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Monday, September 24, 2012

What is Happening to the NFL?

“I'm not claiming that football is the nation's salvation in this area, but it's one of them, one little thing that apparently has captured the imagination of a large sector of our society. But when football can't be a relatively pure outlet, a fun thing, then it hurts itself.” — Pete Rozelle, former commissioner of the National Football League.

In 1892 former Yale All-American guard William Heffelfinger was paid $500 by the Allegheny Athletic Association to play in a game against the Pittsburgh Athletic Club, making him the first ever professional football player. However it wasn't until 1920 that American football achieved a league of any true organization. The American Professional Football Association was formed on September 17, 1920 and included ten teams from four different states. However the APFA lasted only two seasons when it was reorganized on June 24, 1922 into the National Football League. Only two teams currently in the NFL, the Decatur Staleys (now the Chicago Bears) and the Chicago Cardinals (now the Arizona Cardinals), are founding members. The Green Bay Packers, founded 1919, (joined the NFL in 1921), is the oldest NFL franchise in continuous operation with the same name in the same location.

At the turn of the 20th century and on into the 1930’s college football was considered the game to watch. It was a game sponsored by alumni in coon-skin hats, vicuna coats and driving Stutz Bearcats. The game was attended by alumni and students waving the pennants of Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Rutgers, and other Ivy League elite universities. Fordham was a powerhouse and the two military academies fielded powerful teams. Of course there was that little college of Our Lady in Indiana. College football was considered a “gentleman’s” game that taught physical fitness and team work. As Knute Rockne, the famous coach of Notre Dame stated:

“Four years of football are calculated to breed in the average man more of the ingredients of success in life than almost any academic course he takes.”

On the other hand professional football was considered a game for the Model-T crowd. It was a game played on muddy fields by men who wanted to pick up a few bucks each week for knocking a few heads and not getting arrested for it. Players wore thin leather helmets and little padding. It was a game for boilermakers, not “gentlemen.”

This changed in 1924 when George Halas, the owner of the Chicago Bears signed Red Grange, the “Galloping Ghost” from the University of Illinois onRedGrangeGoudeycard the day he graduated from college. Halas believed he needed collage stars to draw people into the stadiums and bring a semblance of legitimacy to professional football. Soon after other teams like the Chicago Cardinals, New York Yankees (football), and the Green Bay Packers followed suit. The surge of recruiting college football players became so cut-throat that the new league, with Halas’ approval, instituted a rule that no college player could be recruited or signed until he had graduated for college. This rule stands today and is the basis of the NFL Draft.

I saw my first professional football game during World War Two when my father and uncle took me to see the Cleveland Rams (eventually the Los Angeles Rams and now the St. Louis Rams) at League Park in Cleveland Ohio. Both my father and uncle were rabid Ram fans (as I am today) even when the team left Cleveland in 1946 for Los Angeles when taxi-cab magnate Arthur B. "Mickey" McBride secured the rights to a Cleveland franchise in the newly formed All-America Football Conference. Due to Cleveland politics McBride was also able to secure the rights to the Cleveland Municipal Stadium for his new team the Cleveland Browns and drive the owner of the Rams, Dan Reeves, to move to the west coast.

The two competing leagues fought each other for players and stadium rights and in 1949 they reached a merger agreement of sorts, but many of the teams were still bleeding cash in the bidding war for top notch players. The rich teams were getting richer and the poor teams were getting poorer. This created an imbalance in the competition in both leagues causing some teams to go broke and bail out of pro football.

By the middle of the 1960s competition for players, including separate college drafts, was driving up player salaries. In 1965, in the most high profile such contest and a major boost to the AFL, University of Alabama quarterback Joe Namath signed with the New York Jets rather than the NFL's St. Louis Cardinals for a then-record $427,000. In 1966, the NFL's New York Giants broke an informal agreement and signed placekicker Pete Gogolak, who was under contract to the AFL's Buffalo Bills. Then AFL Commissioner Al Davis embarked on a campaign to sign players away from the NFL, especially quarterbacks, but behind the scenes a number of NFL team owners began action to end this detrimental rivalry.

