The day before Sunday's Super Bowl, a number of star players were elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. A non-player also got in: Edward J. DeBartolo Jr., former owner of the San Francisco 49ers.
The National Football League claims it wants to separate itself from gambling. This is feigned piety, because so many team owners through the years have been big-time gamblers, very often with ties to organized crime.
Let's take a look at DeBartolo Jr. His father, the late Edward J. DeBartolo Sr., purchased 90 percent of the 49ers in 1977 and gave the team to his son, DeBartolo Jr., then 30 years old, according to the bible on pro football's seamy past, Dan E. Moldea's Interference: How Organized Crime Influences Professional Football.
DeBartolo Sr., one of the nation's richest individuals, was a high roller who had appeared on the U.S. Justice Department's Organized Crime Principal Subjects List and was described by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement as "a very wealthy, powerful, influential person with organized crime connections." Moldea discusses a bunch of those unsavory connections in his book. DeBartolo Sr., an owner of several racetracks, had tried to buy Major League Baseball teams but had been turned down at least five times. The NFL approved his young son's ownership of the 49ers.
DeBartolo Jr. was an extremely successful owner: his teams won five Super Bowls and the players loved him for his generosity. But in 1998, DeBartolo Jr. pleaded guilty to a charge of failure to report that Louisiana's former governor extorted $400,000 from him to win a casino license. According to SFGate.com, DeBartolo first resisted, but finally agreed to pay the money in $100 bills to help him win a riverboat-gambling license. He later withdrew from the project when he was subpoenaed to testify before a grand jury investigating the deal.
DeBartolo Jr. was fined $1 million and suspended for a year by the NFL. He turned over the team to his sister and ultimately decided not to return as 49ers owner. The married DeBartolo Jr. was accused of sexual assault by a Menlo Park cocktail waitress and reportedly paid $200,000 to settle the matter out of court, according to media reports.
If DeBartolo Jr. had been a player, not an owner, would he have received only a year's suspension and a $1 million fine from the league? The answer is probably no. A bunch of journalists vote a person into the hall and they are not supposed to consider any factors other than the candidate's contribution to the game. But DeBartolo Jr. — his winning record aside — disgraced the league. And isn't it about time to consider changing those rules? Pete Rose, who gambled on games, can't get into the Baseball Hall of Fame — justifiably, in my opinion.