Betting on the NFL Goes on Trial (Part 2)
Chick Gandil—the Chicago first baseman and the man who designed the infamous fix of the 1919 World Series between his White Sox and the Cincinnati Reds—probably viewed himself as nothing more than a rational futures trader.
In 1919, the White Sox were the best team in the American League and the worst paid. Thus, after Chicago clinched the A.L. pennant and its spot in the World Series, Gandil and seven of his teammates agreed to sell their effort short during the World Series in exchange for $80,000.
In the futures market, a trader that “shorts” a future sells a future that he or she does not own.
In the 1919 Worlds Series, Gandil and his teammates sold the effort that they did not give. In other words, the “Black Sox” shorted the World Series.
And, the Black Sox almost assuredly would have gotten away with their trade if Gandil had not made one fatal mistake.
Gandil did not account for catcher Ray Schalk.
In order to short the World Series, Gandil knew he had to get the Black Sox star pitcher, Eddie Cicotte, to short when he took the mound. When Cicotte agreed to short during his turns on the hill and Chicago’s second best pitcher, Lefty Williams, followed Cicotte’s lead and agreed to short his outings as well, Gandil had to have thought his big short would finish in the money.
But Ray Schalk caught them, both literally and figuratively.
“There is something unique about the position of a catcher that intensifies the emotion of a ball game,” Eliot Asinof wrote in his timeless classic, Eight Men Out: The Black Sox and the 1919 World Series. “He, alone, sees the entire action in front of him, feels the presence of the umpire behind him, urges his will on every pitch, on every ball-strike decision. He squats behind the hitter, hollering through an iron mask, working a pitcher, harassing the batters, getting meaning out of every pitch. Schalk was relentless. The pitcher was his own special baby; the infielders were his nephews. He barked at them all, hustled them, made them work, made them think, made them play ball. And when they didn’t, he raged.”
On December 15, 1919—two months after the Black Sox finished shorting the World Series—a kindred spirit of Schalk was kindling a fire in New York. That day, Hugh Fullerton and the New York World put the issue underlying Gandil’s big short on the front page in a story entitled, “Is Big League Baseball Being Run For Gamblers, With Ballplayers In The Deal?”
“About this time, an interview with catcher Ray Schalk appeared in a small Chicago paper,” Asinoff wrote. “Schalk purportedly had spoken with guarded anger, claiming he knew for a fact that seven White Sox players would not be around for the coming season. He did not elaborate. Apparently he had refused to discuss the matter further.”
Finally, as the following 1920 season was nearing its close, the Grand Jury of Cook County investigating the 1919 World Series summoned Schalk to testify on September 28, 1920.
But he never testified.
Earlier that morning, with Schalk on deck, Cicotte confessed to the Grand Jury.
“I did it by not putting a thing on the ball,” Cicotte said according to Asinoff. “You could have read the trade mark on it the way I lobbed it over the plate. A baby could have hit ’em. Schalk was wise the moment I started pitching.”
Today, we catch some shorting on television.
Clearly, the NFL has an interest in inhibiting the type of shorting that Gandil and Cicotte undertook in 1919.
But would permitting the residents of New Jersey and other states to bet on sporting events really “adversely affect the way the public views amateur and professional sports” as the NFL and the other leagues and associations pled in their complaint?
It would not seem so given that New Jersey residents just voted 2-1 in favor of sports betting and a Field Poll showed that California registered voters favor legalizing sports betting by a margin of 58 percent to 35 percent.
In 1977, the United States District Court for the District of Delaware reached the same conclusion in National Football League v. Governor of the State of Delaware when it held that Delaware’s NFL-based lottery did not unlawfully interfere with the NFL’s business provided Delaware took steps to inform the public that the NFL was not a sponsor of the lottery.
In the Delaware case, the district court found that the “core” of the NFL’s objections to the state’s NFL-based lottery was what the NFL termed “a forced association with gambling.” The NFL argued that this so-called forced association with gambling would hurt its reputation for integrity. Judge Richard R. Wier, Jr. did not see it that way.
“[The NFL has] not demonstrated that the existence of gambling on its game, per se, has or will damage its good will or reputation for integrity,” Judge Wier wrote. “By this, I do not suggest that an association of the NFL with a gambling enterprise in the minds of the public would not have a deleterious effect on its business. Such an association presupposes public perception of NFL sponsorship or approval of a gambling enterprise or at least confusion on this score…. I do find, however, that the existence of gambling on NFL games, unaccompanied by any confusion with respect to sponsorship, has not injured the NFL and there is no reason to believe it will do so in the future. The record shows that extensive gambling on NFL games has existed for many years and that this fact of common public knowledge has not injured [the NFL or its] reputation.”
Has the world changed since 1977 such that permitting New Jersey residents to bet on NFL games would really “irreparably harm” the NFL “by fostering suspicion that individual plays and final scores of games may have been influenced by factors other than honest competition” as the NFL stated in its lawsuit?
