Dropping Back In NFL History: QB's Under the Gun

By Tom Pollin
July 20, 2012 8:16 am
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In 1964 Joe Namath was drafted by the NFL's St. Louis Cardinals and the AFL's New York Jets. Even without the then record 4-year, $427,000 contract that the Jets offered it's difficult to imagine Joe Namath taking the world by storm in St. Louis. Namath and New York were made for each other. Playing for the Cardinals Namath would never have found himself in the situation that looked, for six weeks at least, like it would end his football career but he managed to emerge with his reputation and character intact.

Quarterback James Harris was drafted by the Buffalo Bills out of Grambling University in 1969 and by the strength of his ability and character, overcame the obstacles that were thrown into his path to succeed as the first African American to begin a season as a starting quarterback. It's time to set the Wayback Machine for the year 1969 and the state of New York to see two quarterbacks come through in pressure situations.

Events This Week:
July 18, 1969 - Joe Namath agreed to sell his interest in the Bachelors III and end his retirement from football.
Walk through the doors and into the offices of any professional sports league, or any of their teams, and it is doubtful there will be much attention paid as everyone carries-on with their busy days. Walk into the room a few steps and say the word “GAMBLING” and see how quickly you become the center of attention for the entire room.

From the beginning of organized sports the problems that arise when the competitions are over and athletically gifted, extremely talented people have time on their hands and nothing to occupy their attention have had to be dealt with. With the introduction of free agency into baseball and that concept’s spread through the other major sports, money to put many indulgences within reach was added into that equation

Still, as burdened as professional sports organizations are with alcohol,  drugs, performance enhancers and any other illegal activity, nothing scares a league and its teams down to their chalk lines than the thought of a gambling scandal.

On January 12, 1969 Joe Namath added a large dose of legitimacy to the American Football League by leading the Jets to a 16-7 victory over a strong Baltimore Colts team that had only lost one game the entire season. He was named the Super Bowl MVP for that achievement to add to his AFL player of the year honors.

A few months earlier Namath, along with two partners, bought a nightclub and named it Bachelors III (three being the marital status of the club owners). With Namath drawing crowds anywhere in New York wherever he chose to hang out, the club became the hot destination for celebrities and other athletes. Where the trouble began for Namath was inside the club, in the downstairs area, a bank of pay phones hung on the wall where NFL investigators had observed gamblers, bookies and mobsters engaging in illegal activities.

After an investigation, Pete Rozelle informed Namath that he could either sell his interest in the club or face a suspension. Namath rebelled against Rozelle’s interference and instead, on June 6, 1969 announced his retirement from football. Namath was never accused of gambling on football games but Rozelle, like any other league commissioner, was primed to act on any instance of players associating in any way with known gamblers.

Baseball was the first sport to achieve national popularity and in its early days was always dealing with suspicions of players associating with crowds that included gamblers and bookmakers. The issue exploded on everyone involved when rumors spread though baseball to reporters that the 1919 American League Champion White Sox were being paid to throw the World Series against the Cincinnati Reds. The White Sox lost the, at that time, the best of nine series 5-3.

When talk of the scandal continued to intensify, team owners realized that the reputation and integrity of baseball was in danger and appointed the first commissioner ever in professional sports. Federal judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis was given absolute power over the sport of professional baseball’s owners and players, both major and minor leagues.

On August 3, 1921, a day after the Black Sox conspirators were acquitted, Landis issued a statement, “Regardless of the verdict of juries, no player who throws a ball game, no player who undertakes or promises to throw a ball game, no player who sits in confidence with a bunch of crooked ballplayers and gamblers, where the ways and means of throwing a game are discussed and does not promptly tell his club about it, will ever play professional baseball.” To keep the dangers of being involved in gambling fresh in all baseball players’ minds, signs are hung on the walls of all clubhouses in the major and minor leagues warning that betting on baseball would be punished by lifetime banishment.

The NFL has also faced threats from gambling scandals in their history. The night before the 1946 NFL Championship game, word reached New York Giants’ owners, who notified Commissioner Bert Bell that two players, fullback Merle Hapes and quarterback Frank Filchock, had been offered money (reportedly $2,500) to lose by more than the 10-point spread in the game against the Chicago Bears.

Neither were punished by a lifetime ban but both suffered for staying quiet. Hapes confessed before the game that he had been approached, was banned from the game and never played in the league again. Filchock didn’t come clean until the trial of the alleged ringleader but his career was effectively over also. He played one game four years later before dropping out of sight.

Rozelle himself had to deal with a gambling scandal in his early days as commissioner. On April 17, 1963 he suspended Paul Hornung, 1956 winner of the Heisman Trophy and star running back for the Packers, and Alex Karras, one of the top defensive tackles in the league, indefinitely for gambling on football games. The fact that neither player was accused of betting against their own team or selling information to gamblers wasn’t a consideration and they both missed the 1963 season. On March 16, 1964 the NFL reinstated both to active status.

Because of Namath’s retirement, Rozelle found himself in a bind. There was one year to go before the merger between the NFL and AFL and one of the game’s most high profile, television friendly players would not be playing on Sundays. On the other hand, Rozelle couldn’t back down from his action because of the threat that the gambling interests at the Bachelor’s III night club could pose to the game and its integrity.

The issue was finally settled after a series of meetings between Rozelle and Namath that gave the commissioner everything that he had demanded from the beginning. It was agreed that Namath would sell his interest in the club and only to a buyer that was NFL approved. Namath also agreed to be more careful of his off-field associations. On July 18, 1969 Joe Namath officially ended his retirement from football and joined his teammates at training camp.

 

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By Tom Pollin
Senior Writer
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Previous Comments (4)

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20 months ago
In this article you state Briscoe was the 1st African-American to start a game. Then several paragraphs down it is stated that J. Harris was the 1st? confused, please enlighten.
20 months ago

Briscoe was the first to start a game, he was the starter in game four for the Broncos in 1968. Harris was the first to begin a season as the first string starting quarterback for the Bills in 1969.
20 months ago

I just re-read the passage and I could have worded that a bit better.
20 months ago
Great article. Always interesting to read article about the olden days.

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