How the NFL Accidentally Solved Its Gambling Problem
The NFL was once plagued by gambling scandals, but another one of its ongoing battles ended up being the perfect solution.
Photo by Baishampayan Ghose via Flickr Creative Commons
Rob Gronkowski would love it if you joined his weekly fantasy football league. First place pays $5,000. it took decades, but the NFL has finally escaped the ghost of its past gambling scandals—so much so that Gronkowski's affiliation with a pseudo-gambling ring registers as no big deal. Still, it took decades.
Until its closure in 2002, Lindell A.C. was a revered part of Detroit's sporting culture. The sports bar, once festooned with hockey sticks signed by Gordie Howe and baseball bats signed by Al Kaline, was the place to be for anybody in or around Detroit's sports scene.
In 1963, that included Alex Karras, a gigantic defensive lineman who opened the 1960s with three consecutive Pro Bowl seasons for the Lions. Karras was such a big fan of Lindell he became a part owner. His partners were two brothers, one of whom was a known gambler, and on January 7, 1963, the Detroit News reported Karras had been seen at Lindell with a number of known Detroit gamblers.
When Karras' connection to the gamblers who frequented and co-owned Lindell became public, the NFL demanded Karras sell his interest in the bar or face expulsion from the league. The NFL had faced a number of game fixing scandals in the two decades prior. The most prominent came in 1946, when Merle Hapes and Frank Filchock of the New York Giants were bribed to throw the NFL Championship game against the Chicago Bears. In exchange for their cooperation, the pair was to receive $2,500 and a $2,000 bet on the game, the profits of which would go to them.
Karras, however, held fast. He explained why to Dan Moldea, author of the 1989 book Interference: How Organized Crime Influences Professional Football:
"The NFL asked me to leave the bar because of the unsavory characters who walked into the bar. I said, 'Fine, I'll do that, just as long as you don't let the unsavory characters come into the stadium.' The NFL did not reply to that. I never worried about whether the league gave me permission or not. I was making nine thousand dollars a year playing football and eighteen thousand with the bar. It didn't make much sense to leave the bar to go play football."
Karras (who later had an acting career that saw him star in Blazing Saddles, among other films) eventually relented. He sold his interest in Lindell and was reinstated prior to the 1964 season. But in Karras' story, the incentives for NFL players to gamble on and even fix games becomes clear. NFL players had one of the most precarious jobs in the country, one with an average career length under five years and low salaries. Meanwhile, large amounts of money were flowing through gambling markets contingent on game results controlled by those very workers. What, then, did a player truly have to lose?
But by the 1980s, according to multiple bookmakers, gamblers, and other sources interviewed by Moldea, players fixing games was a thing of the past. An oddsmaker named Bobby Martin said, "There were a lot of fixed games during the 1950s, but there's nothing like that anymore… 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, whom Moldea called "perhaps the most renowned football handicapper in the United States," affirmed Martin's conclusion and added, "To make the risk worthwhile, the high-salaried athlete would expect a sizable payoff."
Thanks to increases in television revenue, competition from the United States Football League, and the labor fights of the NFLPA, the average NFL player salary exploded from $27,500 in 1972 to $90,102 by 1982 and all the way to $299,616 by 1989, the year Moldea published Interference. The award promised to Hapes and Filchock to fix the 1946 NFL Championship Game comes out to roughly $30,000 in 1989 dollars according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics—less than the league's minimum salary.
The minimum salary in today's NFL stands at $420,000 for rookies and is no less than $645,000 for any player with at least three year's experience, according to the league's Collective Bargaining Agreement. The result is a completely different world for athletes than the one Karras lived in, where his part ownership of a local bar paid out twice as much as his All-Pro NFL labor.
Such an environment makes coordinating a fix nearly impossible. Even if a rogue gambler could cobble together the likely six-figure sum (or higher) required to turn a player towards fixing, he would need to find a bookmaker—or enough bookmakers—willing to take the large bets necessary to make a profit.
Those bookmakers won't be found in legal betting areas, either offshore or in Las Vegas. "The way the limits work for something like the NFL at the most respected offshore books (i.e. Pinnacle, Bookmaker) is they start off pretty small (low four figures) early in the week, and then as they take some bets and are more confident they're dealing a reasonable line, the limits go up throughout the week, getting to mid-to-high-five figures (sometimes $100K) by gametime," says Jacob Wheatley-Schaller via email, a sports gambling expert and the author of vegaswatch.org, a blog devoted to exposing misleading and misinformed treatments of gambling in sports journalism. "Other offshore shops mirror that general approach, although generally on a smaller scale."
Wheatley-Schaller says bet limits in Vegas work similarly, "although their limits at the higher end are more dependent on if they think you are any good or not (thus Mayweather being able to bet $2 million, which is an amount one casino would never agree to take on an NFL game if they thought the bettor was getting the best of it)." Fixing multiple games and taking profits over a long period of time at a single book would be difficult as well. "No matter where you bet, you're going to have a hard time staying under the radar if you're betting huge amounts and consistently winning," Wheatley-Schaller says. "Eventually the people taking your bets will either stop doing that, or figure out you're providing them with really valuable information and want to bet it themselves."
A bettor or a group of bettors could spread relatively small bets across a number of casinos. However, Wheatley-Schaller says such a strategy is "easier said than done, since offshores, Vegas shops and bookies tend to pay pretty close attention to what the line is at other shops with high limits." The concentrated bets on a single team would create enough movement in the betting lines to create suspicion.
This isn't to say game fixing and point shaving are completely dead. But when it has popped up in the new millennium, it has been concentrated in low-major college basketball or football games with double-digit point spreads. According to a March story in ESPN The Magazine on University of San Diego basketball player Brandon Johnson, who received a six-month prison sentence for his role in a sports bribery conspiracy in 2012, several NCAA football and basketball players have either been prosecuted or kicked off their teams for their parts in point shaving schemes.
These low-major football and basketball leagues, full of players plying their craft for free with little chance of going pro, are more analogous to the NFL of the 1940s-1960s than the NFL of today. Fewer books offer action on these games, with lower betting limits, and less attention paid to the lines.
Still, the NFL fears the influence of gamblers and game fixers, at least publicly. In his 2001 book The Odds: One Season, Three Gamblers, and the Death of Their Las Vegas, Chad Millman cites then-NFL Security Vice President Milt Aherlich, who called betting "the hydrogen bomb of the leagues." Section 15 of the standard NFL player contract, "INTEGRITY OF GAME," allows for the fine, suspension, or termination of a contract for any player "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; [or] knowingly associates with gamblers or gambling activity."
But despite the NFL's protests, the problem of game fixing doesn't appear to be one the NFL needs to think too hard about any time soon. Now that the league pays its players like they are the best in the world at what they do—despite its best efforts since the players first unionized in 1956—what was once the league's biggest problem has, ironically enough, solved itself.