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Pete Rozelle
Pete Rozelle
Profile of Pete Rozelle Biography of Pete Rozelle Interview with Pete Rozelle Pete Rozelle Photo Gallery

Pete Rozelle Biography

Pro Football Hall of Fame

Pete Rozelle Date of birth: March 1, 1926
Date of death: December 6, 1996

Print Pete Rozelle Biography Print Biography

  Pete Rozelle

Alvin Ray Rozelle was born in South Gate, California, and grew up in neighboring Lynwood, suburban communities southeast of Los Angeles. He was nicknamed "Pete" by a favorite uncle, who, like his father, encouraged his interest in sports and the outdoors. He played basketball and tennis at Compton High School and served as sports editor of his school's paper, as well as working weekends at the Long Beach Press Telegram newspaper. After serving in the U.S. Navy during World War II, he returned to the Los Angeles area, and enrolled at Compton Junior College. The Cleveland Rams football team, newly relocated to Los Angeles, practiced at Compton, and Rozelle worked part-time for the team's publicity department, where he caught the eye of Rams executive Tex Schramm.

Pete Rozelle Biography Photo
Rozelle transferred from Compton to the University of San Francisco, where he worked as a publicist for the college football team. As an undergraduate athletic news director, he drew national attention to the school's victory in the 1949 collegiate basketball tournament. He remained at the University after graduation, serving as athletic news director and assistant director of the school's sports programs. In 1952, his old employer Tex Schramm offered him the job of publicity director for the Los Angeles Rams, and he began his life's work of building American professional football into the country's most popular spectator sport. After a year's interlude with an L.A.-based public relations firm, promoting the 1956 Melbourne Olympics, Rozelle returned to the Rams organization and was soon promoted to General Manager. In the next three years, he demonstrated his notable flair for showmanship and spectacle and turned the struggling franchise into a highly successful enterprise.

When the longtime Commissioner of the National Football League, Bert Bell, died suddenly in 1959, the team owners found themselves deadlocked over the choice of a replacement. After 23 ballots, they settled on a surprise choice, Pete Rozelle. At age 33, Rozelle was less well-known and less experienced than the two other candidates, and there was speculation that he had been chosen because the owners imagined that he could be easily manipulated, but this soon proved not to be the case.

It was assumed that the role of commissioner was to moderate disputes between owners and serve as a bureaucratic spokesman for the sport, but Rozelle embraced a larger mission: building the wealth and prestige of professional football as an industry. When he assumed the post in January 1960, there were barely a dozen teams in the league, playing poorly attended games, mostly un-televised. A few of the owners had individually negotiated broadcast rights for their teams' games, but the franchises in smaller markets languished in unprofitable obscurity. Team owners were wary of expanding the league, fearful they would saturate the market.

Meanwhile, Texas multimillionaire Lamar Hunt had started a rival organization, the American Football League (AFL) and was aggressively competing for talent with the older league by bidding up players' salaries. Rozelle succeeded in adding two franchises to the league in his first year, blocking AFL expansion in those markets, but he believed the future of the game lay in expanding its national television audience. He moved the NFL offices from Philadelphia to New York, home of the three major television networks, and began aggressively pursuing broadcast deals. The most profitable arrangement, he knew, would be to give a single network the broadcast rights to the games of the entire league, rather than allowing the larger franchises to negotiate their own deals with different networks. Rozelle's plan faced significant regulatory hurdles, stemming from the Sherman Antitrust Act, the federal law restricting monopolies.

Pete Rozelle Biography Photo
After intensive lobbying by Rozelle, Congress enacted legislation, signed by President John F. Kennedy, permitting sports leagues to negotiate contracts directly with the broadcast networks. By 1962, Rozelle had secured a two-year contract with CBS for network broadcast of the entire NFL season, with revenues to be shared equally by all the teams. The team owners were strong-willed entrepreneurs, used to charting their own courses, but Rozelle persuaded them to embrace the revenue-sharing concept, minimizing inequalities between the teams and making the entire league more stable and more competitive.

At the same time, Rozelle had to cope with an antitrust lawsuit brought against the league by Lamar Hunt's AFL. The federal courts dismissed the AFL suit in 1962, but friction between the rival associations continued. Rozelle encountered controversy early in his tenure as Commissioner. Rumors of players' involvement in gambling threatened the game's public image. Early in 1963, Rozelle suspended players Paul Hornung and Alex Karras for betting on games. Rozelle's measures were applauded, but worse difficulties lay ahead.

When President Kennedy was assassinated on November 22, 1963, Rozelle had to decide whether to proceed with the season, with only two days between the murder of the president and the next scheduled game. After consulting with White House Press Secretary Pierre Salinger, a friend from San Francisco college days, Rozelle elected to proceed with the games. He felt it would set a good example for a nation persevering in the face of loss, but all broadcasts were preempted for news coverage of the assassination and its aftermath, and Rozelle was subjected to harsh criticism. Nevertheless, his ability to mediate the squabbles of contentious franchise owners won him the respect of the national sports press, and he was selected as 1963 "Sportsman of the Year" by Sports Illustrated magazine.

