The NFL: Professional Fantasy Football?

This article was originally written for the late, great Paranoia magazine in 2001. It also appeared in the book The New Conspiracy Reader.

“Pro football provides the circus for the hordes.” - Congressman Emanuel Celler

In 1969, the National Football League (NFL) was in the biggest developmental stage in its history. It was merging with its rival, the American Football League (AFL), and fans of the NFL weren’t accepting the new competition. In both Super Bowl I and II, the NFL (represented by the Green Bay Packers) had proven their dominance over the younger, weaker AFL. Now, with Super Bowl III looming and the merger and the resultant television contracts hanging in the balance, something had to be done.

This time, the AFL would be represented by the New York Jets, led by the highest paid player of the time, quarterback Joe Namath. Representing the NFL were one of its oldest franchises, the Baltimore Colts, who were made 18-point favorites by the bookmakers to win the game. Yet, just a few days prior to the game, Joe Namath brashly guaranteed the Jets would win.

He was proven correct when the Jets beat the Colts 16-7 in one of the biggest upsets in NFL history. More than an upset, it was a turning point for the NFL. Not only did it give credibility to the AFL teams in the fans’ eyes, it further opened the NFL’s doors to the TV networks, whose deep pockets finance football to this day.

The question remains, however, why was Namath so sure of victory? I believe the Jets victory is the “smoking gun” of the NFL, and that Super Bowl III was the first -- but definitely not the last time -- that the NFL fixed the outcome of one of its own games. “Namath and his teammates’ performance secured the two Leagues at the very least $100,000,000 in future TV revenue. The game was almost too good to be true,” commented former NFL player Bernie Parrish in 1971. “Considering other devices imposed by TV’s needs to lift fan interest and raise the advertisers’ prices, perhaps it was too good to be true.”(1)

Football great Bubba Smith, who played for the Colts in Super Bowl III, wrote in his autobiography that the game had been “set up” for the Jets in order to boost the AFL’s credibility.(2) In a later Playboy interview, Smith elaborated, “That Super Bowl game, which we lost by nine points, was the critical year. The game just seemed odd to me. Everything was out of place. I tried to rationalize that our coach, Don Shula, got out-coached, but that wasn’t the case. I don’t know if any of my teammates were in on the fix.”

Fixes and Tweaks

The NFL is a business, first and foremost. In 1996, Financial World magazine valued the worth of the average NFL franchise at $174 million. Consumers spent $3 billion dollars on NFL team related merchandise. On average, more than 12 million viewers watch a regular telecasted game.(3) And it is television that feeds the most money to this ever hungry beast. Originally, each NFL team sold its broadcast right individually. However in 1961, thanks in part to President John F. Kennedy, Congress passed the Sports Antitrust Broadcast Act, which paved the way for the NFL to market its games as a package. This first package was sold to CBS for $4.65 million. Three years later it was up to $14.1 million. By 1974, with the addition of Monday Night Football, it was a robust $57.6 million. A 1978 poll showed that 70% of the nation’s sports fans followed football, compared to 54% pursuing baseball.(4) The prices escalated accordingly. By 1984, the networks were paying the NFL $434 million. In 1998, CBS paid $4 billion dollars for eight years, ESPN shelled out $600 million and ABC added an additional $550 million a year all on top of the $1 billion the FOX network had already paid out to the NFL.

Today, in 2009, the NFL earns nearly $6 billion a year in TV revenue alone.The only way these numbers can be recouped is via the ratings, and the resulting advertising revenue. But how has football become America’s #1 spectator sport? Certainly, it offers drama, violence, and raw emotion for 12 hours every Sunday in the fall. Cinderella stories, remarkable comebacks, and unabashed tragedies in every play, game and season.

