Amid its free fall into sports bizarro world, one of the very few things the NFL could be thankful for in recent days was the absence of a betting scandal. Which is to say things could have been worse. Admittedly, that’s hard to imagine, what with domestic violence, child abuse, and stupefying lack of leadership making up the rancid porridge of The Shield’s current state.
“Money is all they know,’’ said Upton Bell, a former Patriots general manager, referring to NFL players and owners alike. “If you want behavior to change — and this is for both sides — then make the penalties and fines mean something. Bargain it at the table, write it into the CBA, and be done with it. Until you do that, until players lose jobs or owners pay big fines or lose draft picks, all the [nonsense] will continue.’’
Bell, born in 1937, was a grade schooler in December 1946 when his father, Bert Bell, then new on the job as NFL commissioner, dealt swiftly and strongly with what could have been the league’s grand undoing in its shaky days just after World War II. The issue Bell had to contend with was betting. Two players on the New York Giants, Frank Filchock and Merle Hapes, were implicated in a betting ploy spearheaded by known gambler Alvin Paris. The day before the Giants and Bears were to play in the NFL championship game, Bell was tipped off to Paris’s scheme by New York mayor Bill O’Dwyer and city police commissioner Arthur Wallander.
In less than 24 hours, Bell met with each player individually, heard their stories, and then promptly determined their fate. Filchock, claiming he knew nothing of Paris’s scheme to have him influence the outcome of the title game, was allowed to play. Hapes, who acknowledged being aware of Paris’s intention, was banned from playing in the championship, his penance for not telling the league of Paris’s advances.
In very short order, without need of video or witnesses or lawyers, the NFL essentially wiped its hands clean of both players. Filchock, who played a few more seasons in Canada, did play one more NFL game for Baltimore in 1950, some four years after Bell’s initial ruling. Hapes played a few more years in the CFL but never again in the NFL.
“Had my father not acted the way he did,’’ Upton Bell mused late last week as the ever-dithering NFL continued to be pilloried in the media, “the New York papers the next day would have read, ‘NFL Finished . . . Gambling Scandal.’ No question about it.’’
After some 10 days of wearing Harry Potter’s invisibility cloak amid the ongoing turmoil, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell finally surfaced Friday afternoon for a news conference. It was largely anticipated that he would announce sweeping changes. Instead, just more sweeping.
The stoic Goodell said the obvious, that he had erred many times and that many in the league had to do much better, and that the league would bring on more people to help it fix its myriad problems. When in doubt, add more people. Goodell kept a pretty good poker face for most of it, yet it was obvious he didn’t know how to play the cards, or didn’t have them. He grew increasingly uncomfortable and unconvincing.
Like so much of Goodell in recent times, it was long on apology, short on remedy. The league, like society, is far more complex today than the day Bert Bell sat down Filchock and Hapes and determined their fate as one-man court, jury, justice. We all understand that. Bell wasn’t dealing with multibillion-dollar sponsors and lawyers and a Players Association that fights for player rights but often bucks common sense. Bell governed in a time when people were reluctant to talk openly about divorce or children born out of wedlock, never mind domestic violence, sexual abuse, or the whipping of a defenseless 4-year-old child with a tree branch.
Nonetheless, Goodell has to up his game. Quickly. Or he has to go. If the NFL owners didn’t know that prior to Friday, they know it now. We’ll find out soon if his weakness, especially his failure to attack issues forthrightly and with alacrity, matters to them. Or we will find out if he is simply mirroring a billionaire brotherhood interested solely in making more billions.
Goodell said Friday that he wants to see changes in the league’s personal conduct policy in place by the Super Bowl. But when the assembled media pressed him for details specific to the policy, he repeatedly deked and dodged, especially so on the matter of Ray Rice and the many questions around the video clip that showed the ex-Ravens running back delivering a KO punch to his then-girlfriend (now wife) in an Atlantic City casino’s elevator. Goodell slipped out of that one by noting that Rice’s case in now in appeal.
We eventually will hear it all, said Goodell, but by that point in the news conference he engendered little confidence in his words. We live in an era when the commissioner of the National Football League, arguably the most powerful man in pro sports, can’t come up with a good answer for the guy from TMZ. Lifeboats, people, lifeboats.
“Goodell is reactionary,’’ said Upton Bell, who lives these days in Cambridge, “and not a visionary. I’ve lived this, I saw what it was like with my father. The league and the PA have to agree to a set of rules, a hard set of rules around domestic violence, child abuse, drugs, rape . . . whatever. And stop the sliding scale of BS. Make it clear that it’s a privilege and not a right to play in the NFL. Do this, you’re gone for a year. Do that, you’re gone for good. Stop counting the money and care about the game first.’’
According to Bell, his father was worried about league-wide owner reaction during the weeks that followed his Filchock-Hapes decision. Upon entering his first meeting with them after the incident, he thought he might be fired. He had been on the job less than a year.
Instead, the owners gave Bert Bell a three-year contract extension. Conviction came not with a price, but with an award.