It was just before noon last Friday in New York when NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle released his ruling on Baltimore Colt Quarterback Art Schlichter: Guilty of gambling on "at least 10" league games in 1982 and of associating with "illegal bookmakers" and therefore, suspended indefinitely. But Schlichter's situation is even more serious than the punishment suggests. Last weekend SI was told that the former Ohio State star's gambling-related debts exceed $750,000, at least twice as much as originally thought. His attorney, John J. Chester of Columbus, Ohio, refused to divulge the exact size of the debt but acknowledged, "It's terrible. It's so bad that I don't know how he's going to make it."
Further, Chester says that Schlichter, 23, had been through such a living hell before the recent diagnosis of him as a compulsive gambler that there's "some indication" that Schlichter considered suicide. Says Chester of the addiction, "It's a terrible, terrible burden. It's the type of thing where you don't want to get up in the daytime because you know you're faced with the same thing all over again. And this is what leads people to suicide."
And Schlichter was contemplating it?
"I have only his word for it," Chester said.
When Schlichter, who was unavailable for comment after the Rozelle ruling, first approached law-enforcement officials for help on March 15, he stated that he had lost $389,000 to four Baltimore bookies and still owed them $159,000. But his total debt is far worse than that because of money he borrowed from what Chester surmises is every source Schlichter could think of. In fact, says Chester, as Schlichter reached the depths of his financial ruin, he went to San Diego and borrowed money from his accountant, an Ohio State grad, Bill Cheng. It was Cheng who directed Schlichter to a San Diego psychiatrist, Thaddeus Kostrubala.
Schlichter's first visit to Kostrubala apparently started a chain of events that eventually brought Schlichter to Columbus attorney Charles F. Freiburger, who in turn helped Schlichter contact the FBI. By this time, Chester says, Schlichter had received threats from bookies that his right arm—his passing arm—would be broken if he didn't pay up. With Schlichter's cooperation the FBI apprehended, on April 1, four men on charges related to illegal gambling. They are Harold E. Brooks Jr., Joseph A. Serio and Charles Thomas Swift, all of Baltimore, and Samuel Richard Alascia of Catonsville, Md. At this writing they were scheduled to stand trial in Columbus on June 6 in U.S. District Court.
As for Schlichter, who hasn't been charged with criminal wrongdoing, he admitted himself to a treatment center for compulsive gamblers at an undisclosed location on May 16. Chester says Schlichter will remain there until mid-June. His treatment is being overseen by Dr. Robert L. Custer, chief of treatment services and mental health for the Veterans Administration in Washington, D.C., and one of the preeminent U.S. experts in dealing with addiction to gambling. Four days after Schlichter began treatment Rozelle issued his ruling.
While the suspension is indefinite, it most likely will last one year, just as the "indefinite" suspensions of Paul Hornung and Alex Karras in 1963 for gambling did. On the night after Rozelle's decision was announced. Max Schlichter, Art's father, said, "My disappointment is that if they [ NFL officials] are treating this as a sickness, then they should let the doctors say when he's ready to come back rather than the NFL." That's what Chester had hoped to persuade Rozelle to do during a four-hour private meeting, with Schlichter and Custer in attendance, in New York on May 11.
Chester urged Rozelle to take the same path he does with drug cases—which has been to allow a player to rejoin his team as soon as he successfully completes treatment. But Rozelle, Chester says, "places a violation concerning gambling on a different level than a violation concerning drugs. He suspends Art, and he doesn't suspend drug addicts." Chester adds, "An indefinite suspension has you out there hanging in the wind until they decide what they want to do with you." Which obviously is what Rozelle has in mind, because Schlichter and the NFL face problems if and when he returns to the field. What will the reaction be when he makes a poor pass?
According to Chester, it was possible for Schlichter to run up huge gambling debts because he was "a frenzied bettor. It didn't make any difference what he was gambling on. He had no sensitivity to that. He just needed to gamble.... The wilder the better." Chester didn't give details of Schlichter's betting patterns, but did say his client once lost $100,000 "in a short period of time."