- Tom Farrey, ESPN Staff Writer
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If Maurice Clarett enters the NFL draft this April, the suspended Ohio State tailback can expect to have his relationship with an admitted football gambler scrutinized by the league's security office.
NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said Friday that the standard pre-draft background check of draft-eligible players would include an examination of Clarett's close association with benefactor Robert Dellimuti.
Dellimuti is the Warren, Ohio, caterer whose phone records show, as reported by ESPN.com, that he regularly called a bookmaker while Clarett played for the Buckeyes.
"We will explore those reports as we would with any player," Aiello said in a statement. "We have strong policies on gambling activities. The reports raise serious questions and we will do our normal background check to determine the facts."
Like the NCAA, which is investigating Dellimuti's gambling activity, the NFL prefers that players stay away from people who wager on sports. A league rule prohibits players from "associating with gamblers or with gambling activities in a manner tending to bring discredit to the NFL."
Clarett has not addressed the subject publicly. Alan Milstein, Clarett's lawyer, said in a statement on Wednesday that Clarett was unaware of any gambling activity by Dellimuti. Regarding an NCAA rule that prohibits players from providing inside information to gamblers, Milstein said Clarett had no reason to believe any comments he has made to Dellimuti have been used for gambling purposes.
Dellimuti made 27 calls to a Costa Rica-based sportsbook, SBG Global, during the 2002 national championship season, according to the phone records obtained by ESPN from Ohio State through an open-records request. Three of those calls were on the mornings of Ohio State games. Dellimuti told ESPN.com that he bet on "football" -- but not on the Buckeyes.
In Thursday's edition of the Canton (Ohio) Repository, Dellimuti continued to insist that he never bet on Ohio State games but offered further details about his gambling habits.
"I bet on Saturday mornings on college football, and I did it legally," Dellimuti told the newspaper. "I mean, we're talking $100 here or $200 there."
Dellimuti made 67 phone calls to SBG Global over an 18-month period dating back to when Clarett was a senior at Warren G. Harding High School, where Dellimuti is a booster for the football program. Using telephone lines to place or receive bets is illegal under federal law, although gamblers are rarely prosecuted.
Dellimuti, 38, was a central figure in the NCAA investigation of Clarett last year that involved extra benefits, including payments for the cell phone Dellimuti provided Clarett during his stellar freshman season. Dellimuti stayed in daily contact with the running back during the 2002 season.
The indefinite suspension of Clarett by Ohio State led to his filing the lawsuit challenging the NFL's early-entry draft rules. U.S. District Court Judge Shira A. Scheindlin on Thursday sided with Clarett, declaring him eligible for the draft. The NFL has said it will appeal the landmark ruling but doesn't expect a decision before the April 24-25 draft weekend.
Dellimuti told the Canton newspaper that Clarett called him Thursday morning after ESPN's report about gambling calls appeared on the Internet and on television.
"He said, 'Can you believe it? This is the life I've got to live. I feel bad for you because this is wrong,' " said Dellimuti, who regards himself as a family friend. He said some of those calls to SBG were to check on lines for games.
Aiello declined to speculate on how the NFL might respond if the league is uncomfortable with Clarett's relationship with Dellimuti. But he noted that every stadium and practice facility in the NFL has a poster that warns players about the prohibition on gambling-related activity, including associating with gamblers.
Usually, the NFL has only taken formal action on gambling issues when players already in the league have gambled on sports, as with former Ohio State quarterback Art Schlichter. Concerns about his gambling activity in the 1980s got him banned from the league. ESPN's investigation uncovered no evidence to suggest that Clarett gambled, shaved points or did anything to affect the integrity of Buckeye games.
But the NFL also reserves the right to force players to disassociate themselves from situations that give the league pause. When Joe Namath was playing, then NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle ordered Namath to sell his share of a saloon named Bachelors Three, insisting that it was a haunt of unsavory characters.
''If I can't go watch this kid play in the NFL, it will be a shame,'' Dellimuti told the Repository. ''If (players) can't talk to anyone who has ever bet, who's going to be left to talk to?''
Tom Farrey is a senior writer with ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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