The news of Atlanta Falcons receiver Calvin Ridley’s year-long suspension for gambling on NFL games was certainly shocking on Monday, but it was not unprecedented.
Indeed, 60 years later, there is an odd sense of déjà vu happening in the world. The Russian invasion of Ukraine is the worst nuclear-superpower showdown since the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962, and the NFL suspension of a high-profile player for gambling is also a first since that same era.
Back then, it was a pair of players, two future Hall of Famers, who were caught in a league crackdown on gambling entreaties into the NFL. Running back Paul Hornung and defensive lineman Alex Karras were arguably the best in the league at their positions in 1962, with Hornung winning the NFL championship on Vince Lombardi’s Green Bay Packers.
Neither would play in 1963 after a scandal for Ridley’s same crime, but in a very different time.
Ridley touched the third rail of pro football and will sit out a year as punishment
As is so often decried and debated in print, on television, and especially on social media, there is a different set of rules for professional players engaging with gambling on their own sport, and particularly on their own team, and almost any other socially-unacceptable offense.
Suspensions for domestic violence or the use of performing-enhancing drugs do not generally result in the full-season banishment Ridley got Monday for betting on NFL games, including his Atlanta Falcons, despite the fact that Ridley was not even actively part of the team when the wagers were placed.
To many, Ridley’s punishment simply did not seem to fit his crime, especially in 2022, when there is a franchise located in Las Vegas and the league has a partnership with DraftKings. Money from legalized sports gambling flows freely into the league’s coffers. It all seems highly hypocritical.
But it is those very financial entanglements that make the zero-tolerance policy imposed on its players for betting on its games even more intractable. The financial stakes in maintaining the integrity of the game have never been higher. The circumstances in 1963 were very different, but the league’s fears that spawned the suspensions of Hornung and Karras were exactly the same.
Not since Hornung and Karras in 1963 had such high-profile players been suspended for gambling
Public opinion on sports gambling, not to mention the incentives for lucrative financial partnerships between leagues and gambling entities, has shifted dramatically since 1963. The gambling boogeyman haunting all professional sports leagues in that era was too frightening to mess with.
When NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle dropped the hammer on Hornung and Karras after his investigation into their personal gambling practices and levied his one-year suspensions on the pair for the 1963 season, the world was only 44 years removed from the 1919 “Black Sox” gambling scandal that nearly destroyed Major League Baseball. It was just over a decade after the City College of New York’s point-shaving scandal in college basketball.
Professional sports leagues like the NFL and NBA in 1963 were still very much in their infancy, in terms of popularity and financial viability. It seems ridiculous to think now, but the NFL in 1963 was vulnerable enough that an alternative league, the AFL, was starting to gain traction as a fall football rival.
Rozelle knew a full-fledged gambling scandal could kill the league, and he offered two of the game’s biggest stars in “The Golden Boy” Hornung and Karras as sacrificial lambs to quell any whispers that the NFL was not on the level in terms of competition and fairness on the field.
Both Karras and Hornung returned to the game and eventually became Hall of Famers
Hornung and Karras had very different reactions to their suspensions.
A lifelong gambler from Louisville who worked as an usher at Churchill Downs as a kid, Hornung apologized and accepted his punishment without protest. Karras was far more combative and critical of Rozelle.
Both would return to the game in 1964 and finish out what became Hall of Fame careers, although perhaps their reactions to their suspensions played a role in the timing of their enshrinements.
While the pair rehabilitated their public personas, with Hornung joining the Monday Night Football broadcast booth and Karras becoming an accomplished actor with classic roles in “Blazing Saddles” — “Mongo like candy!” — and Webster, the 1963 suspensions lingered with Hall of Fame voters for decades.
Hornung had to wait far longer than a player with his credentials might expect, a product of lingering doubts over his “character” issues because of the ban, but he did finally get enshrined in 1986.
Karras, who remained unapologetic throughout his life, only got into the Hall in 2020, years after his death.
Should Ridley return to the field in 2023 and put up the same kind of numbers as before he left the Falcons midseason in 2021 prior to the suspension, he can still finish his career as Hall of Fame-worthy. And in today’s climate, his call to the Hall could actually come sooner than the duo who share his suspension history.
Stats courtesy of Pro Football Reference.