- Rozelle: A Biography by Jerry Izenberg
This stimulating biography by veteran sportswriter Jerry Izenberg explains how Pete Rozelle helped make the NFL the most successful sports organization of the last half century. During twenty-nine years as NFL commissioner (1960–89), Rozelle introduced marketing methods that greatly expanded pro football’s following. He persuaded NFL owners to share television revenue, which preserved the league’s competitive balance. He staved off the upstart American Football League’s (AFL) challenge to the NFL’s monopoly that began in 1960. He emerged from the bitter interleague conflict as commissioner of an NFL that included the former AFL teams. The settlement, in which he played a key role, may have saved several teams from collapse. Rozelle reacted quickly to gambling scandals that might have seriously damaged pro football. Izenberg portrays Rozelle as a moderating influence with often intransigent owners locked in labor negotiations with an increasingly assertive NFL Players Association. [End Page 257]
When the owners elected the thirty-three-year-old Rozelle commissioner, nothing suggested that he would have a significant impact on pro football, much less become “the dominant sports administrator of our time” (5). The NFL was run by forceful men who had established franchises in the 1920s and 1930s and worked together for decades. This “old guard” included George Halas, George Preston Marshall, Art Rooney, and the previous commissioner, Bert Bell, a founder of the Philadelphia Eagles. Rozelle had briefly been general manager of the Los Angeles Rams but was little known to the owners. Indeed, Baltimore Colts owner Carol Rosenbloom expected that Rozelle would be “just another harmless ass-kisser” (170). Rozelle’s experience in public relations, however, a field the owners knew little about, would prove very helpful in making pro football America’s most popular sport.
Drawing on his numerous conversations with people involved in the case, Izenberg provides a nuanced analysis of Rozelle’s response, early in his tenure, to the most publicized betting scandal in football history. Unlike the 1950–51 college basketball scandal, there was no evidence of point shaving in the NFL; but, in 1963, two of the game’s stars, Paul Hornung of the Green Bay Packers and Alex Karras of the Detroit Lions, were charged with wagering on pro football games (although not against their teams). Rozelle took firm action, suspending both men for a year. However, Izenberg notes that Rozelle let Detroit management off with a measly $4,000 fine, even though it was revealed that organized crime figures had easy access to the Lions’ locker room and sideline. Izenberg suggests that Rozelle’s leniency with Detroit was influenced by the Lions’ owner, William Ford Sr., being a principal NFL television sponsor.
Rozelle’s dynamic marketing techniques, later imitated by other major sports, proved critical in offsetting the AFL’s challenge. Rozelle moved NFL headquarters from Philadelphia to New York, the nation’s media capital, and built a sizeable NFL public relations staff that issued regular and informative press releases. Grasping the importance of television revenue, he signed a lucrative contract with CBS in 1963. That year Rozelle created NFL Properties, selling apparel with the names and logos of NFL teams, which became “a billion-dollar licensing company” (207). NFL Films, which Rozelle introduced about the same time, became similarly successful in promoting interest in the league. In 1970, Rozelle persuaded ABC to introduce Monday Night Football, attracting massive prime-time television audiences to the NFL.
Rozelle was a skilled lobbyist with Congress, which granted the NFL a limited antitrust exemption for his television revenue-sharing plan. He won congressional approval for the NFL-AFL merger, which restored monopoly in pro football, by securing the support of Senate Finance Committee chair Russell Long and House majority whip Hale Boggs, both representing Louisiana. In exchange, the NFL awarded New Orleans an expansion franchise.
Izenberg credits Rozelle with preventing recreational drug use in the NFL from reaching pro basketball’s level. He blames the Players Association for impeding Rozelle’s effort to impose mandatory drug testing...