Several NFL franchises led by Cowboys General Manager Tex Schramm asked to meet with AFL owners to negotiate a merger. In an agreement brokered by Schramm and AFL founder Lamar Hunt, the two leagues announced their merger deal on June 8, 1966. The leagues would thenceforth hold a Common Draft and an end-of-season World Championship Game between the two league champions (later known as the Super Bowl and reverting to simply an NFL championship game). Still another city received an NFL franchise thanks to the AFL, as New Orleans was awarded an NFL team after Louisiana's federal Congressmen pushed for the passage of Public Law 89-800, which permitted the merger and exempted the action from Anti-Trust restrictions. The monopoly that would be created needed to be legitimized by an act of Congress. In 1970, the leagues fully merged under the name National Football League and divided into two conferences of an equal number of teams. There was a financial settlement, with the AFL teams paying a combined $18 million over 20 years.

The competition really began ending in  1960 when a brilliant advertising and marketing executive named Pete Rozelle became the commissioner of the NFL. Rozelle held a series of public relations jobs in Southern California, marketing the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne, Australia for a Los Angeles based company. He joined the Los Angeles Rams as its public relations specialist. By 1957, Rozelle was offered the GM job with the Rams. He turned a disorganized, unprofitable team, lost in the growing LA market, into a business success.

After Bert Bell's death in 1959, Rozelle was the surprise choice for his replacement as NFL commissioner. According to Howard Cosell in his book “I Never Played the Game”, the owners took 23 ballots before settling onPete Rozelle Rozelle as NFL Commissioner at a January 26, 1960 meeting. When he took office there were twelve teams in the NFL playing a twelve game schedule to frequently half-empty stadiums, and only a few teams had television contracts. The NFL in 1960 was following a business model that had evolved from the 1930s. NFL sources credit Rozelle with bringing concepts such as gate and television profit-sharing, policies already in place in the rival American Football League, to the NFL. The revenue-sharing was a major factor in stabilizing the AFL and guaranteeing the success of its small-market teams. Rozelle recognized the value of such an arrangement, and following the lead of the rival AFL, Rozelle negotiated large television contracts to broadcast every NFL game played each season. In doing so, he not only deftly played one television network against the other, but also persuaded NFL team owners — most notably Carroll Rosenbloom of the Baltimore Colts and George Preston Marshall of the Washington Redskins — to agree to share revenues between teams. His business model, which emulated that of the AFL, was essentially a cartel that benefited all teams equally, from revenue sharing to the player draft. This was not wealth redistribution — it was wealth creation. Over the years teams that were valued in the millions are now valued in the billions. He established NFL properties, which shares the profits from every piece of merchandise sold with the NFL logo are distributed equally to all teams. Under Rozelle’s leadership the NFL grew into the most successful sport franchise in history.

The NFL was made for television. It’s a natural due to the many timeouts in play during the game allowing the TV networks to sell advertising to beer, automobile, and products men buy companies. A 30 second spot during the Super Bowl can exceed $3 million dollars. This is why the NFL can demand billions from the TV networks to televise their games.


Click here to enlarge this graph.

Rozelle’s vision for the NFL brought great wealth to the owners and players. Today a No.1 draft picks can sign a contract exceeding $50 million dollars. But Rozelle’s vision may be in jeopardy for three reasons. One was the player lock-out of 2011. Two is the pay for pain scandal and the suspension of the New Orleans Saints head coach Sean Peyton and some of their players. And third is the current contract battle with experienced NFL officials.

The former commissioner, Bert Bell, believed that the integrity of the game depended on qualified, experienced, and unbiased game officials. From the head referee to the time-keeper he wanted officials that knew the rule book backwards and forwards and could maintain control of the players and the game. The public wanted to watch a game that was fair and where penalty calls, ball placement, and player control was quick and decisive. To some extent the adoption of instant replay took some of the quick out of the game, but it allowed more fairness in the calls.

This season, due to a contract dispute between the owners and the officials over a pension plan, games are being officiated by “replacement” officials, some no more than high school officials. The pro game is so much faster and more violent that even the college game and the rules are very different. So far in the 48 regular season games played thus far there have been many examples of the inexperience and incompetence of these replacement officials. They can’t seem to manage the play or game clock. They give extra timeouts to teams (Vikings vs. 49ers). They are very inconsistent on holding pass interference, and personal foul calls (Steelers vs. Raiders — the head shot on the Raiders receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey by the Steelers’ safety Ryan Mundy was not only a violation, it was a dangerous career ending hit.) They allow coaches and players to intimidate them and they just don’t know the rules.

