bring.'"
Ralph Salerno, the former chief of detectives for the New York Police Department, goes even further. "How does the NFL protect itself with one guy in each NFL city? They do it illegally. The local NFL Security guy takes the local police commissioner, the chief of detectives, and any other important law enforcement official and gives him season tickets and box seats. They get wined and dined and taken out to play golf.
"And then these public employees who are paid with public funds come up with criminal information and turn it over to profit-making corporations, like the New York Giants, the Cincinnati Bengals, and so on. And that is illegal. Do the police do that for every trucking company or every furniture manufacturer? Of course not. It would be illegal for them to do it with anyone. But they do it for the NFL. That whole NFL Security operation that Rozelle [bragged] about is simply an illegal operation."
Welsh defends the current system. He insists that he is a "fact finder" and has never been asked to halt an investigation of any NFL personnel. "And there have never been any roadblocks put up in my path in terms of investigating anything that would have to do with a member club--whether it was a player, coach, or an owner."
That might be true: Warren Welsh and his predecessors have all been men of high integrity. But they have had no final decision-making powers. Thus, the real question is: What have their bosses, the NFL owners, done once they received the results of their investigations?
The evidence is clear that they have protected themselves and their investments--sometimes to the detriment of the sport they represent.
1. Deposition of Allen Davis, Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum Commission v. National Football League, U.S. District Court, Central District of California, Civil Action No. 78-3523-HP.
2. In the standard NFL players' contract, there is a section, entitled "Integrity of Game," that reads: "Player recognizes the detriment to the League and professional football that would result from impairment of public confidence in the honest and orderly conduct of NFL games or the integrity and good character of NFL players. Player therefore acknowledges his awareness that if he accepts a bribe or agrees to throw or fix an NFL game; fails to promptly report a bribe offer or an attempt to throw or fix an NFL game; bets on an NFL game; knowingly associates with gamblers or gambling activity; uses or provides other players with stimulants or other drugs for the purpose of attempting to enhance on-field performance; or is guilty of any other form of conduct reasonably judged by the League Commissioner to be detrimental to the League of professional football, the Commissioner will have the right, but only after giving Player the opportunity for a hearing at which he may be represented by counsel of his choice, to fine Player in a reasonable amount; to suspend Player for a period certain or indefinitely; and/or to terminate this contract."
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