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Why the public trust matters
You can't get through the day without being blasted in the face with gambling ads. The NFL has embraced this new world. In light of the alleged Stephen Ross bribe, the league better be careful.
First, a look back. As in, six decades back.
Pro football was in a fragile state in 1963. The public was warming up to this sport but commissioner Pete Rozelle understood its precarious position in the public consciousness. When he discovered that two of his league’s star powers were gambling on games, he felt no choice but to suspend both Detroit Lions defensive tackle Alex Karras and Green Bay Packers running back Paul Hornung for an entire season.
The punishment was swift, stiff and met with an overwhelmingly positive reaction. Even Vince Lombardi supported the decision and broke bread with the commish.
“You have no choice, do you?” Lombardi asked him.
“I don’t think so, Vinny,” Rozelle said. “Let’s go get a drink.”
This was heralded as the moment Rozelle truly asserted himself as the commissioner. For years, the NFL was concerned about high rollers and ruffians undermining the integrity of its product, thus prohibited any league employees from betting on any NFL games. Players gambling on their own games could’ve wrecked public trust, a real issue at the time. Rozelle understood that if fans think the game itself is not pure, there is no game. It’s fiction, folly, bound to flop. Rozelle protected the game over the players. Author Michael MacCambridge pens it best in “America's Game: The Epic Story of How Pro Football Captured a Nation,” a book I cannot recommend enough for everyone:
“By suspending two of the best-known players in the league for what he himself described as an action of ‘no criminality,’ Rozelle lowered the threshold for punishable behavior and raised the bar for the level of behavior the league could expect from its players. In so doing, he raised the public level of confidence in the game itself.”
Through it all, MacCambridge wrote that Rozelle maintained a face of “empathetic firmness.”
The NFL marched on — full blast — right into the mainstream and never looked back.
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There’s no fear of people tuning out pro football for baseball any time soon but the events of this week should serve as a deafening wake-up call in the league offices because public trust is the invisible glue that holds this league together. Lose this trust and they could kiss the throne goodbye. These days, it’s impossible to last five minutes on social media without being spammed by a mobile sports betting app. The league is wrapping itself into the gambling world like a Snuggie — raking in God knows how much money — and hardly anyone’s acknowledging how filthy this potentially could be. Aside from the fact that countless lives will be ruined by how easy it is to lose money on sports games now, it’s probably not a matter of if gambling becomes a public trust issue for pro sports, but when.
The moment Brian Flores’ lawsuit detonated the sports world this week — and he alleged that Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross offered him $100,000 per loss in 2019 — Rozelle’s shining moment is what came to mind here. Ross isn’t the first owner to prefer a high draft pick but such a brazen attempt to fix an outcome going public was jarring and strikes a blow to public trust. The next day, ex-coach Hue Jackson suggested that Browns owner Jimmy Haslam did the same thing. Jackson’s Browns went 1-31 over his first two seasons, and then he was fired after a 2-5-1 start in 2018.
I suppose Jackson has at least a dozen mansions by now?
The NFL will do its best to make this problem go away during Super Bowl Week — Hey, look, it’s Eminem and Dr. Dre at the halftime show! — but this is a problem that won’t vanish in thin air because, for one, tanking is a topic every year. Whenever a potential franchise quarterback awaits in April, the temptation to lose is obvious and palpable. Take one look at the quarterback representing the AFC in the Super Bowl. Some teams stuck in quarterback purgatory would sell their soul for the next Joe Burrow. The hard truth, however, is that tanking rarely ever works. Countless teams dedicated to losing end up drafting the wrong players anyways and the stench of losing takes years to clean out of a building. Flores was right to try to win in 2019. Those Dolphins got off to an embarrassing start, losing 59-10, 43-0, 31-6 and 31-10. Gradually, they started showing more fight, won their final two games to finish 5-11 and then their big mistake was choosing Tua Tagovailoa fifth overall over Justin Herbert.
That’s a matter of poor scouting and poor decision-making.
The Browns lost… and lost… and lost at an epic rate, only to pass on Patrick Mahomes, Deshaun Watson, Josh Allen and Lamar Jackson in back-to-back years.
One player can guide you out of the dark ages. Burrow has been a godsend for the Bengals, a historically thrifty franchise. But that’s not the norm. Locking up a No. 1 overall pick guarantees you nothing. Trevor Lawrence was widely praised as a transcendent talent. Names like Elway and Luck were thrown around with such ease last April as his Clemson highlights looped. The Jacksonville Jaguars selected him first and, then, Urban Meyer was a disaster in every conceivable way.