However, to develop these stories and keep those ratings soaring higher, I believe the NFL fixes (or scripts) its games to get the maximum output from its product. Super Bowls are not won, they are awarded. Some because of the stories they provide, others as rewards, but each for a reason: Green Bay for bringing tradition back to the game; Denver and John Elway in 1997 for their long suffering seasons (perhaps at the League’s insistence); St. Louis and Tennessee in 1999 for their willingness to relocate for the League; in 2000, the re-located Baltimore Ravens for their long time owner Art Modell, whose commitment to the NFL reaches back to the 1960s; and most recently, in perhaps one of the most blatant examples of scripting an entire season, the 2001 New England Patriots. In an immediately post 9/11 America, what more symbolic team could the NFL crown its champion than the Patriots who were the biggest underdog in Super Bowl’s 36 year history.

Profit Driven

Like any CEO, the NFL owners are profit driven. The fan is secondary in their scheme. Why else would they pull teams like the Baltimore Colts and the Cleveland Browns out of their respective cities when these teams constantly played to sell out crowds? Both moves were made because the new city (Indianapolis and Baltimore) offered the owners better stadium deals, meaning more cash in the owner’s pockets. The media may label suchmoves “tragedies,” yet according to author Jon Morgan in his book Glory for Sale: Fans, Dollars, and the New NFL, “Television network executives said they didn’t care where teams were based.

The NFL had become a national broadcast product. It would garner high viewership wherever the games were played.”(5) Another huge source of revenue for the League comes from expansion teams. New teams are asked to pay an “initiation” fee of $150 million or more just to join the League. What, exactly, is this money for? Nothing. It is simply “profit divided up among the other rich kids that got there first.”(6)

Expansion is always on the NFL’s mind. In fact, I believe it accounts for the success of the Carolina Panthers and the Jacksonville Jaguars in 1995. Both teams, in just their second year of existence, managed to reach their respective conference championship, just one win shy of the Super Bowl. Neither won, yet they were each hailed as success stories. This justified further expansion with the addition of the new Cleveland Browns and Houston Texans. “Football has become our national religion, and NFL owners are the druids. Men of business, men of state, men of war: All are inexorably drawn toward the people who own and control these teams.”(7)

The idea that this elite group of 32 men sometimes reach down from their skybox and dabble in the happenings on the field is not a stretch of the imagination.

The Early Years

A majority of early NFL owners were known gamblers. Some were even tied to organized crime. One time Dallas Cowboys owner Clint Murchison Jr., Kansas City Chiefs owner Lamar Hunt (son of oilman H.L. Hunt Jr.), Cleveland Browns/Baltimore Ravens owner Art Modell, New Orleans Saints owner John Mecom Jr. (who had very close ties to Mafia boss Carlos Marcello, a key player in bringing a team in New Orleans), Chicago/St. Louis/Arizona Cardinals owner Charles Bidwell (who was a bootlegger and an associate of Al Capone), and Philadelphia Eagles owner DeBenneville “Bert” Bell (who had ties to the East Coast Mafia) all were known to have been gamblers and bet on football (some even their own teams). Carroll Rosenbloom, one time owner of the Baltimore Colts, not only bet on his team, but also altered the outcome of a game because of it.

Oddly enough, it was this very game that legitimized football for the television networks. It has been called the greatest game ever played: the 1958 NFL Championship Game. Rosenbloom’s Colts were playing the New York Giants, who were 3 ½ to 5 ½ point underdogs. Rosenbloom laid down $1 million on his team to win.(8) The Colts were losing until the last seven seconds, when Colts kicker Steve Myhra kicked a field goal to tie the game at 17-17 and send it into overtime. In overtime, the Colts marched 80 yards down the field to get to the Giants eight-yard line – easy field goal territory. But they never kicked. Instead Rosenbloom, knowing the game was won but his bet lost with a field goal, had his general manager force Coach Weeb Ewbank to go in for the touchdown. Final score: Colts 23, Giants 17, which covered the point spread, and Rosenbloom’s money.

