- Rooney: A Sporting Life
This detailed narrative biography of Art Rooney, founder and long-time owner of Pittsburgh’s National Football League (NFL) franchise, provides insight into his role in stabilizing the NFL during the Depression and addressing the crises it confronted during the next half century. The book gives careful attention to Rooney’s efforts to achieve competitive balance in the NFL, surmount challenges to its monopoly, and develop a lucrative relationship with television.
When Rooney acquired an NFL franchise for Pittsburgh in 1933, professional football was just emerging from the sandlots and had only a marginal following. By the end of his career it was the nation’s most popular spectator sport, played in huge, invariably packed stadiums, generating enormous revenue. The early “patriarchs” who shaped the NFL during its formative decades—a small, tightly-knit group of owners including Rooney, George Halas, Tim Mara, and Bert Bell—had given way to a new breed of owner with diverse holdings, much less interested in football.
The book’s early sections describe Pittsburgh’s blue-collar Northside neighborhood where Rooney was raised, a saloonkeeper’s son. The Northside was dotted with sandlot baseball and football fields and boxing clubs, which provided athletically-inclined mill workers an opportunity to gain individual distinction before appreciative working-class crowds. Rooney assembled a top-flight sandlot football team.
Rooney’s familiarity with sports at the grassroots level later caused fans, and many players, to consider him an unusually approachable and unassuming NFL owner. Interpersonal skills developed in Northside ward politics undoubtedly contributed to Rooney’s later effectiveness in mediating disputes among NFL owners. He forged key friendships at the racetrack, including one with Tim Mara, a longtime ally on NFL policy issues.
Rooney quickly gained influence in the NFL after becoming a franchise owner in 1933. Originally the Pirates, his team became the Steelers in 1940. To supplement his often meager income from the team Rooney promoted boxing, which shared a fan base with professional football. In 1935 Rooney helped persuade NFL owners to institute a draft, which the authors consider a major turning point for professional football. The draft enabled Depression-battered smaller-market teams to remain competitive, ensuring the NFL’s survival. In 1947 Rooney convinced owners to guarantee visiting teams 40 percent of the gate, further strengthening competitive balance.
Rooney assisted NFL Commissioner Bert Bell in reaching an agreement with the upstart All-America Football Conference (AAFC) to end a bidding war for players that might have proved disastrous for the owners. The resulting limited merger in 1949 restored the NFL’s monopoly. When the NFL in the 1960s confronted an even more formidable challenge from the new American Football League, backed by wealthy entrepreneurs bolstered by television revenue unavailable to the AAFC, Rooney wisely pressed the other owners to compromise and work out a merger [End Page 165] .
The book does not adequately assess Rooney’s role in effecting or opposing changes in the game on the field, many of which proved significant in heightening professional football’s popularity. These included the introduction of the modern “T” formation, two-platoon football, and free substitution. It is curious that Rooney, an astute football man, ran the last NFL team to discard the single wing, far less crowd-pleasing than the “T.” Nor do the authors explore Rooney’s attitudes toward player safety and equipment. Too much space is devoted to a tedious, year-by-year recounting of Steelers seasons.
The book provides some valuable insights into racism in professional football but does not adequately explain Rooney’s contradictory posture toward black rights. He developed close friendships with Gus Greenlee and Cum Posey, African-American owners of Pittsburgh’s Negro League teams. As a boxing promoter, he consistently placed blacks on his fight cards. But Rooney appears not to have challenged the NFL color line in place between 1933 and 1946, and he waited until 1952 to sign a black player. The authors fail to systematically compare...