Now, the Jags must scramble to find the right infastructure for Lawrence. He could be special, but we don’t know yet because of Meyer.
So many factors come into play.
Take a gander here. Rarely does a No. 1 pick serve as their savior.
So, it appears the NFL will investigate the bribery accusations. NFL Network reported that there were “multiple witnesses” to Ross offering the 100K, and that the league would investigate. Will the “investigation” be treated as a half-assed grocery list or a real investigation? With real consequences beyond a slap and a tickle? We’ll see. Whereas Rozelle needed to put the game ahead of the players, Roger Goodell needs to put it above the owner. In other words: his bosses. And if true, if owners are throwing around hundreds of thousands of dollars to get their teams to lose, that’s a bigger blow to the league’s integrity than a deflated football.
Fans don’t gut their bank accounts to be treated as pawns.
Instead of obsessing over public relations, and trying to make this go away by presenting fans a new shiny object, the league must at least try to preserve the essence of competition. That could mean going beyond anything they do with Ross, too, because the draft system as constructed incentivizes tanking. Once a team is eliminated from the playoffs, the league should find a way to eliminate the temptation to lose games on purpose. That could mean a transparent lottery system. I can’t quite take the leap Pro Football Talk’s Mike Florio does here on an 18-team lottery in which all teams that don’t make the playoffs each get one ping pong ball, but that’d sure light a fire under asses, wouldn’t it? There would be zero reason to sideline players with “hamstring” injuries and no back-alley agreements between owners, coaches and GMs.
Back to Rozelle, in the 60s, the league has prided itself on parity and a major element of that parity is the concept of hope in a high draft pick. I get it. The league cannot trash this hope entirely. But it is interesting that the rotten franchises are rewarded the best players out of college while the perennially excellent franchises are punished on draft day. The system in place is begging a 2-12 team in December to dig themselves a new rock bottom. (And we wonder why bad teams stay bad.)
This is where we should also note that, while the Bengals’ futility landed them Burrow, what they did the next year is also a major reason they’re in the Super Bowl. Burrow tore his ACL, the Bengals fell to 2-10-1 and, entering the final three weeks of the season, they had every reason to lose games on purpose. Instead, they stunned the 11-2 Steelers on Monday Night Football with Ryan Finley at quarterback. Safety Vonn Bell, an enforcer on these AFC Champions, had the hit of the year that night on wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster. He didn’t like JuJu dancing at midfield during pregame and made him pay the price.
The next week, they beat the Deshaun Watson-led Texans in a 37-31 shootout.
Then, in the draft, the Bengals were smart enough to select wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase over tackle Penei Sewell with the fifth overall pick. There’s no metric to show for it, but playing hard with no reason to play hard certainly helped Taylor build something to last in Cincinnati.
And, one day, maybe Dan Campbell looks back at his first season with some pride in Detroit. If there’s a way to gracefully pursue a high pick, this is it. By choice, the Lions didn’t have much talent this season — fans knew the deal going in — yet they fought like hell. They clearly were trying to win. They lost six games by a touchdown or less through a 3-13-1 season. Nobody accused the Lions of tanking when Campbell had tears in his eyes after another heartbreaking loss.
Right now, people are watching to see what the NFL does in this exact moment. Goodell has been in hiding these last 48 hours, but he’ll speak at his annual press conference next week. At which point, the typical word salad will not suffice.
Who knows where this ends, too? The minds of fans are bound to wander as they’re constantly blasted in the face with Caesars this and FanDuel that. The NFL has allowed for a world ripe for fixing — well beyond a good ‘ol fashioned tank. Ross’ $100K offer could turn out to be child’s play. It’s not crazy to think someone in Vegas soon talks millions of dollars with a coach or a player.
But, hey, go ahead and move the Raiders from Oakland to Sin City.
Honestly, the league might as well paint “GAMBLE RESPONSIBLY” in one end zone with “FREE $300 TO BET TODAY” in the other.
Nobody’s pretending that gambling does not exist. It’s crazy to think people on TV, not long ago, couldn’t even use terms like “underdog” and “favorite.” Gambling is a very real thing in society that’s not going anywhere, and that’s fine. But the rate at which it is permeating our lives into 2022 is mind-boggling, and the NFL better tread lightly.
The more the public reads reports of fixed outcomes, the more it’ll chip, chip, chip away at what Rozelle built long ago.