Players, too, have been tempted by the bookmaker. Several star players of the 1950s-1960s were known to have gambled, and some to have fixed games. Bookmaker/Gambler Don Dawson has admitted that during those two decades, he had personally been involved in fixing no fewer than 32 NFL games.(9) Washington Redskins quarterback Sammy Baugh, Chicago Bears running back Rick Caesars, Pittsburgh Steelers/Detroit Lions quarterback Bobby Layne, and Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Len Dawson, were alleged to have gambled (and perhaps shave points), but were never charged or convicted of a crime.

Green Bay Packers great Paul Hornung and Detroit Lions star Alex Karras were not so fortunate. On the January 16, 1963 edition of the NBC evening news program The Huntley-Brinkley Report, Detroit Lions star defensive tackle Alex Karras admitted that he had bet on football games in which he played. A national scandal erupted. It was quickly quelled on April 17, 1963 when NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle indefinitely suspended Alex Karras and Paul Hornung (who had bet on games in which he played as well) and fined 5 other Detroit Lions $2,000 each for betting on games in which they did not play. Rozelle also announced at that time that he had evidence that several other players around the league were gambling on the NFL, and that these players had been “reprimanded, but not fined.”(10)

The NFL’s FBI

As a result of the 1963 betting scandal, NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle created NFL Security. NFL Security (the NFL’s FBI, if you will) has employed former intelligence officers, Justice Department officials, and ex-FBI officers throughout its years. It has branches in every city in which the NFL plays. Former director of NFL Security Warren Welsh has said, “These representatives [NFL Security officials] are on retainer to the League, and they specifically report to the League. In addition to their game-day coverage and their liaison with the local law-enforcement community, they would also do background investigations that we might have for game officials, an ownership group, impersonations, misrepresentations, whatever it might be, as opposed to just working for the local team.”(11) They are on the watch for gambling, drugs, and whatever other troubles the players and coaches can get into. And these men are kept very, very busy.

In their extensively researched book Pros and Cons: the Criminals Who Play in the NFL, authors Jeff Benedict and Don Yaeger chronicle just how rampant criminal activity is in the League. According to their research in 1998, one out of five (21%) of the players in the NFL have been charged with a serious crime. The crimes they detail go beyond the drinking and driving offenses we often hear reported. These crimes include rape, kidnapping, assault and battery, domestic violence, and homicide. Of course, there is a big difference between being charged and being convicted, but the fact that this many pro football players have such problems is alarming.

See a current list of NFL (and other) criminal athletes here.

Even worse, these players are allowed to continue to play in the NFL. Some of these criminals are star players including: Cornelius Bennett (rape, sodomy – pled to a reduced charge), Corey Dillon (assault – convicted), Eric Moulds (domestic violence, assault – pled guilty), Jake Plummer (4 counts of sexual abuse – pled no contest), and Deion Sanders (battery – pled no contest). The list doesn’t include players like Ray Lewis, Warren Sapp, Michael Irvin, Cortez Kennedy, Warren Moon, John Randle, Andre Rison, Bruce Smith, Dana Stubblefield, and Rod Woodson, all of whom either had charges dropped, or were acquitted. Surprisingly, none of these cases involved drugs or drug possession.

 Drug Dealings

Drugs are a way of life in the NFL. They surround its players like a pack of ravenous dogs, waiting to take the weak and feeble. One of the first things discussed at the NFL rookie camp are drugs, but these talks tend to fall on deaf ears (in both 2008 & 2009, rookies who admitted using marijuana were made top 10 draft picks). Be they illegal like marijuana or cocaine, or legal prescription drugs like steroids and pain killers, drugs are very much in use in the NFL.

For those with similar drug issues, a good place to check would be Promises rehab center reviews and ratings.

