Home Business History How JFK’s Signature Changed the NFL, American Sports

How JFK’s Signature Changed the NFL, American Sports



Historians and people who lived during the Kennedy Assassination 50 years ago today are spending the day reflecting on the brief presidency of John F. Kennedy. Among the topics that might be discussed include The Bay of Pigs/Cuba policy, Kennedy’s fiscal policies which included income tax cuts, the race to the moon with the Russians, the Cuban Missile Crisis and the impact on Turkey, JFK’s Vietnam involvement, the seemingly laissez-faire civil rights policy which was tested in Mississippi and other places and how JFK changed the National Football League.

Wait; let’s back up on that last one. Just how did John F. Kennedy change the National Football League and in a sense sports in the United States?

President John F. Kennedy

The answer is simple. He signed legislation that violated the Sherman Antitrust Law and gave leagues like the National Football League, the National Basketball Association, the National Hockey League along with college sports the ability to bundle league or conference teams into one business package and sell that package to TV networks.

Like a game winning quarterback, the president gets too much glory when a team wins and takes the blame when the team loses. John Kennedy got a lot of help changing the NFL from Congress and perhaps shouldn’t get very much credit for what eventually became the NFL.

It should be noted that September 30, 1961 ought to be celebrated as Emanuel Cellar Day around the NFL with NFL owners and players should be remembering the life of one of the 20 most important people in NFL history. Wait a second, when did Emanuel Cellar play football? Did Emanuel Cellar coach a team? Did Cellar own a franchise? Was he a Commissioner?

The answer to all of those questions is no. Emanuel Cellar never put on a uniform, never patrolled a sideline or ran the NFL. Yet, without Emanuel Cellar, the NFL of today might be a totally different entity. It is conceivable that there would be no Super Bowl without the Brooklyn native, Congressman Cellar.

New York Congressman Emanuel Cellar first entered the House of Representatives in 1923. In 1923, the NFL was a floating craps game with teams scattered throughout the American northeast and Midwest that would come and go. It is unclear if the young Congressman liked football in his early days in office. But the Brooklyn representative’s impact on professional football would come nearly four decades later in 1961, when Congressman Cellar authored legislation that would give the NFL tremendous clout with growing television networks: the Sports Broadcast Act of 1961. That summer, both the House and Senate passed Cellar’s legislation, and the Act was signed into law by President John F. Kennedy on September 30, 1961. The Cellar Bill allowed the NFL to market its broadcast rights as a league package, evenly spreading the broadcasting revenues among the franchises and guaranteeing each team substantial annual revenues.

In 1961, the National Football League was still mired in a mom-and-pop store mentality not long removed from the days of when Chicago Bears owner and Coach George Halas would travel to Wisconsin and lend a hand at Green Bay Packers fund raisers. The NFL was growing in the 1950s because of television exposure but the league owners were extremely cautious in their business decisions and with good reason. The business of the National Football League was strictly a six month a year affair and there was not much financial growth or stability until the mid-1950s.

That all changed in 1959 when Lamar Hunt and Bud Adams were unable to buy the Chicago Cardinals, Hunt wanted to move the franchise to Dallas and Adams wanted to place it in Houston, nor were they able to convince Halas and Pittsburgh owner Art Rooney that the 12-team NFL should expand. So Hunt started his own circuit, the American Football League, got Adams  to join up and found six other owners. Hunt’s new league, the AFL would start operations in 1960.

In early 1960, Hunt’s league or AFL IV (three previous AFLs folded in the 1920s and 1930s) signed a television contract with the rather weak American Broadcasting Company for $2 million per year for the first five years, with each AFL franchise receiving $250,000 per team per year, which was approximately 15% less than received per team in the NFL.

The deal, which was brokered by among others Jay Michaels, the father of Al Michaels who was the announcer of Monday Night Football and now Sunday Night Football, was somewhat astounding as the AFL had no track record but neither did ABC which wasn’t even seen in a number of American cities in those days. But ABC needed something and the AFL would be a perfect partner.

Part of the success of the league in attaining coverage was due to New York Titans owner Harry Wismer, who was also a noted sportscaster of the time. Wismer got AFL IV game coverage on the Associated Press and United Press International wires and helped the league land a contract with ABC.  History has been unkind to Wismer as the New York Titans franchise skirted with bankruptcy but without Wismer, there might not have been a big TV deal. The AFL pooled its eight teams and sold ABC the league’s team as one entity which was against United States antitrust laws. But the AFL was a new business that flew under the radar, at least in legal circles.

