How the NFL first addressed players gambling on games

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During pro football’s 100th season, I’ll revisit important games, plays, players and events from NFL history.

1963: Commissioner Pete Rozelle bans Detroit’s Alex Karras and Green Bay’s Paul Hornung for a year for gambling on NFL games.

Last Friday, the NFL news-dumped the suspension of Josh Shaw, an injured former Bengal and Cardinal who no one knows, till at least 2021 for gambling on football games. Fifty-six years ago, Rozelle, the 37-year-old boy commissioner, suspended two of the biggest stars in the game for a season. Hornung, a running back/kicker was one of the league’s biggest stars and golden boys, the 1961 league MVP and key to the Pack winning two straight NFL titles. Karras, a Pro Bowl defensive tackle, was one of the fiercest defensive players in football. Rozelle also fined five Lions players $2,000 apiece for placing bets on the Packers in a game against the New York Giants.

Starting in 1959, Hornung began placing bets, up to $500 per wager, on NFL and college games through a San Francisco bookie. It continued in 1960 and ’61, and ended in ’62, but it was too late. Hornung admitted his error and never lashed out about it. Karras, who was outraged by the severity of the suspension, was found to have placed six bets on games with a maximum of $100 on any bet. After a few months of cooling off, Karras accepted the sanction.

Rozelle told SI’s Tex Maule: “This sport has grown so quickly and gained so much of the approval of the American public that the only way it can be hurt is through gambling. I considered this in reaching my decision. I also took into account that the violations of Hornung and Karras were continuing, not casual. They were continuing, flagrant and increasing. Both players had been informed over and over of the league rule on gambling. The rule is posted in every clubhouse in the league as well. Yet they continued to gamble. I could only exact from them the most severe penalty short of banishment for life.”

At the time, the Packers were the best team in football, and Vince Lombardi the meteoric star head coach. Later in life, Rozelle said he phoned Lombardi in spring 1962 and asked him to come to New York for a meeting. When Rozelle presented all the evidence he had, Lombardi said to him, “You have no choice, do you?”

“I don’t think so, Vinny,” Rozelle said. “Let’s go get a drink.”

Somehow, it’s hard to imagine Roger Goodell saying to the New England coach: “Billy, let’s go get a drink.”

Read more from Peter King’s Football Morning in America column here.