Rozelle: From compromise candidate to commissioner nonpareil
NEW YORK (AP) — For a compromise candidate not even under consideration when the voting began, Pete Rozelle sure achieved a lot as NFL commissioner.
Indeed, the man who led the NFL from 1960-89 generally is regarded as the best league boss in sports history — not just in pro football.
“He did more for professional football and the NFL than any other sports executive has done,” Wellington Mara, then owner of the New York Giants, said of Rozelle.
Rozelle’s predecessor, Bert Bell, helped popularize the league, but its following still lagged behind the college game. Bell died in October 1959 of a heart attack while at a Steelers-Eagles game in Philadelphia, and NFL owners gathered three months later to elect a new commissioner.
Initially, there were three candidates, none named Rozelle. Austin Gunsel temporarily had taken the post after Bell’s death and was backed by several longtime owners. 49ers counsel Marshall Leahy was supported by a group of newer owners. Lions President Edwin Anderson also was in consideration.
The voting — and back-room politicking — began. It didn’t cease through 20 rounds and nearly a week of balloting. Then Rams owner Dan Reeves, and Browns owner Paul Brown sought to break the deadlock by proposing LA’s general manager, the 33-year-old Rozelle.
Suddenly, there was movement as Brown pushed for Rozelle and persuaded others to elect him. On the 23rd ballot, they did.
“I was totally shocked,” Rozelle said, “because I was so young and because they’d considered so many other people who had so much more experience in football than I.”
But he was the man, and very quickly he rewarded the owners’ faith by building the NFL into America’s No. 1 sport.
“He was a man of vision; boy, did he have vision,” former quarterback and congressman Jack Kemp said. “Could he see things the rest of us could not see.”
Immediately so in his new job, too. Rozelle approved league expansion to Dallas for the 1960 season and for Minneapolis in ’61, a cause championed by one of the NFL’s founders, Bears owner George Halas.
Rozelle fought back challenges in court from the rival AFL, then years later oversaw the merger of the leagues.
He recognized the need to centralize television contracts — each team was negotiating its own deals when he assumed office — evenly split the money, and keep games on free TV, reaching agreement with CBS for two years of coverage for $9.3 million. That began the most lucrative source of NFL revenue, while also ensuring a significant broadcast presence that, today, has become an overwhelmingly dominant one.
When that deal was threatened by legal action, Rozelle lobbied in Washington for an antitrust exemption, which became the Sports Broadcast Act. Soon, every franchise was splitting a gold mine.
Rozelle also approved scheduling Monday night games, getting another network involved in 1970 when the leagues merged. ABC launched “Monday Night Football,” something the commissioner had sought for years, recognizing the boost it could provide his league.
“He was able to accomplish things because he was able to bring diverse groups of egotistical, strongminded owners and managers together and do things that were necessary to be done for the betterment of the league,” Cowboys President Tex Schramm told Pro Football Hall of Fame Executive Director Joe Horrigan.
As the success graph pointed skyward, dark clouds gathered on several fronts.
First, the league became aware that two of its biggest stars, Green Bay halfback Paul Hornung and Detroit defensive tackle Alex Karras, had been associating with known gamblers. A lengthy investigation led to indefinite suspension for both, which eventually turned into one-season bans.
At the time, Rozelle called it the most difficult decision he’d made.
Seven months later, President Kennedy was assassinated, and Rozelle basically had three options: postpone games for that weekend; cancel them; or play them.
As he weighed whether maintaining the schedule would provide some relief for a mourning nation or, on the contrary, be seen as disrespectful, Rozelle sought advice from Kennedy adviser Pierre Salinger. Explaining that he believed the president wouldn’t have wanted the NFL to go dark, Salinger encouraged the league to play.
And it did, with Rozelle issuing a statement: “It has been traditional in sports for athletes to perform in times of great tragedy. Football was Mr. Kennedy’s game. He thrived on competition.”
Rozelle later admitted to regretting the decision, but it also must be noted there was no falloff in attendance at six of the seven games that Sunday.
The next three years were dominated by battles with the AFL as each league bid — and overbid — for players. College seniors were hidden by teams so they couldn’t sign with the opposing league. Huge for that era contracts were handed out to veterans and rookies alike; Alabama quarterback Joe Namath received $427,000 over three years, a deal that became a trend setter.
Soon it became clear to both sides that nothing beneficial could result from these battles. Secret meetings involving Rozelle, several NFL and AFL team owners led to a merger. On June 8, 1966, it was announced that all nine AFL teams would join the NFL (Cincinnati became an expansion franchise in 1968), with Rozelle remaining as commissioner. A common draft would ensue, and a championship game between the leagues would be played. Oh yeah, that wound up being called the Super Bowl.