Moreover, are all NFL games really determined “solely on the basis of honest athletic competition?”
Clearly, the answer to these questions is no, although the compromises that occasionally occur in the NFL today pale in comparison to the hard core fraud perpetrated by corrupt players like Gandil and his Black Sox teammates.
Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, consider Exhibit A, the Indianapolis Colts’ performance against the New York Jets on December 27, 2009.
Indianapolis entered its home game with New York that Sunday with a spotless 14-0 record and quarterback Peyton Manning healthy and operating at the height of his powers. With Manning and his fellow starters in the game, the Colts built a 15-10 third quarter lead and seemed to be on their way to maintaining their perfect season.
Then Indianapolis shorted the game.
Indianapolis coach Jim Caldwell took Manning and his fellow starters out of the game to guard against the possibility that they might suffer an injury that might keep them out of a future playoff game. Soon after Manning donned a baseball cap on the sideline, his backup, Curtis Painter, fumbled and New York’s Marques Douglas returned the fumble for a touchdown and all the points the Jets would need to win the game.
In a spot on impersonation of Ray Schalk, Manning visibly stewed on the sideline.
On Yahoo Sports, Michael Marot wrote of these events, “Little did [Jets’ head coach] Rex Ryan know that when he joked about wanting the Indianapolis Colts to rest their starters for this game, that he’d get his wish.”
“I had a hard time watching how it unfolded,” wrote Paul Kuharsky on ESPN.com. “I don’t see how the durable Manning is at any extreme risk for injury by playing an additional 20 minutes. Coach Jim Caldwell and the Colts put Curtis Painter in a terrible spot. While it’s his duty to be a sacrificial lamb if that’s what his bosses want, it goes against the coaching credo that you don’t ask a player to do something he can’t.”
On one Colts web site, www.stampedeblue.com, Brad Wells wrote, “Welcome to Colts football, where it is a-okay to quit on a football game for no damn reason whatsoever other than fear.”
The Colts’ shorting of the game against the Jets was not as offensive as the Black Sox shorting of the World Series—certainly there was nothing remotely criminal about Indianapolis’ actions.
But the difference between the respective shorts is a difference in degree—not a difference in kind—and the difference between subjective societal attitudes toward the persons doing the shorting (management vs. labor) and the motivation of those persons for shorting (conservation of personnel resources for the good of the team vs. acquisition of personal financial resources at the team’s expense).
Only one genuine gambling controversy has arisen within the NFL since the television era commenced with the Baltimore Colts’ dramatic 23-17 victory over the New York Giants in the 1958 NFL Championship Game. This controversy did not cause any harm to the NFL either.
Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, please consider Exhibit B. In April of 1963, NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle suspended Green Bay running back Paul Hornung and Detroit defensive tackle Alex Karras for one year for betting on NFL games.
Did Hornung’s and Karras’ betting activity and highly public suspensions harm the NFL?
It did not.
“The 1963 season kicked off with the dedication of the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, and saw the continued escalation of ticket sales and television ratings,” Michael MacCambridge wrote in America’s Game: The Epic Story of How Pro Football Captures a Nation.
“The NFL was increasingly being viewed as one of television’s most valuable properties,” MacCambridge observed.
In January of 1964—less than a year after Rozelle suspended Hornung and Karras and two months before he reinstated both players—all three networks bid for the right to broadcast NFL games. CBS won the rights with a $28.2 million bid for two years, an increase of more than 600 percent over the NFL’s prior two-year deal.
“‘The NFL was so big in those days,” advertising executive Barry J. Frank recalled according to MacCambridge. “[CBS executive Bill] McPhail was almost overcome; he was so thrilled to have it.’ Rozelle and McPhail headed to Toots Shor’s for a celebratory toast, while the representatives of the other networks left in dejection.”
While the the Black Sox scandal certainly did not prompt any celebrations, the scandal caused very little, if any, actual harm to the Chicago franchise or to Major League Baseball.
After Hugh Fullerton questioned whether baseball was rigged in the New York World at the end of 1919, intense publicity about the Black Sox big short did not begin again until the start of September of 1920. On September 7, the Grand Jury of Cook County was impaneled to consider, among other things, the possibility that the 1919 World Series might not have been “honest athletic competition.” But nobody had the slightest notion of what would result.
“And, for a while, it appeared nothing would,” Asinoff wrote. “The public had long since become inured to such inaction. It was more rewarding to follow the excitement of the brilliant American League pennant race, and watch the even more dramatic home-run hitting spree of the amazing Babe Ruth, now approaching the unheard of total of 50!”
White Sox owner Charles Comiskey reaped great financial rewards in 1920, despite the negative publicity and the impaneling of the Grand Jury of Cook County.
“Charles Comiskey, during this period, found himself helpless before the fantastic profits of the 1920 gate receipts,” Asinoff wrote. “Any residue of anxiety about the preceding World Series was smothered under this unprecedented pile of money…. The dirty rumors of last fall had been buried in the excitement of the pennant race. Comiskey counted his money and let them lie.”
