Each of the big professional sports in America is administered by one man. These sports bosses are all too often only glorified secretaries, mere shadowy projections of the club owners. They are hired by owners, fired by owners and are manipulated like puppets by the owners whenever important decisions have to be taken.
Alvin (Pete) Rozelle, the commissioner of the National Football League, does not seem to fit this string-dance pattern. He has just suspended Paul Hornung of the Green Bay Packers, the biggest star in pro football, and Alex Karras, All-Pro tackle who was the key to the Detroit Lions' superb defense; he has fined five other Lions, as well, all for betting on football. He took this action without accepting any advice or pressure from the club owners who elected him. In fact, he says he did not advise the owners of his action until just before the news was released.
So, if Rozelle is hiding nothing, we have here a strong commissioner; this may be the most important fact to emerge from last week's unpleasantness. Pro football is the sports phenomenon of the postwar era. With such spectacular success inevitably come dangers. The slightest indiscretion may seem monstrous to the public. To maintain pro football at its present pinnacle, the sport must be firmly controlled.
But if Rozelle is a strong commissioner, is he also a wise one? The immediate reaction to his drastic action was twofold: on the one hand, many fans felt that he had been too severe in his penalties; on the other, almost as many felt that he had tried to cover up more serious offenses by penalizing severely the things he could not conceal. Some fans fell that Hornung and Karras had been given prison terms for running a red light; some felt that they had indeed run a red light, but only in escaping the scene of a burglary.
"There is absolutely no evidence of any criminality," Rozelle says. "No bribes, no game-fixing or point-shaving. The only evidence uncovered in this investigation, which included 52 interviews with players on eight teams, was the bets by the players penalized. All of these bets were on their own teams to win or on other NFL games."
The penalties were harsh, and deservedly so. The decision he reached in exacting them, Rozelle says, was the "hardest of my life."
"I thought about it at length," he said. "The maximum penalty for a player would be suspension for life. That would be for failure to report a bribe attempt or for trying to shave points. This sport has grown so quickly and gained so much of the approval of the American public that the only way it can be hurt is through gambling. I considered this in reaching my decision. I also took into account that the violations of Hornung and Karras were continuing, not casual. They were continuing, flagrant and increasing. Both players had been informed over and over of the league rule on gambling; the rule is posted in every clubhouse in the league, as well. Yet they continued to gamble. I could only exact from them the most severe penalty short of banishment for life."
Rozelle also fined the Detroit management $4,000 for the laxity of its supervision. This seems no more than a slap on the wrist compared with the suspensions and $2,000 fines against the players. But it does represent the biggest fine Rozelle could constitutionally levy without consulting the owners. He preferred to act on his own and go with the smaller fine.
The $2,000 fines levied against the five Detroit players—John Gordy, Joe Schmidt, Wayne Walker, Gary Lowe and Sam Williams—were for a single bet on the Green Bay Packers against the New York Giants. Betting is as natural to many Americans as breathing, and these players were making a sociable bet on a game they were watching on television, something that happens in a million American living rooms every Sunday of the pro football season. But betting by a player is a direct violation of the NFL rules and is a far more serious thing than fan betting.
Broken-pattern betting by a player (SI, Jan. 28) can have very serious consequences. Suppose Karras, for instance, bets each week with a friend in his bar. If he bets consistently on the Lions, he establishes a pattern of confidence in his team which is clearly evident to the friend. Unless this friend is amazingly closemouthed, he will tell his friends that Karras is betting on his team. This may go on for four or five weeks; on the fifth or sixth week, Karras may have an unusual expense or be ill. So he does not make his customary bet. The immediate inference drawn by the friend and his intimates is that there is something wrong with that particular game.