Alex Karras, known to my generation more as Emmanuel Lewis’s warmhearted pa on Webster than as a ferocious Lions lineman, passed away earlier this week at 77. Deep in the obituaries, if there at all, contained mention that Pete Rozelle kicked Karras, and the “golden boy” Paul Hornung, out of the National Football League for betting and obnoxious associations in 1963.
Had Pete Rose died this week instead of Alex Karras, the lead, and much of the obituary that followed, would have fixated on gambling. This despite Rose leaving a more indelible mark on baseball than Karras left on football. Alas, the customs of baseball and football are as alike as the neutral zone and the strike zone, the former where balls go and the latter where strikes do.
Americans place more wagers on professional football than on all other sporting events combined. The appearance of handicappers on pregame shows, the easy availability of parlay cards, and the diversity of prop bets (“Will Rex Ryan still be the Head Coach of the Jets Week 17 of the 2012 NFL Season?”) have through the years advertised the ties between gambling and the gridiron.
Fantasy Football, best seen as a recovery program for degenerate gamblers, distorts how one watches the game as grotesquely as betting does. If you have observed a gambler clamor for a team to kick a field goal rather than kneel out the clock, or a rotisserie team owner scream at the quarterback to throw to an obscure player, then you know how both bettors and fantasy enthusiasts watch a different game than the rest of us.
Gamblers play a different game, too, which makes their presence on the field so dangerous. While trailing against Army in 1920, George Gipp, thought by some to be college football’s greatest player, hurled a bomb when the situation called for a punt. “That was gambling, absolute gambling,” a shocked, shocked Knute Rockne later explained, “and proved to me that Gipp was a gambler.”
But the previous year, Gipp made no secret of wagering when he led Notre Dame to an improbable, if profitable, 12-9 conquest of Army. “The victory was literally profitable to the Notre Dame players who, collectively, had raised around $2,000 of their own that they wagered against Army, whose players also put up the same amount, in a winner-take-all bet, not uncommon among big-time college teams of the era,” Jack Cavanaugh explained in The Gipper. The largest chunk of the pot belonged to Gipp, who attended the pool halls of South Bend as religiously as he avoided its classrooms. If the pigskin martyr made a celluloid hero by Ronald Reagan had ever really uttered the phrase, “Win one for the Gipper,” he certainly meant a pool-hall hustle or a card game — not a mere athletic contest.
Part of Karras’s bitterness over his suspension stemmed from the league’s more lenient policy on gambling when it came to bosses. Tim Mara, patriarch of the New York Giants, bought into the NFL through profits earned as a bookie. Carol Rosenbloom, who owned the Baltimore Colts and then the Los Angeles Rams, was an inveterate gambler whose drowning sparked bookie-retribution conspiracy theories. Art Rooney won a fortune picking horses before he went all-in as founder of the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Do as we say, not as we do.
Far from a Pete Rose-pariah, Karras’s star rose after his gambling suspension. He punched out a horse in Blazing Saddles. He manned the Monday Night Football booth with Howard Cosell for several seasons. He could be seen on Johnny Carson’s couch, and alongside Charles Nelson Reilly and Richard Dawson on Match Game, during the seventies. Karras’s career took off after retirement.
In 1962, Alex Karras won the $100 bet on the Green Bay Packers that lost him his job. But he didn’t lose much else. During his suspension, he poured drinks at his controversial bar that initially drew the NFL’s interest, wrestled professionally, and defiantly named his son Alvin — Pete Rozelle’s given first name. With his livelihood and sense of humor intact, the reinstated Detroit Lions captain later informed a referee asking “Heads or tails?” at midfield: “I’m sorry, sir. I’m not permitted to gamble.”
Major League Baseball, which features no games of chance to start its contests, proves less tolerant of its gamblers than the National Football League does of its. If only Pete Rose, a linebacker on the baseball diamond, had answered his true sports calling, he too might have had eulogists depicting him as a person as cuddly as Alex Karras’s television son.
There’s no crying in baseball. There’s no “Say it ain’t so, Art Schlichter” in football.