April 17, 2011

1963: Commissioner Suspends Hornung & Karras for Gambling

On April 17, 1963 the Commissioner of the National Football League, Pete Rozelle, announced several actions resulting from a three-and-a-half month investigation by the league into gambling involvement by players. The most noteworthy step taken by the Commissioner was to indefinitely suspend HB/PK Paul Hornung of the Green Bay Packers (pictured at right) and DT Alex Karras of the Detroit Lions. He also fined five other members of the Lions $2000 apiece for betting on the 1962 NFL title game and the Lions organization was penalized $4000.

The suspensions created headlines due to the prominence of the players involved. Hornung, a former Heisman Trophy winner out of Notre Dame, had led the league in scoring for three straight years (1959-61), including the 1960 season when he set a record of 176 points (it would last until 2006). He received MVP recognition in 1961 as the Packers won their first of two straight championships. While had had missed time in ’62 due to injuries, the Golden Boy was a popular player known for his fun-loving nature and enjoyment of the night life while also being talented on the football field. Karras, a five-year pro out of Iowa, was one of the mainstays of the outstanding defense in Detroit and had been selected for the Pro Bowl for the third straight season in 1962, also receiving consensus first-team All-Pro honors in 1960 and ’61.

Newspaper rumors had first surfaced in January, leaked by Chicago owner/head coach George Halas, indicating that the league was looking into allegations of gambling involving a player on a Midwestern team. Austin Gunsel, formerly of the FBI and now treasurer of the NFL, had begun coordinating the investigation a month before as a result of a large number of rumors involving players associating with gamblers. The 16 agents retained by the league were used to conduct the probe, and 50 players were interviewed with several undergoing lie detector tests.

Rozelle indicated that no evidence of fixes of games had been found as a result of the investigation (“There is no evidence that any NFL player has given less than his best in playing any game. There is no evidence that any player has ever bet against his own team.”). However, he made clear that gambling or association with suspicious characters would not be tolerated, and beyond those specifically named, the Commissioner indicated that several players had been reprimanded for making small wagers among friends and playing one-dollar betting cards.

Hornung and Karras were accused of betting typically in the $50 to $200 range on NFL games. Rozelle said that Karras had placed at least six bets since 1958 of $50 each until upping the amount to $100 on the Lions to beat the Packers in the 1962 Thanksgiving Day game and on the Packers to beat the Giants in the NFL Championship game. As to Hornung, the Commissioner indicated that he had placed several bets through a friend on the West Coast over the course of his career.

Detroit players fined $2000 apiece were star linebackers Joe Schmidt and Wayne Walker, G John Gordy, S Gary Lowe, and DE Sam Williams. Rozelle had concluded that they were each guilty of a single violation of the league’s gambling policy (“basically a group action, an action of extremely rash judgment but one abnormal for each”). The levy amounted to approximately one-sixth of their salaries.

Hornung was subdued and humble afterward, admitting his guilt. “I did wrong. I should be penalized. I just have to stay with it.” Karras, by contrast, expressed outrage (he allegedly shouted at Rozelle during the phone call notifying him of the suspension). “It comes as a shock to me,” he stated. “I haven’t done anything I am ashamed of and I am not guilty of anything.” (Karras, pictured at left, had not helped his situation by admitting in a broadcast interview that he had bet on NFL games)

The owners stood behind Rozelle’s action, although William Clay Ford of the Lions indicated that, while the team would comply, “compliance does not mean that we agree with the nature or extent of the penalties imposed.”

Both the American Football League and Canadian Football League confirmed that Hornung and Karras would not be allowed to play in either while under suspension by the NFL. “Under no circumstances will they be permitted to play in the American Football League until after suspensions are lifted,” said AFL Commissioner Joe Foss. Sidney Halter, CFL commissioner, stated that “I would refuse to register any contract submitted by a CFL club with a player suspended by an American league for betting on games.”

While the suspensions of Hornung and Karras were indefinite, Rozelle indicated that they could be reviewed, although no earlier than the conclusion of the 1963 season. The initial reactions of the two players carried over into their behavior over the course of the ensuing year. Hornung remained contrite and kept in contact with the league office, clearing his activities (such as attending the Kentucky Derby) and seeking a path toward reinstatement. Karras remained defiant and refused to sell the interest that he had in a bar, Lindell’s A.C. Cocktail Lounge, that had first drawn the attention of the Detroit police to the defensive tackle’s association with known gamblers (the Lions were fined for not adequately following up on the reports they had received from the police, and for allowing unauthorized individuals who were suspected gamblers, including one of Karras’ partners in the business, to sit on the team’s bench during games).

In early January of 1964, Karras, concerned about his chances of being reinstated, finally sold his interest in the bar. Both he and Hornung were reinstated by Commissioner Rozelle for the 1964 NFL season. The year away from the game showed in the performances of both when they returned. Hornung had particular problems with his placekicking in ’64, and Karras, who had dropped twenty pounds from his usual playing weight, had a somewhat less stellar season than usual.

Both players did bounce back to some degree. Karras had an All-Pro season in 1965 and played through ’70, finally being released late in the 1971 preseason. Hornung showed flashes of his old form, including a five-touchdown performance in a 1965 showdown against the Baltimore Colts on the way to Green Bay regaining the NFL title. The Golden Boy played through the ’66 season and was taken by the New Orleans Saints in the 1967 expansion draft, but retired during training camp.