What ultimately harmed both the White Sox and Major League Baseball as a whole was not the public’s perception of the scandal, but the owners’ irrational fear of public perception which led them to hand absolute power over baseball to federal judge Kennesaw Mountain Landis.
Judge Landis promptly emphasized just how untrustworthy Major League Baseball had been by banning the Black Sox players for life despite that fact that they had been acquitted of the charges that had been brought against them by the Grand Jury.
If a jury comprised of members of the public was willing to acquit Gandil, Cicotte, et al. even after it was widely known that they had shorted the World Series, why would any rational person ever again fear public reaction to sports betting?
Is fear itself the only thing to fear?
If there is any sport in the world that is perfectly designed to be impervious to outside tampering by gamblers, it is NFL football.
First, the traditional NFL culture abhors shorting on the field—even the practice field—for any reason. For example, at the very first practice that Vince Lombardi held in Green Bay in 1959, the legendary coach observed veteran wide receiver Max McGee walking back to the huddle.
“GET BACK OVER THERE! howled Lombardi,” according to MacCambridge. “Mister, we don’t WALK around here—we run!”
Moreover, the NFL’s unlimited substitution rule, high degree of specialization, and overriding importance of coach-designed plays to success makes NFL football a nightmare for anyone who might think about trying to influence a game.
Quite simply, if any player other than a quarterback makes a bad play on a football field—whether motivated by corruption or a good faith failure to execute—that player probably will be on the bench on the next play. Thus, in order to influence a game, any “Chick Gandil wanna-be” would have to capture the quarterback, which would be cost prohibitive given that players such as Aaron Rogers and Drew Brees make between $10-$20 million per season.
Financially an NFL quarterback such as Peyton Manning or Tom Brady could not be more different than a Black Sox pitcher like Eddie Cicotte if he was an alien from outer space.
On top of those natural internal organic protections against corruption, every move in the NFL is subject to intense media coverage. Today, it is not unusual for a team’s beat writer to tweet out a quarterback’s passing statistics—from practice.
For many of these reasons, the NFL does not have a tradition of fear of corruption like baseball and basketball do.
To the contrary, in response to the only documented attempt to fix an NFL game—an amateurish attempt to fix the 1946 NFL Championship Game in which Chicago defeated New York, 24-14—NFL Commissioner Bert Bell did not attempt to stop betting on the NFL, but rather announced that the NFL would become more transparent by publishing in advance of games a list of players who were injured and would be unable or unlikely to play.
“With the move, Bell struck a blow for fairness and open information and also, paradoxically, made the first in a series of moves that would increase betting interest and gambling on pro football,” MacCambridge wrote. “It was certainly in the NFL’s interests to guarantee the public that the game was honest and conducted fairly, and distributing names of injured players furthered that cause. But it also gave those inclined to bet more information with which to place their wager as well as great confidence that they were betting on an honest competition.”
In the end, transparency—not the abolishment of sports betting—proved a far stronger antidote for corruption in baseball too. In the aftermath of the Black Sox big short, the game changed.
Specifically, in 1920, Ruth smashed 54 home runs to obliterate thesingle-season home run record after being traded from Boston to the New York Yankees just three weeks after Hugh Fullerton alleged that baseball was controlled by gamblers who paid players to short the game.
The owners further fueled the Ruth-led power surge by banning “cheater” pitches such as the spitball and other trick pitches and requiring and footing the bill for the introduction of firm and shiny new balls whenever old ones got scuffed or scratched.
In other words, if pitchers such as Cicotte wanted to make it easier on hitters—let them “read the trademark” on the ball so a “baby could hit ’em” as Cicotte told the Grand Jury—then the owners would join them, not fight them. The owners would make the game more honest by helping Babe Ruth and other power hitters provide the transparency of home runs that reduced the dominance of an ace pitcher such as Cicotte.
“This rise [of power hitting] signaled the most profound change baseball has ever undergone,” Asinoff wrote. “Scrappy one-run, slap-hit grab-a-base-at-a-time play retreated and home run power became the name of the game.”
Simply stated, nothing contradicts shorting more than the long ball.
“The Black Sox Scandal seemed destined to ruin baseball as a professional sport entirely,” said Asinoff. “Thus, when Ruth’s style emerged and won the heart (and pocketbooks) of the public, he was viewed as a salvation and permitted to instigate the greatest and long-lasting change in the history of the game.”
Just as the Black Sox did not ruin professional baseball, permitting betting on NFL games in New Jersey and other states in addition to Nevada will not ruin the NFL.
But that does not mean the NFL will not be irreparably harmed if Governor Chris Christie prevails and residents of his state are permitted to bet on NFL games in New Jersey.
On the contrary, if Christie completes his deep pass—his “bomb”—over the top of PASPA, it is very likely the NFL will be irreparably harmed.
Read the rest of the series:
As seen in Cold, Hard Football Facts.