The History of Gambling and How it Built the NFL
Ian Glendon
Posted: 2018-05-15

On Monday, the Supreme Court reversed the anti-sports sports gambling law, a major hurdle in nationwide sports betting. A business that essentially built the NFL in the early 20th century. Last summer, June to be precise, I wrote a piece highlighting gambling and it's role in building the foundation of the NFL and its role in growing the current game. Given the news today, it seems especially relevant.

The National Football League has long held the stance that any affiliation with a gambling entity or likeness flies in the face of the integrity of the shield. However, that ignores the fact that the NFL shield was built on and continues to grow at a rapid rate, because of gambling.

And it's not going to change anytime soon, despite commissioner Roger Goodell's public stance against nationwide legalized sports betting. Let's put it this way, if the NFL really wanted to eliminate gambling, they could. But why eliminate a massive source of product interest and revenue?

The NFL's ties to gambling are nothing new. Going back to the infancy of the NFL, gambling has been a driving force for the league. Some people claim that Steelers' founder and racetrack owner, Art Rooney Sr., purchased the franchise in 1933 with winnings from horse racing.

Although that may be unproven, other affiliations are not. Chicago Cardinals (now in Arizona) founder Charles Bidwill Sr. was also a racetrack owner (more on him in a minute). Tim Mara, the founder of the Giants, was a bookie at the time of his purchase of the Giants. All three franchises still remain within the family.

Back to Bidwell. Before he ultimately founded the Cardinals, Bidwell Sr. was a known gambler and bootlegger who had ties to Al Capone's mob. In the 1920's Bidwell helped George Halas finance one of the league's most storied franchises, the Chicago Bears.

And the list goes on. Former Cleveland Browns owner, Arthur McBride, was the head of the Continental Racing Wire. What is that you ask? It was the mob's gambling news service.

McBride would later sell the franchise to Art Modell, who like many owners that preceded him, was involved in horse racing. His partner at the horse track was a man named Morris Wexler. He too had ties to the Continental Racing Wire and Capone's mob.

In a more recent example, beloved San Francisco 49ers owner and recent inductee to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Eddie DeBartolo, bribed a Louisiana governor, $400,000, for a casino boat license. DeBartolo avoided jail time but was banished from the NFL for just the 1999 season. However, he decided not to return to the team, handing over power to Denise York.

Back to the present

The point is that gambling has been a foundation for the league, whether league wants to admit it or not. Roger Goodell and the commissioners before him have all hidden behind the "integrity" of the league. When it is not so much about integrity for the NFL, but about money.

A Sporting News story from 2014 introduced us to Rich Baccellieri, who was a supervisor at the Caesars Palace sports book in the 80's. In this story, he outlines what he felt was the true motivating factor for the NFL.

The NFL can't be too much against gambling when in the late 1980s, when the Nevada casinos were getting free feeds from satellite dishes, the NFL said you guys have to pay for that. They could have said, it's illegal to bet on games. Instead, they said you owe us a fee. It's hypocritical. They're not against gambling, they're against not making money.

In other words, if the NFL is not getting a piece of the action, it violates the integrity of the league. Sports books take nearly $4 Billion in bets a year, with half of that coming from professional and college football. The NFL knows this and they know that gambling is the lifeblood of the expansion of the game. It is the reason why the NFL has injury reports. Not for fair play on the field, but in the casinos.

It is why they look the other way when owners have varying interests with gambling entities, whether directly or indirectly. But then they take a stand on smaller issues, such as Tony Romo's Fantasy Football Camp. In that case, the NFL refused to let the players participate because of its perceived affiliation with gambling. At the same time, multiple teams have had training camp at The Greenbrier in West Virginia. On the same grounds as the training facility a casino.

Despite the NFL's "strong stance" against gambling, Raiders move to Vegas

In what is probably the largest display of hypocrisy on the part of the NFL, is their recent approval of the Oakland Raiders move to Las Vegas. The gambling capital of the world.

In 1969, the NFL forced Jets' quarterback Joe Namath to sell his shares in a New York City bar because of the business' ties to gambling. Just this week, the NFL settled a lawsuit filed against them for when they moved a charity bowling event from a Las Vegas venue because of its ties to gambling. But moving an entire franchise to Las Vegas is ok.

Roger Goodell and company also took issue with a charity arm wrestling championship in Vegas that involved several players including James Harrison and Patrick Chung. The issue was something, something gambling.

The National Hockey League will open the 2017 season with the expansion Las Vegas Golden Knights playing in the heart of Sin City. The NFL desperately wanted to be the first professional league to call Vegas home, but that would never happen before they moved a team back to Los Angeles. The NHL beat them to the punch, however with the Rams and now the Chargers have moved to L.A., the final hurdle in the NFL's path to Vegas had been cleared.

The bottom line is that it is about time for the NFL to drop the entire facade. Accept gambling and move forward on a process to integrate it into the business model. The NFL already profits greatly from gambling, why not acknowledge it? Hordes of new fans are drawn to the game because of fantasy football and other gambling interests. They stay drawn for the same reason. Now the NFL just needs to accept it and stop hiding behind the conceived integrity of the league.



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