Former NFL player Tim Green claimed in his book The Dark Side of the Game, “Moderate use of some drugs is just a necessary reality of big-time football.”(12) He went on to add, “One of the main reasons performance drugs [i.e. steroids] have played such a major part in the evolution of the modern football player is because the players themselves feel like they will never die….They’ll do whatever it takes to be the best they can be.”(13)

Whether performance-enhancing or recreational, drugs are officially not allowed in the NFL. But this doesn’t stop their usage. The NFL’s policy regarding drugs and drug testing has no effect because it is simply not enforced. Former Washington Redskin Dexter Manley was caught using drugs several times and finally was banned for life – twice. In his book You’re Okay, It’s Just A Bruise, former Oakland Raiders team doctor Rob Huizenga, M.D. tells of one player who tested positive for cocaine ten times with no action taken by the League.(14) He also recounts the story of a unnamed member of the Denver Broncos who was going to be suspended because of a second positive drug test. He never was, and in fact was in the line-up the following week. According to Huizenga, “I knew then that something was wrong with the new drug penalty system. Either the fix was in at the Commissioner’s office or some major legal roadblock had been thrown up.”(15)

 Maintaining Ranks

“We have a basic rule in the NFL,” says a former law-enforcement official who advises the NFL on security matters. “It is to keep it upbeat and keep it positive. But, above all, they want to keep everything quiet.”(16) That’s the way it is in the NFL today. Keep all potential problems within the League. The only press that’s allowed is cleared by the League office. According to the NFL’s drug program, the League’s “drug czar” has been banned from speaking with the press.(17)

In order to receive his pension, former League treasurer Austin H. Gunsel had to sign a contract with a gag clause reminiscent of those required of retiring CIA officers: “…neither shall Gunsel, without the prior consent of the Commissioner of this League, publish any newspaper or magazine article, book or publication, nor submit to any newspaper, radio or television or other interview or program which discusses, involves, or refers to the affairs or activities of the Nation Football League, its officers or employees, or to any of the member clubs thereof, or their owners, officers, employees or others holding any interest therein.”(18)

Players, too, are not immune to this type of censorship. Both players and coaches are fined for making degrading remarks regarding poor officiating. They can even be fined for speaking about things not deemed to be in the NFL’s best interest (like baseball’s John Rocker). “The very nature of a football player, and one of the essential elements to ever get to the NFL, is to maintain ranks….Football is a game that requires the discipline and unquestioning obedience of a soldier. Right of wrong, the fact is that all football players are programmed to march to a certain beat.”(19)

This is true both on and off the field. Players, throughout their playing career, are taught to toe the line. Break the rules, and you’re either suspended or cut. Even after players leave the game, it is rare to hear a bad word spoken about the NFL. Maybe this is because all ex-NFL players draw some sort of pension from the NFL and the players’ union.

Coincidence or a Fix?

Anyone who has watched football has seen games or plays that seemed just too good to be true, games where the play on the field somehow matched or beat the pre-game hype. Could it be coincidence? Maybe. But I believe it to be more.

Take Super Bowl XXX, played in 1995 between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Dallas Cowboys. The Steelers lost the game 27-17 because of two statistically-unusual plays – two Neil O’Donnell interceptions. Going into that game, O’Donnell had the lowest interception per pass attempt ratio in NFL history. Yet here he threw two passes that were seemingly gift wrapped for Cowboy Larry Brown (who was named Super Bowl MVP). In the following off-season, both O’Donnell and Brown signed multi-million dollar free agent contracts with other teams, going on to careers of mediocrity.

Absent evidence of outright payoffs, a subtler mechanism exists for the NFL to potentially coerce its players into fixing games. Consider a player who gets into trouble (be it for steroids, drunken driving, etc.) With 21% of NFL players finding themselves in some sort of legal trouble, there are plenty to choose from. When NFL Security catches this player – and he will be caught – the League may pull him aside and explain his options: “Okay, you broke the rules. Now we can do one of two things. We can make this known to the press and basically end your playing days, or you can keep playing and make your fortune, but from this point on, you play for us.”

Keep in mind that just one play, and just one player, can alter the outcome of a football game. Be it a field goal attempt, an interception, or a fumble, one player can change everything. Something as simple as a missed block, a botched snap, or biting on a pump fake, can be the difference between maintaining a drive or being forced to punt.

