It is perfectly foolish to have Rozelle on a payroll and not use him to meet directly with any outsider the league is trying to impress or seduce. With the players, for example. Rozelle always performs most capably in those more structured, well-defined situations where his blend of civility, logic and preparation pays off: with networks, Congress, the owners and the press.
We should not be surprised, for example, that the long war with the AFL did not really show us Rozelle at his best. Those hostilities had none of the polite convention of business intercourse, or the predictable rationality of normal commerce.
But it is not owners and politicians that the commissioner is going to have to deal with in the '80s. Almost all the concerns now are player issues: brutality, safety, drugs, race, free agentry. There must be serious doubts that this is Rozelle's bailiwick, that these are his times. It is interesting, for example, to listen to John Mackey, a quite reasonable man, who has been one of the few players to be an adversary of the commissioner for any period of time. "I have to take my hat off to Rozelle," Mackey says, "because he's done a tremendous job for football, but as smart as he must be, it amazed me how little foresight he showed. We had Vietnam at the time, turmoil everywhere, and a lot of things were changing. Any leader should have seen that the league was drafting players from those campuses, that pro football had to change, too, and be prepared for that. But Rozelle didn't. I never felt that he truly understood what was happening.
"The man was always polite, and he always seemed to be honest and sincere. Certainly, I know he's a P.R. man, but I don't believe he's an Academy Award actor. So I did believe him, which is exactly why some of the things he said to me struck me as so absolutely stupid. At one point in 1970 he told me we had to sign the collective bargaining agreement in a hurry because Vince Lombardi was going to die and that would upset the owners so much that they wouldn't negotiate anymore. So I was supposed to sign immediately. Incredible. I didn't give Vince Lombardi cancer. At those times, no matter how well-meaning Rozelle seemed to be, he just didn't seem to understand what was going on in the world."
Today, Rozelle admits, "I'm not as close to the players as I used to be," even in Mackey's time. He adds that, with 28 teams, he is also not as close to the owners. His close friends today include people like Gifford and Summerall and Kemp, and, in a way, these are still The Players to Rozelle. The ones who strike and smoke pot and don't venerate Vince Lombardi are impostors. There may be more of a generation gap between them and Rozelle, who started out so young and has slowly grown a gap, than men like Kuhn or O'Brien, who came to their jobs when they were into their 40s and 50s respectively.
Rozelle says he is not the least bit self-conscious about the fact that he, who never played football, is the premier football man in the nation; everybody has a job to do. Rozelle—skinny as he was—was a respectable enough athlete of the high school variety. He made the basketball and tennis teams at Compton High, and he wrote about athletes and hung around them as an equal. Duke Snider was a Compton High School classmate and basketball teammate, and twice, Snider recalls, the young Rozelle tipped the football coach off to strategy—once saving Compton a tie, the other time producing a 20-19 victory. Rozelle genuinely admires players, holding them in higher regard than he does owners and journalists, the other people he has to deal with, fence with, and (usually) outwit. One gets the impression that he really doesn't want to have to get down and argue with players.
Rozelle is really a very traditional creature, and player unions didn't come along to spoil the neat little NFL world until well into his tenure. He stays close to old friends, is known for his loyalty—as anybody who ever hired Joe Kuharich on his recommendation is well aware—and while there are no cute Rozelle anecdotes, almost all his friends quickly and naturally offer up warm testimony to his thoughtfulness. The word "loving" is applied to him an extraordinary number of times. So he is an endearing man of firm roots and early success, and once something becomes solidly fixed in that man's mind, it must take a great deal—like a clear majority of the 28 owners—for it to be dislodged.
It is intriguing, for example, that when Rozelle discusses his opposition to legal gambling, he says, "Once integrity is shattered, you never get it back. Look at game shows on TV. Or college basketball. Since their scandals, they've never been the same."
This is a preposterous statement. Both college basketball and game shows have never been more popular, but the point-shaving revelations came at a time when Rozelle was closely involved with the—sport at USF and the TV fixes took place shortly before he started negotiating with the networks and, as a consequence, these dusty old events are ingrained in his mind.
In the same way, Rozelle seems to possess an almost wishful view of the NFL as that quaint society that once existed, players and owners all struggling together, without TV, without baseball's respectability, without profits. "The players just see me as authority," he says. "They don't ever consider that I'm the-guy most involved in obtaining the TV contracts for the owners, so then they can go out and get some of these great sums away from the owners for themselves." Hey, he's crying, we're all in this together, fellows.