It was just before noon last Friday in New York when NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle released his ruling on Baltimore Colt Quarterback Art Schlichter: Guilty of gambling on "at least 10" league games in 1982 and of associating with "illegal bookmakers" and therefore, suspended indefinitely. But Schlichter's situation is even more serious than the punishment suggests. Last weekend SI was told that the former Ohio State star's gambling-related debts exceed $750,000, at least twice as much as originally thought. His attorney, John J. Chester of Columbus, Ohio, refused to divulge the exact size of the debt but acknowledged, "It's terrible. It's so bad that I don't know how he's going to make it."
Further, Chester says that Schlichter, 23, had been through such a living hell before the recent diagnosis of him as a compulsive gambler that there's "some indication" that Schlichter considered suicide. Says Chester of the addiction, "It's a terrible, terrible burden. It's the type of thing where you don't want to get up in the daytime because you know you're faced with the same thing all over again. And this is what leads people to suicide."
And Schlichter was contemplating it?
"I have only his word for it," Chester said.
When Schlichter, who was unavailable for comment after the Rozelle ruling, first approached law-enforcement officials for help on March 15, he stated that he had lost $389,000 to four Baltimore bookies and still owed them $159,000. But his total debt is far worse than that because of money he borrowed from what Chester surmises is every source Schlichter could think of. In fact, says Chester, as Schlichter reached the depths of his financial ruin, he went to San Diego and borrowed money from his accountant, an Ohio State grad, Bill Cheng. It was Cheng who directed Schlichter to a San Diego psychiatrist, Thaddeus Kostrubala.
Schlichter's first visit to Kostrubala apparently started a chain of events that eventually brought Schlichter to Columbus attorney Charles F. Freiburger, who in turn helped Schlichter contact the FBI. By this time, Chester says, Schlichter had received threats from bookies that his right arm—his passing arm—would be broken if he didn't pay up. With Schlichter's cooperation the FBI apprehended, on April 1, four men on charges related to illegal gambling. They are Harold E. Brooks Jr., Joseph A. Serio and Charles Thomas Swift, all of Baltimore, and Samuel Richard Alascia of Catonsville, Md. At this writing they were scheduled to stand trial in Columbus on June 6 in U.S. District Court.
As for Schlichter, who hasn't been charged with criminal wrongdoing, he admitted himself to a treatment center for compulsive gamblers at an undisclosed location on May 16. Chester says Schlichter will remain there until mid-June. His treatment is being overseen by Dr. Robert L. Custer, chief of treatment services and mental health for the Veterans Administration in Washington, D.C., and one of the preeminent U.S. experts in dealing with addiction to gambling. Four days after Schlichter began treatment Rozelle issued his ruling.
While the suspension is indefinite, it most likely will last one year, just as the "indefinite" suspensions of Paul Hornung and Alex Karras in 1963 for gambling did. On the night after Rozelle's decision was announced. Max Schlichter, Art's father, said, "My disappointment is that if they [NFL officials] are treating this as a sickness, then they should let the doctors say when he's ready to come back rather than the NFL." That's what Chester had hoped to persuade Rozelle to do during a four-hour private meeting, with Schlichter and Custer in attendance, in New York on May 11.
Chester urged Rozelle to take the same path he does with drug cases—which has been to allow a player to rejoin his team as soon as he successfully completes treatment. But Rozelle, Chester says, "places a violation concerning gambling on a different level than a violation concerning drugs. He suspends Art, and he doesn't suspend drug addicts." Chester adds, "An indefinite suspension has you out there hanging in the wind until they decide what they want to do with you." Which obviously is what Rozelle has in mind, because Schlichter and the NFL face problems if and when he returns to the field. What will the reaction be when he makes a poor pass?
According to Chester, it was possible for Schlichter to run up huge gambling debts because he was "a frenzied bettor. It didn't make any difference what he was gambling on. He had no sensitivity to that. He just needed to gamble.... The wilder the better." Chester didn't give details of Schlichter's betting patterns, but did say his client once lost $100,000 "in a short period of time."
Clearly Schlichter was a naive gambler. According to a law-enforcement official, Schlichter once went to a bookie to collect some rare winnings and was told, "Oh, we scratched that game from the board." Schlichter just nodded acquiescence and left, unaware of the obvious fleecing.
Compulsive gambling has only recently been put in the same category with other addictions, such as alcoholism. It is also now categorized as a behavior disorder. Robert M. Politzer, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Pathological Gambling in Mount Wilson, Md., says, "For the pathological gambler the addiction is to the action. He's attracted by the ambiguity of the outcome of the game. He's totally consumed by it."
How pervasive compulsive gambling is in the U.S. is unknown, although the New York-based National Council on Compulsive Gambling thinks that as many as 10 million Americans "not only risk more money than they can afford, but go on to gamble compulsively, without control." For such people, a slogan such as the one used by New York's Off-Track Betting Corp.—"Bet with your head, not over it"—does no good.
Schlichter had been a prime suspect as a big bettor with Columbus bookies ever since he enrolled at Ohio State in 1978. However, it now appears that while rumors of Schlichter's free spending with bookies were common, no law-enforcement agency ever latched on to any more than rumors. Lieut. Dave Dailey, head of the Columbus Police Department's Organized Crime Bureau, says, "We suspected he was betting and we still think he was, but we were never able to substantiate it with one shred of evidence." Eyebrows were raised when Schlichter was seen often at local horse tracks, and they arched further when he was spotted with Columbus bookie Frank Hook. "There was a lot of guilt by association," says Dailey, "but that was it."
One effort by Columbus police to "catch" Schlichter, an All-America as a sophomore at Ohio State, involved a police informant who posed as a bookie at an East Side restaurant, the Kahiki. Dailey says a bartender started betting with the informant and told him he "had some action from Schlichter" he wanted to get down. Those bets were accepted. Subsequently the informant told the bartender, "Have Schlichter see me. I like to take my action direct." The bartender said he would pass the message; Schlichter never appeared. "So," says Dailey, "we couldn't learn whether Schlichter was really betting or if the bartender was just blowing smoke." Further, says Dailey, while an estimated 40 bookies were busted during Schlichter's career at Ohio State, never once did Schlichter's name appear in the confiscated books—although the names of numerous other prominent citizens did.
Indeed, Chester says the only documented dealings Schlichter had with a bookie came early in his Buckeye years when he was approached by a bookie seeking information. Schlichter reported the contact to his coaches, who in turn informed the FBI.
Those days at Ohio State were far more innocent, if not truly innocent, but these days find Schlichter with a long and complicated road back. Chester says that his client will "pay back all his legal debts, to the extent he can." For now, however, the question for Schlichter is the extent to which he can control his own destructive impulses.
The sign below hangs in every NFL locker room, but Schlichter paid it no heed.
Chester says his client pondered suicide.