Players as Patsies

Certainly, not all games are fixed, and many NFL players engage in honest play for their entire careers. In fact, it may be that most players are unwitting patsies in the NFL conspiracy. Coaches have a huge sway over what happens on the field and are directly responsible to the owner. It is the coach that decides who plays and how.

Conceivably, a player who won’t “play ball” might not see the ball at all during the game. This might explain an unusual benching in the 1999 AFC Playoffs, when Buffalo Bills starting quarterback Doug Flutie was benched in favor of back-up Rob Johnson. Johnson hadn’t started a single game during the entire year, but he was coach Wade Phillips’ choice to play this critical game, while a healthy Flutie sat the game out. Buffalo went on to lose the game to the Tennessee Titans on the famous “home-run throwback” play (itself a disputed call). Could it be that Flutie was benched because he wouldn’t lose the game for the League?

Coaches influence every play. What might seem like bad performance on a player’s part may instead be an ill-advised play sent in from the sidelines. Take what happened in Super Bowl XXXII. Late in the fourth quarter with Denver knocking on their goal line, Green Bay Packer head coach Mike Holmgren admittedly told his defense to lie down and allow Denver’s Terrell Davis to score a touchdown. He defended his action, saying he wanted to leave enough time for his offense to come back and score. However they never did. Davis’s touchdown won the Super Bowl for the Broncos.

Like the players they rule over, coaches also have “run-ins” with the law. As detailed in Pros and Cons, Minnesota Vikings head coach Dennis Green and assistant Richard Solomon were investigated by the team for charges of sexual harassment on more than one occasion in the 1990s. A married man, Green paid a woman he had an affair with to have an abortion so it wouldn’t ruin his career.(20) Another of Green’s assistants, Carl Hargrave, had a DUI offense against him while with the team. To the frustration of their fans, the Vikings never seem to reach the Super Bowl despite a talented roster.

Then there are the referees -- the only people on the field directly employed by the NFL. To a large degree, and despite claims to the contrary, they control what happens on the field. The penalties they call can alter a play, the score, and hence the outcome of a game.NFL referees are actually only part-time employees of the NFL, even so they have to have a minimum of 10 years of college experience and 3 years of monitoring by the League before even being considered to ref a game in the NFL.

Each week, the NFL scrutinizes game tapes just to watch the officiating. They have to. Each week teams file reports with the League on calls they want “further clarification.” These reports never find their way into the media, however. “Conversations between the NFL officiating department and teams are confidential. We do not comment on them,” commented NFL spokesman Michael Signora to ESPN.

Instant replay, a device television helped usher into the League, was supposed to clear up any controversies that may arise in a game. However, a referee is supposed to have “conclusive evidence” in order to reverse a call that has been challenged. “Conclusive” being the key word. What may seem conclusive to viewers at home is not always what’s deemed conclusive to the referee calling the game. It’s still a judgment call. And no matter how well instant replay supposedly works, it cannot – ever – overturn a penalty called by a referee.

Television’s Influence

With the wide variety of ways in which the game can be controlled, detecting a fix would be a very difficult. The people who should be the public’s eyes and ears, the sports reporters, are merely just another cog in the NFL’s propaganda machine. On a local level, the sports reporter is nothing but a cheerleader. He has to be. Should he begin to ask the “tough” questions, he will quickly find himself on the outside of the locker room looking in. Without the cooperation of the team, a local reporter will find it impossible to get close to the team, much less fill his column or broadcast.

On the national level, it is even worse. “All play-by-play TV and radio announcers are approved by not only the club management but by [the Commissioner] himself.”(21) The list of current announcers/anchors of NFL broadcasts almost reads like a Pro-Bowl roster: Dan Marino, Deion Sanders, Boomer Esiason, Terry Bradshaw, Howie Long, Steve Young, Tom Jackson, Sterling Sharpe, Troy Aikman, Chris Collinsworth, etc. Even legendary commentators like Pat Summerall and John Madden have direct NFL experience. So whose interests are they more likely to represent, the fan or their former and current employer? When a sticky situation arises within the League, or if the League has an issue it needs pushed (need for new stadiums, higher ticket prices, etc.), it often relies on its phalanx of announcers to sway public opinion. As ex-NFL star Bernie Parrish put it, “The words we hear coming from our television sets don’t seem to have the same meaning as they used to, whether they are coming from the White House or the NFL hucksters. The images we see are what the paid packagers want us to see. In the case of pro football, the packages are designed and decorated behind the closed doors of the Commissioner’s office, and there is no consumer protection for the public.”(22)

