There's this line from "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid." On the run from a posse, following a train robbery, a weary Paul Newman pauses long enough to ask Robert Redford, oh so wistfully, "Why is it, everything I'm good at is illegal?"
That's the way it is, "Playing Football." The game is not legal, the way I play it, and there is no trying to rationalize otherwise.
Society sets the rules. Society says playing the stock market is patriotic, the financial base of our capitalistic system. You may call it investing, you may call it speculating. What it is, is gambling.
A stock broker is a tout. His clients who watch the big board, cheering as strongly for AT&T as I do for the Pittsburgh Steelers, are bettors. But gambling on the market is wonderfully legal, an act to be encouraged, society says. Playing Football is illegal.
Society says gambling on horses is legal in many states. Governments could not have invented a better sport to tax to death; first, in the regular pari-mutuel pools, then again on the IRS forms when somebody is lucky enough to hit one of the really big payoffs.
That's double taxation. Taxation without representation. Milk it to death, society says. The takeout can be as high as 25 percent. That's okay. But the bookie, taxing the football bettor at less than 5 percent, is committing a crime.
Society says playing bingo for prizes or money is legal. Quite often churches are happy to participate. . . so long as they can rake their take off the top. Bingo, apparently, is good for the soul. Playing Football is the devil's game, a quick way to go to hell in a handbasket.
Most recently, society sanctions its greatest gambling gimmick, the lotteries. You have to play to win. Pick a number. Any number. Any number of digits. Then get down to your friendly (legalized) neighborhood bookie who happens to own or operate the newsstand or bus agency, and play the 3-5-6 or whatever.
The lottery is the greatest legalized attraction ever invented -- for suckers. The takeout goes as high as 60 percent. You are a loser the day you become involved. But it's legal. Playing Football is illegal.
When it comes to its treatment of gambling, American society reaches the height of hypocrisy. It tells the gambler that gambling is all right, so long as he gambles on games where the percentages are stacked against him.
From the intelligent gambler's perspective, society is sick.
I find betting on professional football games enjoyable -- and cheap entertainment, in today's market. That is the reason I do it. Sure, the ego trip is nice when you win. But the real reason for risking a little money on the Monday night special is that, for $5 or $10, an immediate rooting interest develops. For the next three hours high-powered, inexpensive entertainment is available in my living room, with my family, courtesy of the tube. There is a kick to it that Merv Griffin or most $4 movies will never match.
Not that I enjoy extolling the glories of gambling, in any form, even Playing Football. That is a very personal decision, a decision to be made by adults who know what they are doing and why.
Not everybody can handle it. A little success, at first, can be the worst thing ever to happen to a bettor. But alcohol and cigarettes, to me, are more addictive, more dangerous . . . and society seems only too happy to promote smoking and drinking.
What I don't need, when it comes to the subject of gambling, is preaching. Not from Dave Kindred. Not from Jerry Falwell. Not from Pete Rozelle. Not from my aunt. They have a right to their opinion, to make personal decisions in this and all other matters. But don't preach to me about what is or is not good for me, my life, my family, etc. I'll decide that.
I decided in 1974 that writing a gambling column on professional football was something I would enjoy. If sports editors and their readers wanted it, fine. If not, okay. The fact that more readers appear to want such material does not make the subject more "acceptable." It's still illegal.
Society and I split a long time ago on the matter of gambling. As a high school basketball player fortunate enough to be surrounded by four talented teammates, we won many more games than we lost. Society called us "four crows and a sparrow," mocking their color and my legs.
All season we ate lunch in the downtown pool hall. We did so because the habitues always paid for our food. They never asked us to throw a game, or to shave points; only, occasionally, did we think we could handle the next team on the schedule?
The town was proud of us. Then we lost the game for the state championship. The boys in the pool hall lost their money. They kept offering to buy us lunch but the town's "good citizens" were up in arms. They suddenly were shocked that we had been hanging out in such sinful surroundings, although no one had voiced any concern when we were winning.
That's society, and society makes the rules, although they tend to be rules that are unenforced when it comes to betting on football. They are not enforced because too many people don't think Playing Football is a crime, no matter what society says. I happen to agree.