The White House announced on Tuesday a slew of presidential pardons and commuted sentences from President Trump, and one of the names, Eddie DeBartolo Jr., will raise the eyebrows of many sports fans.
DeBartolo Jr. is the 73-year-old former owner of the San Francisco 49ers. In 1998, he pleaded guilty to failing to report a felony after former Louisiana governor Edwin Edwards extorted $400,000 from him in exchange for a riverboat casino license.
DeBartolo did not serve prison time, but paid a $1 million fine, got two years of probation, and had a felony on his permanent record. In 1997, after news reports that he would be charged with a gambling-related felony, he stepped down as owner of the 49ers and gave the chairman role to his sister Denise DeBartolo York, whose son Jed York (DeBartolo Jr.’s nephew) runs the team today.
That was all 22 years ago. So why is Trump pardoning him now?
If you ask the White House, it’s about DeBartolo’s philanthropy in the years since his felony conviction.
“Mr. DeBartolo did not allow his conviction to define his life,” the White House statement about the pardon says. “He remained a generous philanthropist and passionate supporter of numerous charitable causes, including charter schools like the Brooks DeBartolo Collegiate High School, and anti-gang violence initiatives. His exceptional compassion and warmth define his character to this day.”
But two other reasons—related to Ohio politics and the NFL—stand out as likely larger motivations.
Ohio real estate and politics
If you ask the Washington Post, this is about politics—specifically about Trump winning Ohio in 2020.
Philip Bump writes that the pardon could be “a way to send a signal to a critical part of an important state... someone, somewhere, no doubt kept Trump apprised of DeBartolo’s popularity in a region central to U.S. presidential politics.”
Although the DeBartolos owned a football team in San Francisco, they came from Ohio and made their fortune in Ohio real estate. Edward DeBartolo Sr. was born in Youngstown, Ohio, the son of Italian immigrants, and worked in construction with his stepfather as a teenager. He eventually graduated from Notre Dame and started the DeBartolo Corporation, which developed shopping malls. Edward DeBartolo Jr. also graduated from Notre Dame (multiple buildings on campus bear the DeBartolo name), then worked at his father’s company before eventually running it.
In 1996, the DeBartolo company sold to its shopping mall competitor Simon Property Group.
Interestingly, there is a connection to Les Wexner, the L Brands CEO who is currently under fire for his mismanagement of Victoria’s Secret and his relationship with the financier and sex criminal Jeffrey Epstein. DeBartolo Sr. teamed with Wexner in the late ‘80s on an unsuccessful $1.7 billion bid to buy out Carter Hawley Hale Stores, an L.A.-based department store chain. As the L.A. Times wrote in 1986, “The takeover offer for Carter Hawley brings together the two richest men in Ohio.” The Oklahoman on the same day wrote, “The partnership bidding for Carter Hawley unites two of the wealthiest and most dynamic retailing figures, DeBartolo and Limited's Leslie Wexner, the flamboyant founder of Limited.”
Denise DeBartolo York and John York, parents of Jed York, still live in Youngstown today, and the family is well-regarded there. Jed York even said on a 49ers podcast last year that Youngstown “looks at the 49ers as their second team.”
Trump won Ohio in 2016, but the county that includes Youngstown went to Hillary Clinton. Some are chalking up Trump’s DeBartolo pardon to a savvy political move.
NFL ownership dreams
But Trump’s hangups about the NFL should not be discounted either.
President Trump has a long, well-documented love/hate relationship with pro football. In 1981, Trump made a bid to buy the Baltimore Colts from owner Robert Irsay and was turned down. So in 1983, Trump instead bought a team in the brand new USFL, the New Jersey Generals. Jeff Pearlman reports in his book “Football For a Buck” that Trump quickly met with NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle and told him that what he really wanted was an NFL team. According to a colleague of the USFL marketing guy who was in the room for the meeting, Rozelle told Trump, “As long as I or my heirs are involved in the NFL, you will never be a franchise owner in the league.”
After that, Trump convinced some of his fellow USFL owners to sue the NFL for $567 million over its monopoly of fall TV rights. The 1986 trial, USFL vs. NFL, lasted 48 days, and the USFL actually won, but was awarded $1 — a pyrrhic victory in a case that destroyed the USFL. As Pearlman recounted to Yahoo Finance in 2018, the NFL “made him the enemy” of the trial.
DeBartolo Sr. was actually a founding owner of a USFL team, the Pittsburgh Maulers, but he shut down the team after its only season in 1984, after the league voted to play its games in the fall starting in 1986 to compete with the NFL. (The USFL lasted only three seasons.)
By that time, the DeBartolos owned the San Francisco 49ers; Edward Sr. had bought the team in 1977 and gave control to his son. (The family also owned the Pittsburgh Penguins for a little over a decade, before selling it in 1991 after the team won its first Stanley Cup.)
Trump tried again to become an NFL team owner in 2014, when he bid for the Buffalo Bills after Bills owner Ralph Wilson died. He didn’t get it; the team went to Terry and Kim Pegula, the owners of the Buffalo Sabres. Immediately after that, in October 2014, Trump questioned the NFL’s tax exemption status on Twitter, mocked the league’s ratings, and concluded, “Glad I didn’t get the Bills.”
Trump’s desire to be in with NFL owners has colored his decisions time and again. Even after he spent more than a year tweeting angrily about the NFL and the player protests started by Colin Kaepernick, he remains close with Patriots owner Robert Kraft and Cowboys owner Jerry Jones. Jaguars owner Shad Khan, who donated to Trump’s 2016 campaign, told Yahoo Finance in October that he did not like Trump’s social views but is still a “big fan of the economic policies.”
Even the White House’s statement about DeBartolo at times makes it sound as though his NFL achievements, and support from NFL friends, help merit the pardon: “Edward DeBartolo Jr. is a successful businessman, real estate developer, and member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame,” the statement says. “During the 23 years that he owned the San Francisco 49ers, the team won an unprecedented 13 division titles and 5 Super Bowl Championships... Many prominent individuals from the National Football League have strongly advocated for this pardon, including Joe Montana, Jim Brown, Jerry Rice, Steve Young, Ronnie Lott, Charles Haley, Derrick Brooks, Fred Dean, Robert Kraft, Jerry Jones, and Roger Goodell.” These are people Trump wants to please.
DeBartolo Jr. supported Trump’s 2016 campaign, so the pardon could be as simple as Trump repaying the favor. Or, as the Washington Post and other suggest, it’s about currying favor in Youngstown, Ohio. In any case, NFL legends Jim Brown, Ronnie Lott, and Jerry Rice attended the pardon announcement in person. Rice told reporters at the White House, “I take my hat off to Donald Trump for what he did.”
And you can bet that Trump enjoyed that part as well.
NOTE: An earlier version of this story said that the Pittsburgh Maulers played in the 1983 USFL season; it was in the 1984 season.
Daniel Roberts is an editor-at-large at Yahoo Finance and closely covers sports business. Follow him on Twitter at @readDanwrite.