Nearly 40 years before the NFL -- along with the NBA, MLB, NHL, and NCAA -- sued to repel New Jersey's move toward legalized sports wagering in a soon-to-be-decided legal case, the NFL went it alone on the same issue against a different state governor, Delaware's Sherman Tribbitt. The case featured deposition testimony from former NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle, who said sports gambling, whether legal or illegal, caused the sport no harm. In fact, he even bet on college football himself.
"The NFL has not consented, nor has its constituent clubs consented, to the use of the results of its games and their games on the football lottery scheme intended by the State of Delaware," argued NFL lawyers on Aug. 25, 1976. The league filed suit under a number of legal theories to prevent the state from offering certain parlay-style "lottery" betting on professional football games. Although the NFL's lawsuit was largely unsuccessful, resulting in Delaware being one of the small number of states exempted under the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act, the case revealed the foundation of the NFL's long-held opposition to expanded sports wagering.
Records from the NFL-Delaware litigation also provided some lighter moments.
Ex-NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle, the architect of the modern NFL during his tenure from 1960 to 1989, disclosed that he previously bet on college football. His wager lost. From Rozelle's Oct. 13, 1976 deposition:
Rozelle's trivial admission was but one revealing nugget in the expansive case file recently obtained by ESPN Chalk. With NBA commissioner Adam Silver describing expanded legalized sports wagering as "inevitable," the Delaware court documents put in perspective the shift now taking place in 2015.
For example, Rozelle conceded that legalized betting in Nevada had no negative impact on the league's operations:
Similarly, Rozelle offered no evidence that illegal sports gambling in states bordering Delaware injured the NFL either:
Why the differing stance for Nevada and Delaware in 1976? Or New Jersey in 2015 for that matter? Rozelle looked to geography, distinguishing the two based on physical location and proximity to large population centers.
"[T]he legalized betting like this in the State of Delaware we feel is extremely dangerous for us because of the strong potential for escalation from Delaware to other states in the northeast," Rozelle explained during questioning.
In another portion of the deposition with particular relevance today, Rozelle illustrated how the NFL monitored line movements in-house, looking for unusual fluctuations. It is a process many sports leagues undertake as an additional measure to maintain game integrity.
"We have [betting monitoring] services that we work with," a league spokesman recently told ESPN Chalk.
Rozelle's comments, though dated, shed light on the NFL's prior procedures; processes that are generally in line with more sophisticated metrics utilized today.
"We look for changes during the week in the point spread," Rozelle stated while being deposed. "[W]hen there seems to be a rather marked change, we attempt to ascertain why, and invariably it would be an injury, that the people making the gambling line feel might affect the outcome of the game and causes a shift in the point spread."
An Oct. 28, 1976, deposition of NFL security chief Jack Danahy provided further details. Danahy, a former FBI agent with expertise in organized crime, revealed that the NFL availed itself of information from illegal gambling operators in the course of its analysis. In other words, the league used illegal bookmakers as a resource to detect possible nefarious game activity via line movements. Danahy's revelation, in response to questioning from Delaware's attorney, is set forth below:
Whether lighthearted or serious, documents in the Delaware legal case -- a docket that included filings from MLB and the NBA as well -- provide a portrait of NFL decision-making rarely seen outside the confines of league headquarters at 345 Park Avenue in New York City. Former NFL commissioner Rozelle, who spent 29 years at the top of the league's org chart, articulated the league's anti-sports betting stance repeatedly as part of the Delaware litigation four decades ago.
It is a policy that has been consistently applied by the NFL since then, including the New Jersey lawsuit pending at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit.
"The spread of sports betting, including the introduction of sports betting as proposed by the state of New Jersey, threatens to damage irreparably the integrity of, and public confidence in, NFL football," declared Roger Goodell in an August 2012 court filing supporting the litigation against Gov. Chris Christie. "An increase in state-promoted sports betting would wrongly and unfairly engender suspicion and cynicism toward every on-the-field NFL event that affects the betting line."
In April, Goodell reiterated the league's policy stance, adding that "if changes happen, we'll be prepared for those."
A decision in the potentially transformative New Jersey lawsuit is imminent.