Television has changed the way football is played. It is because of TV that the two-minute warning exists (to allow for a commercial break when interest in the game has peaked). Former president of ABC Sports Roone Arledge (the man behind Monday Night Football) once said, “Most of what TV does wrong is done to generate more dollars for [NFL] owners. If we cram 18 commercials into a football game it’s because the owners and the Leagues are so damned greedy in what they ask for rights.”(23)In 1965, when CBS paid over $14 million for the rights to the NFL games, “they acted as if they had bought the sport, including the people who played it.”(24) Perhaps they did. Former NFL player Tim Green wrote, “If you think that the players in an NFL game aren’t only aware, but affected by the television cameras and microphones, you’re wrong….Players often know when the cameras are on them whether they cam see the little red lights or not, and they play to them as if they were on a Hollywood movie set.”(25)

So, is the NFL closer to what some feared the defunct XFL would become? A scripted soap opera much like professional wrestling? It could very well be. If it is, it is not necessarily illegal for them to do so. There is nothing printed on your ticket indicating that the game you see will be played by certain rules. There is no attempt at defrauding you, because the ticket you purchase is for amusement purposes only. And what they give you is a form of entertainment. If you take it to be real (as some do pro wrestling) who is at fault? Just because it seems real doesn’t mean it truly is.

There is nothing anywhere that states the NFL and the networks couldn’t script the season to get the maximum amount of fan appeal they desire. Does that mean every single game is fixed? No. But could they spot a potential story line in a team and play it for all it’s worth? Certainly. In 1971, former NFL star Bernie Parrish wrote, “With $139 million at stake for the owners, $84 million for the television networks, and up to $66 billion for organized crime’s bookmaking syndicates, and with what I learned as a player, no one will ever convince me that numerous NFL games aren’t fixed.”(26) Now, thirty years later, with the dollar figures 10 times what they were then, one would have to be naïve to believe that the NFL would leave everything – its name, its money, its very existence -- up to chance.

Sources

1 – Bernie Parrish, They Call It A Game (Dial Press, Inc., 1971), pg. 128

2 – Bubba Smith and Hal DeWindt, Kill Bubba, Kill! (Wallaby, 1983), pg. 130

3 – Jon Morgan, Glory for Sale: Fans, Dollars, and the New NFL (Bancroft Press, 1997), pg. 310

4 – Ibid, pg. 92

5 – Ibid, pg. 182

6 – Parrish, pg. xiv

7 – Morgan, pg. ii

8 – Dan Moldea, Interference: How Organized Crime Influences Professional Football (William Morrow and Company, 1989), pg. 91

9 – Ibid, pg. 28

10 – Ibid, pg. 126

11 – Ibid, pg. 35

12 – Tim Green, The Dark Side of the Game (Warner Books, 1996), pg. 59

13 – Ibid, pg. 76

14 – Robert Huizenga, M.D., You’re Okay, It’s Just a Bruise (St. Martin’s Press, 1994), pg. 325

15 – Ibid, pg. 209

16 – Moldea, pg. 33

17 – Huizenga, pg. 325

18 – Parrish, pg. 219

19 – Green, pg. 49

20 – Jeff Benedict and Don Yaeger, Pros and Cons: The Criminals Who Play in the NFL (Warner Books, 1998), pg. 137

21 – Parrish, pg. 109

22 – Ibid, pg. 130-131

23 – Ibid, pg. 126

24 – Ibid, pg. 122

25 – Green, pg. 136

26 – Parrish, pg. 183