Bettis' support of proposed casino probed

Updated: July 1, 2004, 12:23 PM ET
By Len Pasquarelli | ESPN.com

The NFL will review a Tuesday meeting between running back Jerome Bettis and three Pennsylvania state legislators to determine if the Steelers star may have violated league anti-gambling guidelines with his support of a proposed development that would include a thoroughbred race track and slot-machine casino.

Bettis, the NFL's sixth-leading career rusher, met in Harrisburg, Pa., with three members of the Pennsylvania Legislative Black Caucus to pitch the project. The group had earlier threatened to vote against legalizing slots in the state if gambling-industry developers did not commit to a strong role for minorities in what some experts have estimated will be a $3 billion-a-year business.

On Wednesday, citing in part the meeting with Bettis and developer Charles J. Betters, the Pennsylvania Legislative Black Caucus announced its support of a bill that would legalize slot machines in the state. The meeting on Tuesday had been requested by the caucus through a Betters lobbyist.

At question is whether Bettis violated league rules that prohibit players, coaches and even teams from promoting or advertising gambling and gambling-related activities.

In part, the NFL policy stipulates that: "The league has a longstanding policy against any advertising or promotional activities by players, clubs and coaches, or other management personnel that can reasonably be perceived as constituting affiliation with or endorsement of gambling or gambling-related activities... All club employees are prohibited from being associated with such activities through endorsements, commercials, ads or other public appearances."

Betters, who is the prime developer of a project that would also include townhouses, a hotel and retail entities, said that Bettis is aware of the league rules and would not do anything to violate them. He said that, at some point in the near future, he will discuss the role of the Steelers' star in the project.

The NFL, which counts Bettis among its most accommodating and co-operative players, likely will have a strong interest in his ties to the project, a $500 million undertaking that has been dubbed Pittsburgh Palisades Park.

Bettis' business manager, Jamal Dokes, acknowledged that the player has a relationship with developer Betters, but declined to characterize their ties. "It is way too early to comment, because Jerome isn't involved in anything yet," Dokes told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette earlier this week.

But state representative LeAnna Washington, one of the three Black Caucus members who met with Bettis and others, said the Steelers back termed himself "a part owner" of the project and "a partner in the deal" at various times during the session.

It could well be that, even if Bettis is a partner, his involvement might be limited to only the real estate-related elements of the proposal. Even those ties would probably elevate the interest of league officials. Jeff Pash, the NFL's chief legal officer, is expected to talk with Bettis and Steelers officials in the next few days. But noted one NFL source: "This is something that has to be reviewed. But Jerome is a smart guy and he's not likely to do anything to jeopardize himself. Still, we need an explanation here."

While the league's policies are clear, the NFL has long sent mixed signals regarding its stance on gambling-related activities. Several owners have or did own interests in race tracks. The Rooney family, which founded and still owns the Steelers franchises, owns a dog racing track in Palm Beach, Fla., and a harness racing track in Yonkers, N.Y.

Ownership in those ventures, however, is permitted, because no members of the Rooney family are involved in the operation of both the tracks and the football franchise.

Bettis, 32, has played the last eight seasons for the Steelers, having been acquired from the St. Louis Rams in a 1996 trade. The former Notre Dame star, who has rushed for 12,353 yards in his career, has taken a keen interest in community affairs and charitable pursuits and is one of the most popular players in recent Steelers history.

Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.