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The Czar Is Born
MICHAEL MACCAMBRIDGE
October 04, 2004
During a period of personal turmoil in 1963, Pete Rozelle made a series of monumental moves that positioned the NFL to conquer the sports world. An excerpt from a new book
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October 04, 2004

The Czar Is Born

During a period of personal turmoil in 1963, Pete Rozelle made a series of monumental moves that positioned the NFL to conquer the sports world. An excerpt from a new book

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Rozelle went on to announce that he'd suspended Hornung and Karras "indefinitely" and had doled out additional fines to several Lions players who had bet on the 1962 NFL Championship Game. Rozelle's public face was firm, but empathetic. He spoke highly of Hornung's honesty, never mentioning that he'd lied during the polygraph examination. Hornung, for his part, seemed genuinely contrite. "It was a carefree, thoughtless thing I did," he told the press. It certainly helped that Lombardi, while showing affection for his favorite player, publicly backed the commissioner and affirmed that the punishment was just.

Karras was much more critical, of both the suspension and the entire investigation. "I haven't done anything to be ashamed of," he said, "and I'm not guilty of anything." But he, too, eventually toed the line, giving up his stake in a tavern deemed undesirable by the NFL.

The public and media response to Rozelle's handling of the crisis, while understandably mixed in Detroit and Green Bay, was for the most part highly complimentary. " Commissioner Rozelle became commissioner yesterday," wrote Doc Greene in The Detroit News. Jim Murray in the Los Angeles Times recognized the commissioner's difficult position: " Rozelle had to protect the game rather than the players. He had to show the owners, the players--and the public--that pro football was a big boy now, a public trust that the public could trust."

And that, in a sense, was Rozelle's greatest accomplishment in the investigation. By suspending two of the best-known players in the league for what he described as an action of "no criminality," Rozelle raised the public level of confidence in the game.

About a week after the suspensions, Rozelle received a handwritten note from Hornung's mother, Loretta, thanking him for his handling of the incident. "I know it was not an easy decision to make," she wrote, "and I, too, fully appreciate your responsibility to the League--it had to come first."

During the previous year, many of the league's biggest problems had been resolved. In May 1962, the NFL successfully defended itself in U.S. district court in Baltimore against a $10 million civil suit brought by the AFL. When the case was filed, Rozelle had retained the Washington, D.C., firm of Covington & Burling, among the nation's premier antitrust litigators. The lead partner in the case was Gerhard Gesell, one of the giants of 20thcentury antitrust law, whose knowledge of sports was limited. He was assisted by a rising young lawyer named Hamilton Carothers, a wry, acerbic weekend athlete who understood the structure of sports, and who would become one of Rozelle's key advisers over the next 25 years.

In December 1962, with Los Angeles Rams owner Daniel F. Reeves still battling with his partners over the direction of the Rams, Rozelle suggested a sealed auction to finally settle the impasse by allowing one side to buy out the other. It ended happily for Rozelle, with his friend Reeves submitting the highest bid and getting sole operating control of the team, at a total price of $7.1 million.

Writing after a league meeting late in 1962, Bob Oates of the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner noted that, once again, "the old salts of the league have marveled at the smoothness of the operation under the young commissioner.... The characteristics of all Rozelle enterprises seem to be harmony and action, two things that are not normally related."

It would be years before anyone but Rozelle's closest friends understood the pressure he was under during that span, but a closer examination of his performance during the time renders it all the more remarkable.

While Rozelle's public stature was growing, his private life was becoming increasingly troubled. The workload, which he'd known would be onerous, proved unrelenting. In the months after taking the job in 1960, he moved the league office from suburban Philadelphia to New York, and began fighting the legal battle seeking to enjoin 1959 Heisman winner Billy Cannon from playing in the AFL; in the 1961 off-season he was deeply involved in tortured negotiations to push through a joint television package to replace the individual local deals made by each NFL team; in 1962, it was the AFL versus NFL antitrust suit that took so much of his time; in 1963 it was the gambling investigation.

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