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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 171

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This is the grave of Pete Rozelle.

Born in South Gate, California in 1926, Rozelle played on the same high school sports teams as Duke Snider in Compton. After a military stint during World War II, Rozelle went to Compton Community College while getting a PR job for the Los Angeles Rams. He got know Pete Newell, the legendary basketball coach for the University of San Francisco, who got Rozelle a scholarship there to do PR work for his team. He became USF’s athletic director immediately upon his graduation in 1950 and after moving around between a few jobs, because the general manager of the Rams in 1957. Still only 33, he was chosen to be the commissioner of the NFL in 1959 and started the job in January 1960. He was not seen as a strong candidate at the time, but like a 19th century presidential candidate, was a compromise candidate between two factions who figured they could control him. Rozelle stayed commissioner until 1989. During this long term, he oversaw the massive expansion of football to become America’s Game, replacing boxing and baseball. The AFL merger, the creation of Monday Night Football, the Super Bowl, modern television contracts, all of this happened under Rozelle’s leadership. But the real win for Rozelle, if not for the rest of us, was convincing Congress in 1962 to exempt the NFL from the Sherman Anti-Trust Act. By creating a cartel, Rozelle managed a system with billions in profits every year as it grew. Instead of the networks signing contracts with individual teams, they had to sign with the league and the league set the rules. After Rozelle died, former ABC Sports president Roone Arledge compared a television network negotiating with Rozelle to the Dalai Lama negotiating with the Chinese army. And that’s a fairly apt description of the power structure, except I suppose that the networks don’t actually have to hand their money over to the NFL.

Rozelle was also a union-buster. Never accepting the NFLPA as a legitimate bargaining agent, he led the NFL through two in-season strikes, in 1981 and 1987, that shook the sports world to the bone. The NFLPA is still the weakest of all the professional sports unions today. There are many reasons for this, including the hard-right conservatism of white football players, but the primary reason is the hardline Rozelle took in the 80s. In 1999, The Sporting News named Rozelle the most powerful person in 20th century sports. That’s a pretty extreme accolade, but then it’s hard to argue against it really when you consider what the NFL became during his years. Like many others, I am of the opinion that the NFL is probably in permanent decline now, in part because of some of the decisions of Rozelle’s leadership, especially indifference to safety. Rozelle also began the centering of league discipline solely with the commissioner, starting with fining George Halas for berating referees in 1962 and suspending Paul Hornung and Alex Karras for gambling on the NFL in 1963. The increasingly centralization of this is of course severely undermining the league’s credibility under Tsar Goodell today. He tried to resist free agency, colluding with owners to keep it down until a federal court ruled against the high free agency compensation rules after players sued.

Rozelle died of brain cancer in 1996 at the age of 70.

Pete Rozelle is buried in El Camino Memorial Park, San Diego, California.

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