Big Sports & Gambling: Righteousness, Irony & Pete Rose

Big Sports & Gambling: Righteousness, Irony & Pete Rose
© USA Today

The decades-long relationship of Big Sports and gambling has always had a “Through the Looking Glass” quality. While keeping the games square has always been an obvious imperative, the approach of institutional sports to gambling has been fraught with bizarre illogic and stunning hypocrisy with various gatekeepers and commissioners occasionally declaring, “Off with their heads!”

Last weekend, the death of Green Bay Packers great Paul Hornung at 84 was a reminder of how judgmental and cruel attitudes have been, and can still be, regarding sports and gambling.

Hornung, a glamorous running back with the dynastic Packers of the 1960s, and Alex Karras, an All-Pro defensive lineman with the Detroit Lions in the same era, were suspended for the 1963 season after they admitted to gambling on sports. OK, fair enough. Suspension was certainly warranted even though there was never a suggestion that either player ever did anything but play his hardest. But after the one-year banishment, there was still a price to be paid.

Hornung was not elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame until 1986, about 20 years after his retirement.

“There were just (HOF electors) in that room who were covering the game in the ‘60s and they certainly held it against Hornung,” said sports journalist Ray Didinger, who was a relatively new HOF elector when Hornung was finally admitted to Canton. Didinger now works for NBC Sports in Philadelphia and does talk radio.

“Here was a guy who still held the single-season scoring record at the time,” Didinger pointed out, “and it took 20 years for him to get in.” In fact, that scoring record was held by Hornung for 46 years until the Chargers’ LaDainian Tomlinson broke it.

And then there was Karras, who is considered one of the great pass-rushing defensive tackles of all time but played in an era when sacks were not kept as a statistic. By the time Didinger was voting for the HOF, Karras — who suffered the same suspension taint as Hornung when he was first eligible — had dropped off the HOF selectors’ radar.

Karras, also famously known as an actor (Mongo in “Blazing Saddles” and in a popular TV sitcom “Webster”), died in 2012 at 77. However, Karras’ legacy is being honored posthumously. This year, he was one of 10 players who are being inducted into Canton as part of a special Centennial Class.

Rick Gosselin, a sports journalist with a distinguished resume of more than 40 years, most recently in Dallas, championed Karras.

“Karras’ problem has been that he was a defensive player, there were no real stats for him and he never played on a championship team. But he was named to the 1960s All-Decade team,” said Gosselin, a member of the Centennial committee. “And there’s no question that when he was a fresh candidate and the guys who were voting covered him, the suspension was the reason he didn’t get in. In fact, he was never a finalist. Those guys held it against him.”

More Examples of Hypocrisy

Hornung and Karras aren’t the only examples of hyper-righteousness when it comes to sports and gambling.

Shortly after casinos opened in Atlantic City, a retired Willie Mays took a job as an “ambassador” for Bally’s. A few years later, Mickey Mantle took a similar job with the Claridge. In those jobs, the ex-players were prohibited from even gambling in the casinos by rules then in place. Mainly, their duties involved playing golf in casino-sponsored tournaments and attending social functions with high rollers.

Yet baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn barred both from all official MLB involvement and both had to give up coaching positions, Mays with the Mets and Mantle with the Yankees. And remember, there was no sports wagering involved in any of this; casino sports betting didn’t exist then in New Jersey.

Tony Romo’s Fantasy Football Event

And if you think such Big Sports attitudes are ancient history, let’s look back just five years when the NFL squashed then-Dallas quarterback Tony Romo’s fantasy football event in Las Vegas because it was being held in a convention center attached to The Venetian.

Some of the celebrity players who would have attended the DFS event are still playing: Rob Gronkowski, Antonio Brown and Le'Veon Bell. This all happened against a backdrop of the NFL’s long and familiar denial that wagering on football was, in large part, the reason for the game’s ascendancy in American culture and the league’s hardly veiled messaging that Las Vegas was a toxic place.

That was Roger Goodell who was in charge — the same NFL commissioner who currently presides over a league whose owners invest millions in sports gambling and whose teams are falling all over themselves to make big-dollar deals with gambling companies on what seems like a weekly basis.

One of the richer ironies is the Philadelphia Eagles signing a deal with Unibet, an online casino gaming company. The arrangement allows the team’s logo to be plastered on virtual blackjack tables and cards.

A few decades ago, then Eagles owner Leonard Tose essentially lost his ownership of the team (and nearly moved it Phoenix) through his reckless blackjack gambling. Now the franchise is enjoying an association with blackjack as a revenue stream. You couldn’t make this stuff up.

Then There is Pete Rose

Finally, we come to the last outcast. The last exile for whom apparently there is no absolution from Big Sports.

Pete Rose.

Now, there’s no question that Rose, who admits to betting on his team when he was manager and player-manager of the Cincinnati Reds, has consistently been his own worst enemy in trying to become eligible for Cooperstown.

Not only did he break baseball’s cardinal rule, but he denied it for 15 years until he wrote his own book.

To top it off, he has a been a regular in Las Vegas for many years. For a while, Rose regularly set up shop at a sports memorabilia store in a mall attached to Caesars Palace signing autographs as part of a paid gig. And even recently, Rose admitted that he still bets on baseball, saying to sports broadcaster Jim Gray, “That's why they have casinos."

It would be laugh-out-loud hilarious if not so appallingly lacking in self-awareness.

A Wrigley Field Sportsbook

Still, Rose is MLB’s all-time hit leader with 4,256 hits. Every standing ballpark in baseball will fall before Rose’s record. His personal contribution to the popularity of the game and the prosperity of everyone associated with it are unquestioned.

His betting crime, while grave, is not about cheating with drugs or of the “fixed game” sort like the 1919 Chicago White Sox throwing the World Series. Yet Rose remains firmly on baseball’s “ineligible list” for election to the Baseball Hall of Fame.

For induction into Cooperstown, the process is complicated and even if Rose were declared eligible as a candidate for the “Veterans” path, he would have to be referred by one committee before being actually voted on by a second one. And according to a person intimate with the process, it’s fairly clear there’s still plenty of righteousness in the air to dim Rose’s prospects, at least while he’s still alive.

In the meantime, it has been announced there will be an actual DraftKings sportsbook housed within one of baseball’s cathedrals, ivy-covered Wrigley Field, when the pandemic allows the game to resume under normal circumstances with real fans.

So with apologies to Mr. Cub Ernie Banks, “It's a great day for a ballgame; let's play a parlay.”

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