Pete Rozelle Biography Photo
In the mid-'60s, the competition for players between the two professional football leagues intensified. After poaching the NFL's college draft picks, the AFL began hiring players away from the older league. The bidding war spurred a drastic inflation in players' salaries, and owners in both leagues realized the situation was potentially ruinous.

Rozelle undertook the most difficult challenge of his career, negotiating a merger of the two rival leagues. After reaching an agreement with the assorted team owners, Rozelle still had a significant regulatory obstacle. The television networks in particular dreaded bargaining for broadcasting rights with a single unified professional football league. In his testimony before the House Judiciary Committee, Rozelle assured lawmakers the merger would preserve the existing franchises and continue to generate revenue for the host cities. Congress granted professional football an exemption from the Sherman Antitrust Act.

A merger of the leagues was agreed to in 1966, with Pete Rozelle serving as Commissioner of the combined organization, although the realignment of professional football into American and National Conferences within a single National Football League was not fully completed until 1970. Rozelle also persuaded the team owners to abide by a single draft process that would allow the lowest-ranked teams the first choice of newly available college players. This raised the overall standard of play throughout the league, drawing increased attendance for all teams, and a rapidly increasing television viewership.

Pete Rozelle Biography Photo
The 1960s were years of explosive growth for professional football, as Rozelle presided over the introduction of a post-season championship game, the Super Bowl. Although the first Super Bowl game, in January 1967, was played to a nearly half-empty stadium, Rozelle arranged for the game to be broadcast simultaneously on both NBC and CBS, forcing two networks to compete in promoting their coverage of the event. Within a few years, the annual game had become a national institution, the most-watched television event of the year.

The upset victory of the New York Jets in Super Bowl III brought unprecedented publicity to professional football. As concerned as ever with the image of the game, Rozelle threatened to suspend the winning Jets quarterback Joe Namath if the star player did not sell his interest in a nightclub frequented by professional gamblers. Namath retired rather than face suspension, but within six weeks had returned to his team on Rozelle's terms. With the growing popularity of televised football on Sunday afternoons, Rozelle engineered the introduction in 1970 of Monday Night Football, a weekly television event that has become a wintertime obsession for many Americans, and is the longest-running non-news program on prime-time television.

In 1974, Rozelle had to deal with a preseason work stoppage by the players' union. The dispute was resolved before the season began, but professional football's labor troubles were far from over. For the first time since the AFL-NFL merger, Rozelle had to contend with a rival association, the start-up World Football League. The new league lasted little more than a year, but it reignited the inflation in players' salaries that the merger had squelched. Rozelle had secured his league's exemption for the antitrust law by assuring Congress that the teams would stay put in their respective markets, but team owners began to demand that host cities build larger and larger stadiums with more and more amenities. When cities balked, a number of owners attempted to move their franchises elsewhere. Rozelle was able to prevent a number of these relocations, but he lost a bitter court case with Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis, who moved his team from Oakland to Los Angeles, and then back again, antagonizing fans and civic leaders in both cities. The 1980s brought another challenge to the NFL's domination of professional football with the emergence of the United States Football League. The USFL lasted three seasons, 1983-85, notable mainly for the performances of running back Herschel Walker, who enjoyed a subsequent career with the NFL.

Pete Rozelle Biography Photo
Pete Rozelle was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1985. The following year, the federal courts handed Rozelle a stunning victory. The failing U.S. Football League had filed a $1.6 billion antitrust suit against the NFL. The court awarded them exactly three dollars, and the USFL quickly disappeared. A greater threat to the NFL arose in 1987, when the players' union struck in mid-season. After losing a week of games, Rozelle made the difficult decision to bring in replacement players, and kept the season running for another three weeks until the players and the owners came to terms. When his contract with the league expired two years later, Rozelle stepped down as Commissioner. In nearly three decades at the helm, he had seen the league grow to 28 teams. Rozelle's genius for promotion had driven a massive increase in the game's audience, until it eclipsed the former national pastime, baseball, in popularity. Regular season football games now routinely draw larger television audiences than the playoff games of other sports.

For the last seven years of his life, Pete Rozelle continued to advise the NFL from his home in Rancho Santa Fe, California. He succumbed to a brain tumor at the age of 70. He was survived by his wife Carrie, and by a daughter from a previous marriage. In his lifetime, Pete Rozelle's contribution to the growth of the NFL went nearly unnoticed in a milieu crowded with outsized personalities, but with the passing of the years, it has become more and more apparent that he did more than anyone to develop professional football into the powerful force in American popular culture that we know today. In 2000, Time magazine named him one of the 100 most important people of the 20th century.

This page last revised on Mar 20, 2008 17:21 EDT
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