Rozelle then had to convince Congress that the merger didn’t violate antitrust restrictions. Again, he succeeded, with an exemption attached to a tax credit bill.
When pro football split into two conferences in 1970, three franchises were required to move from the NFC to AFC, a hefty challenge. Rozelle offered a $3 million payout to any team willing to do so, and the Steelers, Browns and Colts answered the call.
By then, the former AFL teams were on equal footing because Namath had led the Jets to their incredible upset of the supposedly unbeatable Colts for the 1968 title. Then the Chiefs manhandled the Vikings in the Super Bowl the next year.
With TV audiences rapidly growing; a bevy of stars from coast to coast; exciting games in an expanded-to-16 schedule; and creative marketing, Rozelle guided his then 26-team league past any potholes. The NFL had surged past baseball as America’s top sport.
“Pete often said we should not simply be satisfied with being number one,” said Joe Browne, an NFL executive for a half-century and one of Rozelle’s top assistants. “but he wanted us to find more ways to engage existing NFL fans and attract new ones. For example, our games were on all three TV networks at the time and he convinced the TV execs to promote those games during weekday programming that had mostly female viewership. It helped us grow our fanbase among women. He also wanted to do everything to make the Super Bowl America’s premier entertainment event.”
Although the so-called Rozelle Rule that prohibited free agency was struck down by a U.S. court in 1975 — it would be nearly two decades before true free agency came to the league — the 1970s had become highly rewarding for the NFL. Then came what historian Joe Horrigan dubbed “the lost decade.”
An ugly and sometimes very public disagreement with Raiders owner Al Davis over whether he had the right to move his franchise from Oakland to Los Angeles despite Rozelle’s (and many other owners’) opposition opened the decade. Davis sued the NFL, but the case wound up in a hung jury. He won a retrial in 1982, a massive legal blow to the league. Davis took his team to LA.
As big a defeat as that was for Rozelle, he was facing even larger potential problems on the labor front. Rozelle didn’t oversee labor negotiations; he was a publicist after all, not a lawyer. That proved an unwise situation.
“Labor issues on management’s side during the 1970s and ’80 were not under the control of Commissioner Rozelle, but rather run by a committee of owners under the umbrella NFL Management Council,” Browne said. “The Management Council for many years operated out of a separate office building in New York away from the commissioner’s office. The staff made it clear that their office was independent of ours.”
With Rozelle’s people skills and vision removed from negotiations, things turned nasty between the union and its head, Ed Garvey, and the Management Council and its boss, Jack Donlan. Rozelle had projected that labor would be the theme of the 1980s, and he was correct.
Two weeks into the 1982 schedule, the players walked out. They didn’t return for 57 days, though they didn’t get their coveted free agency in the new CBA. For the first time in its history, the NFL season was truncated by a strike, and each team played just nine games.
Meanwhile, another league had sprung up, with the USFL playing in the spring, placing some teams in NFL cities. It lasted three years, driving up the salaries of players — something the ’82 negotiations barely managed — and forcing Rozelle to focus yet again on something that didn’t grow his league. The USFL made plans to switch to the fall in ’86 as direct competition with the NFL, but it never happened.
Instead, Rozelle, who was enshrined in the Hall of Fame in 1985, and the NFL got a victory despite defeat in a U.S. district court in July 1986 when the USFL was awarded $1 trebled in its $1.7 billion lawsuit. The USFL then folded, but there was little relief for Rozelle: The Management Council and players’ union were at it again.
Again, the players struck after two games. Rozelle canceled Week 3 matches while the teams put together rosters of replacement players. What followed were three weeks of mediocre to amateurish play, with many regulars crossing picket lines, before peace was reached. Again, however, the union didn’t get the desired free agency that baseball had for more than a decade.
Rozelle had grown weary of the disputes that, while not affecting the popularity of his sport had deeply impacted his being.
“The decade of the ’80s was tough on Pete because the league was playing defense on so many fronts,” Browne said. “There was a general malaise in the league for almost the entire decade. Pete knew there never would be a time when all the league’s problems would be settled in a positive manner. It was enough to convince Pete to step down as commissioner in 1989 after three decades of seven-day work weeks on the job.”
Rozelle passed away in 1996, deep into successor Paul Tagliabue’s tenure.
“Pete was loyal and inspired loyalty in others, a great, great quality,” Tagliabue said. “He was generous and never self-centered. Pete Rozelle will never be replaced. We all sorely miss him, we all sorely miss his advice.?