The NFL is rolling into its first-ever Super Bowl featuring two Black starting quarterbacks, a fact that is at once a landmark and long overdue. When the coin is tossed in Glendale, Arizona, millions of Americans will have put legal bets on the Super Bowl in more than 30 states and advertisements for betting apps.
Those two sentences may seem unrelated, but they are tied together by the life and legacy of a man few people under 40 have ever heard of but who single-handedly brought sports betting into the American mainstream: Jimmy “The Greek” Snyder.
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Historic hot water for Jimmy The Greek
It’s been 35 years this playoff season since the then-69-year-old co-star of CBS’s weekly “NFL Today” pregame show self-immolated by offering an incoherent but clearly racist theory about the superiority of Black athletes to a local TV reporter in Washington, DC. Back then, lots of white sports fans were getting really uncomfortable about how ascendant African-Americans were particularly in the NFL and NBA, and The Greek felt like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday was as good a time as any to explain what was going on:
“The black is a better athlete to begin with, because he’s been bred to be that way. Because of his high thighs and big thighs that goes up into his back. And they can jump higher and run faster because of their bigger thighs. And he’s bred to be the better athlete because this goes back all the way to the Civil War, when, during the slave trading, the big, the owner, the slave owner would breed his big black to his big woman so that he could have uh big black kid, see. That’s where it all started.”
That was bad enough, though perhaps recoverable with the right amount of time and public self-flagellation. But the rest of it – “If they take over coaching like everybody wants them to, there’s not going to be anything left for white people” – sealed the deal. CBS fired him, not even a series of apologies and a public meeting with Jesse Jackson could rehabilitate him, and he died in 1996 broke, broken and infamous. That is, “canceled” in modern parlance.
How Jimmy The Greek popularized sports betting
What’s stunning, though, is how much for better and for worse we in 2023 live in The Greek’s world. For better because he was the first pro gambler to go on network TV and offer NFL predictions in the form of a point spread. He did it in code – he’d say this team would win by 30-20, say, and that translated into a 10-point line – but everybody watching understood what he was saying and hung on his word.
“Jimmy made sports betting popular in the United States,” said author and sports historian Richard O Davies in 2009 on ESPN’s “30 for 30” episode on the Greek. “He brought it out of the closet into a place where the American people said, ‘Hey, this is sort of fun to do.’ ” On the same show, then-Station Casinos chief bookie Al Manteris agreed: “He took it from backroom whispers to prominent conversation in everybody’s living room on Sunday morning. And that was an enormous stride.”
Even before that, The Greek had been a groundbreaking figure. He was a poor kid from Steubenville, Ohio, who got hooked on betting in his teens in the 1930s and ingeniously paid railroad porters passing through to bring him local newspapers from across the country so he could acquire intel on teams and players. He moved to Vegas (of course?) and got convicted of interstate transportation of bets in 1962 for offering a line over the phone to folks out of state.
No longer able to legally bet in Vegas, he remade himself as a Las Vegas Sun columnist syndicated in more than 200 newspapers. It would be the first time in most of the country that betting and betting lines were openly discussed in their papers, and it grew his fame dramatically. In 1974, President Gerald Ford pardoned him and in 1976, CBS hired him as part of its pregame team.
His celebrity is impossible to overstate. He did shaving cream and car ads. His odds on a Nixon impeachment merited a People magazine coverline in 1974. Vegas casinos tried unsuccessfully to buy his name to brand their sportsbooks.
There was plenty else that would have gotten The Greek canceled today. He once socked co-anchor Brent Musburger in the face. He regularly made sexist and cruel remarks about another co-anchor, Phyllis George. He claimed not to bet on football but Musburger said it was an open secret that he surely did. None of this slowed his roll back then.
The modern legacy of Jimmy The Greek
Alas, for all his importance to the sports betting world we have today, his epitaph would be his racist remarks. I was 15 when all of that went down and knew little about pro football or gambling at the time but I remember how pleased and righteous everyone was when he was canned and disappeared from public view.
While it would be nice to imagine that that public shaming and banishment from polite society served as a benchmark for what was acceptable discourse on race, we now see that his comments were merely a precursor. The Greek merely had the misfortune to offer his mumbo-jumbo at a time when there were only three major TV networks who could shut him down and relegate him to the trash heap.
Twenty years after The Greek’s death, Donald Trump made offensive remarks about women, Mexicans, Muslims, Blacks and many others on his way to being elected president of the United States. He revealed his secret to survival to Boston Herald columnist Howie Carr in 2016:
“Whatever you do, don’t apologize. You never hear me apologize, do you? That’s what killed Jimmy the Greek way back. Remember? He was doing OK ’til he said he was sorry.”
Six months after he died in 1996, the Fox News Channel would launch. It’s not hard to imagine how he could have become a regular on Tucker Carlson, who frequently trades in grievance about how white people are being “replaced” in American culture, and make a solid living doing a podcast or hosting a SiriusXM show.
That is to say, as both a sports gambling savant and a racist, The Greek was ahead of his time. The nation and the sports world have made tremendous strides in racial equality since 1988, to be sure, and Super Bowl LXII will showcase that with Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes going up against Philadelphia Eagles QB Jalen Hurts.
But we’re also a nation where states are banning lessons on our racist pasts, we’re becoming numb to the repetitive story of gruesome police violence against Black people and the Internet is enabling the spread of the sort of pseudo-scientific nonsense that felled The Greek.
Back then, it seemed The Greek’s racist comments were a relic of the past. As it happens, he was just born a few decades too early.