The most recent example happened last night when the Baltimore Ravens kicked a last second field goal to win the game against the New England Patriots and the coach, Bill Belichick, of the Patriots grabbed one of the officials by his arm wanting to scold him for what he felt was a bad call. Whether the call was good or bad is not the issue. Attacking a game official is. Bert Bell or Pete Rozelle would not have tolerated such actions by a coach or player.

But to put all of the blame on Belichick is not quite fair. Every sports page across the nation has criticized the replacement officials as have the radio broadcasters for the 32 teams. Even the TV announcers have taken shots at the replacements while being careful not to criticize too much and alienate their network bosses. Even the cautious Al Michaels, of NBC’s Sunday Night Football, weighed in on the ref situation, calling the league's standoff "ridiculous." The crowd at the game needed fewer syllables to express their discontent. If you read the comments sections of the various sports pages you will find a plethora criticism of the officials and the league. The game that Bell and Rozelle worked so hard to turn into a multi-billion dollar franchise is losing its integrity and public support over a contract dispute.

I have for a long time believed that the NFL institute professional officials like Major League Baseball. In baseball the umpires are professionals trained in the minor leagues and move up to the majors when they are deemed qualified and competent. They control the game and are almost always in position to make the proper call. Time after time slow motion instant replay has confirmed that they have made the correct call whether it’s a ball or strike or a bang-bang play at first base. They allow managers and coaches to express their opinions, but when the argument becomes heated or foul language is used they are ejected from the game. This gives baseball fans confidence that they are watching a fair game officiated by competent umpires.

Professional football should take a page from baseball and follow the same course. The franchise is too valuable to allow it to deteriorate over contract dispute. I am not familiar with all of the demands of the officials or the issues stalling the negotiations, but if the owners and commissioner cannot resolve this dispute soon the game will continue to deteriorate and the fans will become disenchanted with the game. The TV networks will not like this and the NFL could be relegated to the status of professional wrestling or the roller derby.

As Pete Rozelle stated:

“People are interested in pro football because it provides them with an emotional oasis; they don't want football to get involved in the same types of court cases, racial problems and legislative issues they encounter in the rest of American life. “

Pete Rozelle must be turning over in his grave.

Updated September 25, 2012.

I have just finished watching the most incompetent and unfair example of officiating in the history of the NFL. In this example not only was the game determined by the officials, the outcome of the season could be jeopardized for one of the teams by not allowing them to make the play-offs. The game was the Green Bay Packers vs. the Seattle Seahawks where the Seahawks were handed a 14 to 12 victory over the Packers due to a bogus call on a final second touchdown by the Seahawks.

Fox News reported:

“The furor over the work of replacement officials reached a fevered pitch during Week 3 in the NFL, especially Monday night when Seattle beat Green Bay on a desperation pass that many thought was an interception.

Seahawks receiver Golden Tate was awarded a touchdown on the final play after a scrum on the ground in the end zone. Packers’ safety M.D. Jennings appeared to catch the ball against his body, with Tate getting his arm around the ball.

After a few seconds, one official indicated a stoppage of play, but another signaled touchdown for a conclusion former NFL coach Jon Gruden, working the game on TV, called "tragic" and "comical."

To add further insult to the fans USA Today reported that one of the officials at the Packers-Seahawk game was fired from of all places – the Lingerie Football League: A spokesman for the LFL stated to USA Today:

“"Because of the LFL's perception it is that much more critical for us to hire officiating crews that are competent, not only for the credibility of our game but to keep our athletes safer. Due to several on-field incompetent officiating we chose to part ways with a couple crews which apparently are now officiating in the NFL. We have a lot of respect for our officials but we felt the officiating was not in line with our expectations. We have not made public comment to date because we felt it was not our place to do so. However in light of tonight's event, we felt it was only fair that NFL fans knew the truth as to who are officiating these games."

This was not the only example of incompetent calls during the game. There were roughing he quarterback calls that should not have been called, offensive pass interference calls that were not made, and improper ball placements.


Officials signal a touchdown by Seattle Seahawks wide receiver Golden Tate, obscured, on the last play of an NFL football game against the Green Bay Packers, Monday, Sept. 24, 2012, in Seattle. The Seahawks won 14-12. (AP Photo/Stephen Brashear)

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