In May of 1954 a slender, pale-skinned Oxford medical student ran a foot race for the ages. Three months later this magazine was born, in time to honor Great Britain's Roger Bannister, the first four-minute miler, as its first Sportsman of the Year. Eight other athletes of surpassing excellence have since received Sports Illustrated's award.
This year we depart from tradition and name not an athlete but an executive as the Sportsman of 1963: Alvin Ray (Pete) Rozelle, commissioner of the National Football League. In the year of its most alarming crisis, Rozelle decisively and brilliantly guided a great and growing sport. He bucked the almost universal trend in professional sport by emerging as a strong commissioner—making vigorous decisions, not all of them popular, and proving that he could act independently of the owners who hired him. It is in salute to the sporting phenomenon of our time—professional football—as well as to Rozelle himself that we make this award.
It is the wonder of American sport. On that icy day a little over a year ago when the Green Bay Packers collided with the New York Giants in Yankee Stadium there obviously was no stopping professional football's intoxicating leap upward. In what other sport of major rank could a small town like Green Bay (population 65,000) oppose a great city for the championship—and win? Had not the 14 National Football League teams played to a record 4 million spectators, and on certain rich Sundays kept another 30 million clustered before television sets? Whose heart did not beat faster to the impact of linemen big as cathedrals, to the aerial marvels of Y. A. Tittle and Johnny Unitas, to the incredible running of Jimmy Brown and Jim Taylor?
But only a week after Green Bay struck its blow for small towns everywhere professional football was in trouble. The first hint of scandal came from Chicago, and then for 102 days rumors of fix and other folly flamed across the land. Impatient men condemned Pete Rozelle, the NFL's young commissioner (see cover), for his pleasant but stubborn refusal to speak until the evidence was in. The more reckless insinuated whitewash, the least knowing dubbed him "amiable mouse" and "child czar."
On the 103rd day, Pete Rozelle awoke at 5 a.m. after a restless night. He knew that the responsibility for stopping the scandal was his alone, a responsibility that would have been a massive burden even for an Olympian presence like the late baseball commissioner, Kenesaw Landis. It was much more so for a man just turned 37, without public prestige, who three years before—in an atmosphere of stalemate and despair—had been elected as a compromise choice to succeed the NFL's able and much-respected Bert Bell.
Rozelle had made up his mind. He dressed, drank some orange juice in the kitchen of his apartment on the fashionable New York street called Sutton Place and then, seated at a window, watched the sun come up over the warren of buildings across the East River. At 7 o'clock, saying good-by to his wife Jane and 5-year-old daughter, Ann Marie, he started walking the 11 blocks across town to NFL headquarters in Rockefeller Center.
Rozelle's staff assembled that April morning with unusual solemnity. In his large, rather plain corner office on the 23rd floor of the General Dynamics Building, the commissioner typed a message to member teams. Next he phoned some bad news to the game's greatest star, Paul Hornung, the "golden boy" halfback of the Green Bay Packers, who was in Louisville. A similar phone call brought the same message to an All-League defensive tackle, Alex Karras, anchor of the Detroit Lions.
At 1:30 teletype machines flashed Rozelle's communiqu� to the league. At 2, standing tall and slender, clothed in conservative blue, he broke the story to newsmen gathered in his office. Hornung and Karras were suspended indefinitely for betting on football games—Hornung for placing bets of $100 to $500 on NFL and college games from 1959 through 1961, Karras for making six "significant" bets ($50 to $100) on NFL games since 1958. Five other Detroit players were fined $2,000 each for belting on the Green Bay-New York championship game; the Detroit club itself was fined $4,000 because Coach George Wilson ignored a police tip that some players had been seen with undesirable characters and because he let outsiders view games from the players' bench.
" Rozelle did nothing to cushion the impact," wrote
The New York Times's sports columnist, Arthur Daley. "He let it crash."
In that decision of wise severity Rozelle demonstrated strength, courage and his belief that the league's integrity was first among its possessions. By refusing to act prematurely, he displayed fortitude under extraordinary pressure. By then announcing that there was "no evidence that any NFL player has given less than his best in playing any game" and that there was "no evidence that any player has ever bet against his own team" or "sold information to gamblers" he asked the public to believe, with him, in the game's essential honesty.