Place Your Bets: Is NFL Above Gambling Ring?

It is one of the first lessons you are taught when you enter the NFL: There are some bad men you must associate with. Bad men like linebackers and nose guards and special-team demons. And there are other bad men you must NOT associate with. Bad men who live to use their influence on an athlete to eventually have influence on the outcome of an NFL game.

The NBA puts on a dignified, stern and unrelenting face regarding gambling -- but in fact the NFL is two-faced here; the anti-gambling mandate is powerful, but so is the charm of Paul Hornung, who paid a gambling-related penalty and then scooted onto the Hall of Fame. And so is the charm of Alex Karras, who served the same penalty before becoming a cuddly/gruff TV star. And so is the charm of Fantasy Football, which has changed the way the networks broadcast their games. And so is the charm of "a friendly wager,'' the sort that everyone from the late and beloved Johnny Unitas to the still-great and beloved ex-Cowboy Randy White has made a post-playing career out of.

I've got a theory as to why gambling is now an issue in the NHL in a way it is less likely to be in the NFL. And it has nothing to do with "official league policy.''

My theory: NFL players, for all the "dumb-jock'' jokes they withstand, are by and large too smart to stumble too deeply into the same muck as hockey players find themselves in. I need search no further than down the street from the Cowboys' Valley Ranch facility to visit with my old pal and my former roomie (it's a long story) Mike Modano for my evidence:

Hockey players -- even The Great One -- ain't that bright.

Football players at least generally fake their way through three years of college. Basketball players fake their way through two. Baseball players are the dumbest of all pro athletes, and their lack of depth and education is reflected in their general malevolence. Pro hockey players are usual darn good guys. ... but not brain machines.

Having accepted that, if you want a good explanation for the "Operation Slap Shot'' scandal -- and a new explanation -- you've come to the right place. Hockey players have a lot of money? You already knew that. Janet Jones has a lot of free time? Ditto. Competitive people like action? No scoop there.

But when even "Wayne Betzky'' (I've got a trademark pending on that nickname, by the way, so don't try to steal it) on one day insists that he knows nothing about an NHL gambling ring that involves his wife and his top assistant/best friend, and then the next day is revealed to have been heard on law-enforcement tapes discussing the betting thing. ... well, Wayne, you ain't that bright.

Now back to my boy Mo. Now, in the wake of this scandal, Mike and the rest of the NHL world simply mumble something "responsible'' into the camera and hope it goes away. But before this thing broke, Modano and I had a lengthy conversation (one of many we've had over the last decade) about life and love and war and hate and the intellect of your average NHL star.

"We oughta turn it into a sand trap,'' Modano tells me, and if this sounds like an innocent joke about his favorite sport (Mo prefers golf to hockey), keep listening. "We oughta turn it into a sand trap. Blow it up. Save the oil, though.''

Yes, Mike Modano is making funny about the war in Iraq. And if you'll make certain to keep this in context, remember that he's kidding, that it's guys-with-beers talk, that he is in fact a pacifist with a nice streak whose tremendous compassion for people is reflected in his endless charity work. ... well, it's funny.

"I'm surprised who's ever in charge, Queen Elizabeth the 2, I guess, hasn't ordered the Royal Canadian Mounties to march to the Middle East,'' Mo continues. "Just march up and over the North Pole or whatever, so Canada can be a part of the takeover. Surprise attack.''

Modano is one of the greatest U.S.-born hockey players ever. He is the best player on a fine team, a club that at the very least in Dallas serves as an off-season time-waster for thousands of Cowboys fans. And he is also fond of "playing dumb.'' He does so, I theorize to his face, to fit in with the rest of the jocks. ("Queen Elizabeth the 2''?) It is his defense mechanism. I say he developed the trick as a kid who was moved from the American suburbs to Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, Canada. Think about it: You're 14. You are the quarterback of the junior-high football team as well as a hockey player, and then suddenly, you're a child prodigy. A resource. You leave the comfort of home (20 years later, when Mike's very sweet mom Karen comes to Dallas, she can't resist picking up his house. Meanwhile, 20 years later, Mike's very cool dad Mike Sr. seems to be channeling a young Arthur Fonzarelli.). You get vacuumed up by the Hockey System, which "adopts'' you out into a new family, a new community, a new school. It's clear the world's priority for you is to be A Hockey Player. So why not focus on that, and otherwise get by on a Coke and a smile and maybe the occasional wiseass remark?

And by the age of 19, you are swept into the NHL, you are an adult, you are the "face of the franchise'' at an age when most of us still aren't quite comfortable or confident being the face of ourselves.

"Thanks, Dr. Phil,'' Modano says when I present to him the above pop-psychology analysis. "You make it sound like I didn't go to class in high school! Hey, we've got some Grade-9 guys in here (Stars players who only went as far as ninth grade)! I got my diploma, buddy!''

Did you really, Mike?

"Well,'' Modano says, fake-sheepishly, "at least I got my G.E.D. Almost the same thing, right?''

I reflect on that conversation now. "Grade-9 guys''? "GED's''?

Now, knowing all this, are you slightly less surprised that a bunch of beer-drinkin' ice-skatin' ninth-grade-educated millionaires would get caught up in a "gambling ring''? Heck. ... now, knowing this, you probably wouldn't be surprised to learn that they thought a "gambling ring'' was a piece of jewelry.

Remember Hornung and Karras and know Unitas and White. Play your Fantasy Football and place your "friendly wagers.'' Joke about how the refs handed the Super Bowl to Pittsburgh. But know all the time that football players are, by and large, like Mondano. They AREN'T dumb jocks, and they are too sophisticated, to savvy, too smart, to ever find themselves entangled in an illegal gambling ring.

I think.

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