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Due to the worst officiating I have ever seen in any National Football League (NFL) post-season game, the Los Angeles Rams will face the New England Patriots in Super Bowl LIII in Atlanta a week from this coming Sunday. Both television ratings and wagering on the game will be at historic highs.
Yet another NFL 2018 season Super Bowl has already taken place. It involved former New Jersey State Senator Raymond J. Lesniak, Democrat from Elizabeth, a towering legislative and political leader over the past three decades triumphing over the NFL in his decade long struggle to legalize sports betting. The forthcoming Super Bowl will be the first one in which New Jerseyans can legally bet on the outcome of the game.
This was a battle that Ray Lesniak pursued both legislatively and judicially. He is not an advocate of gambling or casino interests. Rather, his focus has been on recognizing the reality that sports betting, particularly on NFL games, is an activity in which millions of Americans participate on a regular basis. It serves no rational purpose to classify those who bet as criminals. Instead, Lesniak’s goal was to bring sports betting out of the shadows and legalize, regulate, and channel it in a way that will shield it from organized crime and promote economic development.
Lesniak’s book, Beating the Odds: The Epic Battle That Brought Legal Sports Betting Across America is scheduled for release this Sunday, January 27, 2019. It details the individual battles he faced on both the legislative and judicial fronts and the fierce opposition he faced from special interests, most notably, the NFL. His victory was national in scope, because his success in obtaining a US Supreme Court decision declaring the 1992 Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act (PASPA) to be unconstitutional now enables all the states to legalize sports betting.
In his three decades of service as a New Jersey Assemblyman and State Senator, Ray Lesniak was a man of monumental legislative achievement. He sponsored and secured the passage of landmark environmental legislation and marriage equality. He was unafraid to take on special interests. In my view, however, the NFL, with its exercise of virtually untrammeled monopoly power, was the most ruthless and hypocritical special interest that Ray Lesniak ever had to contend with.
Recently, the symbiotic relationship between the NFL and gambling has been displayed most graphically in the forthcoming move of the Oakland Raiders to Las Vegas. The success of the move is guaranteed by casino gambling interests who will sponsor excursions of fans to Las Vegas from all over the nation. The games will be a key event in the schedule of each trip.
The symbiotic relationship between gambling and the NFL and the rank hypocrisy of the league regarding same is nothing new. The owners, known as the “lodge brothers of the NFL” cry crocodile tears about the threat to the “integrity of the game” posed by gambling. Yet they have often been the major beneficiary of gambling due to the interest in pro football stimulated by the betting on the games.
Indeed, as my friend Evan Weiner, New Jersey’s leading sports business journalist has asserted in jocular fashion, there is a strong argument that Charles Kline McNeil should be enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. McNeil, a mathematician with a Master’s Degree from the University of Chicago, was the inventor of the point spread.
I have been a rabid pro football fan since 1956. While I love the game, I have witnessed at close hand the league’s abuse of its monopoly power and its hypocrisy on gambling.
I grew up in suburban Pittsburgh, in the city of New Kensington, then a Mafia-controlled town. Pro football was then strictly a Mom-and-Pop operation, the professional sport you followed when baseball season was over. In fact, the college game was more popular than the pro game.
In Pittsburgh, the Steelers were then a model of futility on the football field. The University of Pittsburgh Panthers were much more popular than the Steelers. The Steelers games were very poorly attended. They played in Forbes Field, the home of the baseball Pittsburgh Pirates, which for football purposes was a totally inadequate venue.
The Steelers were owned by Art Rooney, a prince of a man and a foe of racism at a time when many of the other lodge brothers were blatant bigots. There was a real intimacy between Art and the fans.
You could buy Steeler tickets at the then Steeler offices at the Fort Pitt and later the Roosevelt Hotel, and Art would come out and say hello to you. As Evan Weiner once said to me, if I had been older, Art would have probably invited me to come into his office and play cards.
Art, however, was an unsuccessful pro football executive. The Steelers were in the habit of releasing or trading quarterbacks who led other teams to championships. Among these quarterbacks were Johnny Unitas, Len Dawson, Jack Kemp, and Bill Nelson.
The Steelers’ fortunes began to change when Art’s son, Dan Rooney took over the football operations of the franchise. The team became a dynasty in the 1970s, and the franchise, which constantly lost money during the 1950s and 1960s is now worth over a billion dollars.
Some people in New Kensington actually ridiculed me in those days for being a fervent Steelers fan. Yet knowledge of the point spread on games was widespread among the people of the town, even among those who weren’t such pro football fans. In fact, it was the betting on the games that was responsible for sustaining interest in the NFL.
This became obvious to me on Sunday, December 28, 1958, the day of the “sudden death” NFL Championship game at Yankee Stadium in New York between the Baltimore Colts and the New York Giants. This was the game that began the transformation of the NFL from a Mom-and-Pop operation into one of America’s wealthiest and most successful corporate industries.
The game has been called The Greatest Game Ever Played. Rumors regarding gambling and that game, however, have cast a shadow over that contest for the last 60 years.
The Colts were favored by 3.5 points. The game was tied at 17-17 and went into “sudden death” overtime. With first and goal, the Colts could have won the game on a sure field goal. Instead, they opted for the more difficult touchdown, which they scored on a third down one-yard run by Alan “the Horse” Ameche.
Carroll Rosenbloom, the owner of the Colts, had a reputation of placing large bets on his team. Stories spread that Rosenbloom had bet a million dollars on the Colts and that he personally directed that the Colts go for the touchdown, because a three-point victory would not have covered the 3.5 point spread. Rosenbloom denied this, but there is no evidence that the NFL ever investigated the highly suspicious circumstances surrounding the conclusion of this game.
The symbiotic relationship between gambling and NFL prosperity would next be most vividly exemplified by the establishment of Monday Night Football as a nationally televised ABC weekly prime time event in 1970. It was an open secret that television executives believed that gambling activity would guarantee the success of these sports telecasts. The thinking was that the Monday Night game would give bettors an opportunity to regain their losses on the Sunday games, thus enhancing viewership in these telecasts.
During the 1960s, the NFL’s political power supporting the League’s monopoly power grew exponentially. The new NFL commissioner, Pete Rozelle, proved himself to be a master lobbyist, securing the Congressional passage of two landmark measures: 1) a law allowing the league to act as a monopoly when it comes to negotiating broadcasting rights; and 2) an amendment to another piece of legislation adding “professional football leagues” to a list of not-for-profit groups in the Internal Revenue Code, enabling the league to save millions in tax obligations.
Rozelle secured passage of a third measure, which exempted from anti-trust laws the 1966 merger of the NFL with the American Football League (AFL). He facilitated passage of this exemption by granting a new franchise to New Orleans, thus obtaining the support of two major Congressional players from Louisiana, Representative Hale Boggs and Senator Russell Long.
Ray Lesniak proved himself in his battle with the NFL to be a nan of unique adherence to principle. A man of lesser courage would have been intimidated from taking on the political power and economic monopoly power of the League.
Ray fought the good fight and won against all odds. In this NFL season, one man is a hero to fans of all the teams. That man is Ray Lesniak.
Alan J. Steinberg served as Regional Administrator of Region 2 EPA during the administration of former President George W. Bush and as Executive Director of the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission under former New Jersey Governor Christie Whitman.