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Eddie DeBartolo’s imminent indictment on federal gambling charges will come more than a day late and about $10 million short for Dan Moldea. But it’s a good bet the Washington-based author will glean some glee over the next few months, as the now-former San Francisco 49ers president scrambles from the law.
Any knucklehead can see the NFL/gambling symbiosis. Outside of Nevada and Oregon, football betting is illegal, yet your average daily newspaper makes the NFL point spreads easier to find than the funny pages. And of what importance are injury reports—which all NFL teams are required to file with the league for public disclosure each week—to anybody but a prospective bettor? Pete Rozelle pushed for parity throughout his career, and, boy, is his work manifest. All but two games on last week’s schedule had point spreads of less than a touchdown. Thanks to Ol’ Pete, your typical Sunday matchup is now as much a toss-up as, say, “pass” vs. “don’t pass” on a craps table. Or red vs. white on a roulette wheel. The oddsmaker’s job gets easier all the time.
The NFL has always stayed brilliantly on-message about how all the gambling is done by and for evil outsiders. DeBartolo’s travails sully that image. Long held out by the league as one of its model owners, DeBartolo resigned last week after learning via a Justice Department target letter that the feds had been rolling tape as he offered $400,000 to former Louisiana Gov. Edwin Edwards to assist in the illegal procurement of a gambling license in that state.
When the indictment naming DeBartolo is in fact handed down, look for the league to feign amazement at the allegations, but Moldea won’t buy into that pose. Eddie and other members of the DeBartolo family played more than cameo roles in Moldea’s 1989 book, Interference: How Organized Crime Influences Professional Football.
The book, Moldea’s fourth, was the result of his six-year investigation of the links between the mob and the NFL, ties that he found ran all the way back to the formation of the league by wager-loving money men like our own George Preston Marshall and the Rooneys in Pittsburgh. The DeBartolos, he said, were but one of at least 26 past and present team owners with “personal ties” to organized crime and gambling syndicates.
“There’s no way [the DeBartolo] family should ever have been allowed into the league,” he says. “In the book, I show that Eddie DeBartolo Sr. [father of the indictee] had been identified as an organized-crime figure by the federal government and implicated in money laundering and drug operations. The NFL knew all that when they let the family in.”
Interference also details how the league’s bond to betting interests influenced on-field goings on, alleging that “no fewer than 70” pro games had been fixed as of the 1979 season. (However, Moldea says Super Bowl III, between the Baltimore Colts of the NFL and the upstart AFL’s New York Jets, often cited as the most obvious fix in football history, was a kosher affair. He found nothing to support the rumor that the Colts threw the game under orders from owner Carroll Rosenbloom. Instead, says Moldea, Rosenbloom—an avid swimmer who drowned off the Florida coast under suspicious circumstances a few years later—bet $1 million on his own team. “I know the bookie who took that bet,” Moldea says. “Rosenbloom lost his ass that day.” And of Rosenbloom’s odd demise? “A tragic accident. Nothing more,” Moldea says.)
A cozy alliance between the NFL and law enforcement allows the league to maintain its squeaky-clean anti-gambling veneer despite all the bad guys within, Moldea alleges. In the book, he reports that as many as 50 “legitimate investigations” into betting-inspired corruption by a variety of federal and local agencies were stifled because of, well, interference by the league office.
Those are big charges, and Moldea is still paying heavy interest.
He says he fully expected adversaries from the NFL and law enforcement to come after him as soon as Interference came off the presses—and they did. But the writer quickly discovered that his staunchest opposition, and the NFL’s most loyal attack dog, came from within his own profession’s ranks.
The book, which came out in hardback with a big buzz, all but disappeared from bookstore windows and sales charts after the New York Times ran a review that went way beyond scathing. Gerald Eskenazi, a longtime football beat writer for the Times (he covers the Jets this year), slammed the author and his premise, opining that Interference contained “too much sloppy journalism to trust.”
Moldea smelled a rat. When the Times failed to run a letter he wrote in response to Eskenazi’s review, Moldea sued the paper and its critic for $10 million, claiming that the review irreparably damaged Interference’s sales, his reputation, and his career as a journalist. No author had ever successfully sued a critic over a hatchet job, but a U.S. Court of Appeals panel at one point ruled that erroneous statements in Eskenazi’s piece blurred the line between criticism and libel and made his case trial-worthy. But alas, upon further review, that same appeals panel bizarrely reversed itself, reaffirming the legal opinion that writers can use commentary as an excuse to chop fellow writers apart, and tossed the case out.
Moldea asked the Supreme Court to reverse the lower court’s dismissal, but in October 1994 it instead upheld the ruling.
“The New York Times and Eskenazi are married to the NFL, and he wrote that review as a means to curry goodwill and favor from the people he covers,” Moldea says. “My fight was with the NFL, but the Times got in the way.”
The Times and Eskenazi were represented in the Moldea litigation by D.C. attorney Bruce Sanford (who has also done work for Washington City Paper).
“We stand by the [book] review,” Sanford said. “Dan Moldea made a worthy adversary, but he continues to make his case even though the fat lady has already sung.”
By the time she sang, Moldea’s book was already toast. A local firm, National Press Books, bought the paperback rights to Interference but never put it out. After three runs in hardback, it went out of print. Interference can now only be found in used bookstores or the library.
“I think Interference was the best work of my career, and I stand by it,” Moldea says. “But because of that book, I’ve seen raw power come at me like a rifle shot. I would never suggest that the Times is in anybody’s pocket, but through Eskenazi they permitted the illegal-gambling economy to become an adjunct to the First Amendment. When you fuck with the NFL, you’re fucking with Americana, and people don’t want to hear that. They don’t want to hear that gambling is very much a part of pro football. But anybody who knows anything about gambling knows that.”
As if worried about coming off as a wacko conspiracy buff, Moldea points out that he followed up Interference with a book about the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy that pooh-poohs the theory that Sirhan Sirhan didn’t act alone. His current project, an investigation into the death of Vince Foster due out next year, will show how and why the White House deputy counsel put a bullet in his own head.
Of course, the DeBartolo indictment shows that Moldea wasn’t just shooting off about the connection between the NFL and gambling. And despite the legal wrangling, that circle should remain unbroken: Eddie DeBartolo’s sister will run the team as it chases its sixth Super Bowl. Anybody willing to lay odds of 7-5 can bet they’ll get there.—Dave McKenna