If you’re a sports fan who’s grown up with your favorite leagues run by Roger Goodell, David Stern and Gary Bettman, you may be surprised to learn that officiousness is not actually a written part of a commissioner’s job description.
For example, when two of the NFL’s biggest stars, Paul Hornung and Alex Karras, basically forced commissioner Pete Rozelle to suspend them for gambling on games in 1963, Rozelle was kind of torn up about it.
From the SI Vault: "There is absolutely no evidence of any criminality," Rozelle says. "No bribes, no game-fixing or point-shaving. The only evidence uncovered in this investigation, which included 52 interviews with players on eight teams, was the bets by the players penalized. All of these bets were on their own teams to win, or on other NFL games."
The penalties were harsh, and deservedly so. The decision he reached in exacting them, Rozelle says, was the "hardest of my life."
"I thought about it at length," he said. "The maximum penalty for a player would be suspension for life. That would be for failure to report a bribe attempt or for trying to shave points. 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.”
Golden Boy Hornung
Paul “The Golden Boy” Hornung grew up movie star handsome and Greek god talented.
In 1956 at Notre Dame, he led the Irish in passing, rushing, scoring, kickoff and punt returns and punting, and on defense he led in passes broken up and was second in interceptions and tackles made.
At a college all-star game, he was challenged to a 100-yard race by the guy considered the fastest runner in the country, and Hornung beat him by five yards.
Despite Notre Dame’s 2-8 record, Hornung won the Heisman Trophy, the only player from a losing team to be presented the award.
Hornung was drafted first overall by the Green Bay Packers, and subsequently was called to active duty with the U.S. Army in 1961. But reportedly because Packers coach Vince Lombardi was a friend of President John Kennedy, Hornung got weekend passes to play football on Sundays and in the 1961 championship game.
One can only speculate as to how much interest such a scenario would generate today.
Tax dispute for the MVP
Hornung was the MVP of that championship, which led to a tax dispute with the IRS, which wanted the ’62 Corvette that Hornung got as the MVP declared on his tax return.
Screw that, Hornung said, or words to that effect.
Shockingly, the IRS prevailed in court, and “from this point on, it became impossible for athletes to exclude any awards they are given for athletics from their gross incomes.”
Hornung went on to win three more championships in Green Bay, and as he later wrote in his autobiography, his life was “all about games, girls, gambling, and gin joints, not necessarily in that order.”
One can only speculate as to how much the Golden Boy was getting laid in these days.
Karras The Wrestler Turned NFL Pro
Alex Karras didn’t quite have Hornung’s level of fame coming out of college, though he would later outstrip him.
In his senior season at Iowa in 1957, Karras was the runner-up in voting for the Heisman Trophy as a defensive lineman.
Before he reported to the Detroit Lions, which had chosen him tenth overall, Karras earned $25,000 as a professional wrestler.
He played for the Lions for 12 years, was All-Pro 12 times, played 153 consecutive games and was named to the league’s All-Decade team for the 1960s.
Karras was well known as a character. At a charity golf tournament he ran, he arranged for a cannon to occasionally be shot off behind the first tee to “keep people on their toes.”
He had an interest in a Detroit bar called Lindell’s AC, sometimes described as the first sports bar in America.
As described in the Detroit Free Press, it was there that famed pro wrestler Dick the Bruiser and Karras had a barroom brawl to promote an upcoming match between the two.
Unfortunately, some of the right people didn’t get the word that the whole thing was staged, so the uncle of one of the bar’s owners attacked Dick the Bruiser.
The Bruiser tore up the bar and several of the eight police officers it took to subdue him. He ultimately had to pay $50,000 in damages to two of the cops he injured during the brawl, but the match with Karras was quite successfully hyped.
Karras was wrestling again because he and Hornung had been suspended for a year for betting on NFL games and associating with "known hoodlums" over the course of several years. Five other Lions players were fined for betting on the previous season's championship game, and the team was fined for not better monitoring the players' gambling activities, said the Minneapolis Star Tribune.
League officials pressured Karras to sell his financial interests in Lindell’s AC because of reports of gambling and the presence of organized crime figures. He agreed do so, but whether he followed through is unclear.
Hornung immediately admitted his sins and he remained a very popular figure. Decades later, he said he believed it was Lombardi's lobbying of Rozelle that got him reinstated. In exchange, Hornung agreed to have nothing to do with gambling, stay out of Las Vegas and even cease his annual visits to the Kentucky Derby.
His suspension, and that of Karras, came to an end in time for the 1964 season.
When he returned, Karras was asked ‘heads or tails?’ by an official before a game.
"I'm sorry, sir," Karras replied. "I'm not permitted to gamble.”
When his football career ended, Karras made several appearances on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson and began an acting career, including a small but memorable role as Mongo in the movie Blazing Saddles.
He spent three years as a commentator on Monday Night Football, hosted Saturday Night Live and starred in the sitcom Webster.
Both Karras and Hornung are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.