SI Vault
Edwin Shrake
April 18, 1966
Calling anew for a merger with the NFL, Joe Foss retires as AFL commissioner. He forecasts destructive fighting unless the pro leagues curb their 'avarice' and temper the frantic pursuit of college talent
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
April 18, 1966

After Foss: A Hotter Pro War

Calling anew for a merger with the NFL, Joe Foss retires as AFL commissioner. He forecasts destructive fighting unless the pro leagues curb their 'avarice' and temper the frantic pursuit of college talent

View CoverRead All Articles View This Issue

With the resignation of Joe Foss and the hiring of Al Davis to replace him as commissioner, the American Football League last week moved into a new era—one that Foss himself calls Phase Two. Although it was his own decision to quit the $50,000 job with nearly two years still to go on his contract, Foss feels that he was—in a way—a victim of success. "I predicted that when the league got into the black my position would change," Foss said, puffing on a cigar in a Dallas hotel room (right) the day after he had read his letter of farewell to AFL owners in Houston. "The league has come to the stage where problems are fewer and the owners have more time to get into mischief. I have never been a dancing bear for the owners, and never could be. This is the time for me to leave."

Phase One for the AFL began at the Beverly Hilton hotel in Los Angeles in 1959 when the league's founders, Lamar Hunt, Bud Adams, Barron Hilton, Harry Wismer, Bob Howsam, Max Winter and H. P. Skoglund, approached Foss about becoming their commissioner.

"I worked the first six weeks for nothing," Foss said, "because the league had no money. I started traveling around the country. Some of the owners criticized me for not spending enough time in league cities, but I realized that people in the small towns had television sets and we had to have ratings or we could get no sponsors and no big television contracts. I appeared at conventions, anywhere they'd listen to me. Eventually we succeeded, but it was a miracle we ever made it."

Phase One, then, was the pioneering phase. The beginning of the end of Phase One was the signing of a five-year $43 million contract with NBC-TV. Foss nearly quit as commissioner a year ago, when the contract went into effect. The direction of Phase Two is as yet uncertain. But the exchange of Foss—war hero, sportsman, former governor of South Dakota—for Al Davis, a 36-year-old Brooklynite, a fast talker and slick dealer who rose from assistant coach at San Diego to head coach and general manager at Oakland, indicates that Phase Two will be warfare with the National Football League on the basis of slap for slap. Foss does not like intrigue; Davis is a master at it. Foss was made to look silly several times by owners bumbling around behind his back with secret drafts. If there are any more secret drafts—which is very likely—Davis will be in on them. Probably the AFL will copy the NFL tactic of using baby-sitters to hide high draft choices until they can be signed. The prospect is for warfare that will be destructive for both leagues.

"I'm alarmed about this," Foss said. "I'd like to plead with the owners in both leagues not to follow this crazy route of the big bonuses. The avarice of owners, coaches and players is amazing. They're shooting the whole industry out of the sky. The veterans are upset, and should be. Not merging the leagues is knocking the bottom out of the barrel. It is creating problems, hurting the image of the game and causing some people to use methods that are not right.

"I happen to know that in the last 30 days the NFL had a meeting of 100 new scouts to tell them about a program under way right now for signing college boys for the coming season. One of the NFL scouts made the mistake of writing down the instructions, and I saw them. They intend to sign the kids to open, undated contracts that allow them to play pretty much where they choose, as long as it's in the NFL. 'Get next to the boys right now' is the policy. The AFL, I'm sure, is going to combat that plan with one of its own. The NFL is going to wind up being sorry this ever started.

"Last year the NFL spent $300,000 on baby-sitters. This year the figure will be more than $350,000. A merger is the only way to solve these crazy actions. We should take a page from baseball and have one commissioner and two league presidents. Merging, I think, will be Phase Three."

According to Foss, previous rumors that a merger was close had not the slightest element of truth.

"The closest we ever came was a few owners in one league talking to a few owners in the other," he said. "There is no faction in our league that is opposed to a merger, but there is a strong faction against it in the NFL. They feel: Why should they give us additional publicity? They're doing well enough as it is. Pete Rozelle feels that way. He's never made a secret of it. Pete is a fine chap and we've talked over our mutual problems, but he doesn't want to get near us. Of the 15 NFL owners, I would say six or seven want to merge."

The lack of a merger, however, is not what has aroused criticism of Foss. At various times—especially in the past year—Foss has been blamed for the AFL's loss of Atlanta to the NFL, for never being in his New York office, for traveling too much, for going hunting in Africa for a TV series called The American Sportsman (on his right wrist Foss wears a bracelet made from the tail hair of an elephant he shot) and several other supposed sins. During that same period he has ceased to be credited with swinging the NBC-TV deal that assured the AFL of survival. Some reports now say that Sonny Werblin, owner of the New York Jets, did the television negotiating—which sounds logical, since Werblin, as former president of the talent agency, MCA, would certainly have had the knowledge and contacts to do so.

Continue Story
1 2