The NFL owners and new NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle took note of the AFL-ABC TV deal and wanted the same thing. In 1960, NFL teams were on TV but each of the 13 teams put together a local TV network and the large city teams, New York, Chicago and Los Angeles received far more TV money than Green Bay, Baltimore and Pittsburgh. The inequity of TV revenues could have become a big problem but Rozelle went to work convincing his owners that selling the league as one TV package to either the two big networks at the time, the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) or the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) was the way to go.

In 1961, the 14 NFL owners decided to sell their TV rights as one and give a TV network the right to show all 98 games on the schedule just like Hunt’s league was doing (not every one of the AFL’s games was shown on ABC in 1960) Rozelle cut a two-year, $9.1 million deal with CBS but the NFL decided to make sure their deal was legal and submitted the deal before Federal Judge Alan K. Grim in Philadelphia.

Justice Grim was very familiar with NFL TV deals. In 1953, Judge Grim handed down a ruling that gave the NFL the right to blackout team’s home games which meant that a local fan either had to buy a ticket to a home game to watch the team or travel about 75 miles and watch the game in an out of town bar or hotel and cheer on the home team from there.

In July 1961, Judge Grim decided the NFL-CBS deal violated antitrust laws because the agreement the competition between teams for TV deals. The decision flew counter to the AFL-ABC deal as well as the National Basketball Association’s partnership with the National Broadcasting Company

Because the league was under a court-ordered injunction which prevented it from signing a league-wide contract with a network which meant Rozelle had to become a lobbyist and find a sympatric ear in either the House or the Senate. Rozelle found just the man he needed in Congressman Cellar, the Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Anti-Trust and Monopoly.  The long time Brooklyn Democrat in the House got a bill through the House and a similar bill introduced in the Senate by one time Vice Presidential candidate, Tennessee Democrat Estes Kefauver pushed a bill through the Senate. The whole process took about a month as Cellar began hearings on August 28. The proceedings took a day.

President John F. Kennedy signed the Sports Broadcast Act of 1961 into law on September 30. The legislation gave both the NFL and AFL cover from the Sherman Anti-Trust Act and gave the same protection to the National Basketball Association as well as the National Hockey League. The American and National Leagues of Baseball already had an antitrust exemption thanks to the Supreme Court decision of 1922 in the Baltimore Terrapins versus the National League case. Congressman Cellar and Senator Kefauver didn’t overlook college football in the bill.

There was provision included which precluded the NFL from televising any game on either Friday night after 6 PM or on Saturday between the second Friday in September and ending on the second Saturday in December. This was done to protect college football which had a TV deal in place for Saturday afternoons.

After operating under local contracts for the 1960 and 1961 seasons, the NFL pooled its television rights and sold them to CBS for $4.65 million annually for the league. In 1963, NBC was awarded exclusive network broadcasting rights for the 1963 AFL Championship Game for $926,000, and later signed a five-year, $36 million television contract with the AFL IV to begin with the 1965 season.

In 1950, the most popular sports in the United States were baseball, horse racing and boxing. Within a decade, Americans had falling in love with Sunday afternoon football, with the 1958 NFL title game between the Baltimore Colts, led by a crew cut quarterback named John Unitas taking on the glamour boys from New York. The Giants were led by handsome Frank Gifford and were the darlings of Madison Avenue. The close game went into overtime and with Unitas leading the Colts downfield for a game-winning touchdown. That game changed the course of TV history for the NFL. The Giants would lose the 1959 NFL title game as well to the Colts, but that didn’t diminish TV’s appetite for Giants players. In 1960, middle linebacker Sam Huff was featured on the CBS television show 20th Century with Walter Cronkite providing the narration of “The Violent World of Sam Huff.” TV embraced football, both the National and American Football League. It was the perfect sports event for the small screen.

Public Law 87-331, better known as the Sports Broadcasting Act, is the most important piece of legislation passed by Congress and signed into law by Kennedy that American sports ever got from Washington lawmakers. In 1964, CBS submitted the winning bid of $14.1 million per year for the NFL regular-season television rights for the 1964 and 1965 seasons, and also acquired the rights to the championship games for $1.8 million per game for those same seasons.  In 1965, CBS acquired the rights to the NFL regular-season games in 1966 and 1967, with an option for 1968, for $18.8 million per year (an increase of 33% over the prior deal).  The NFL later moved to an arrangement in which all of the networks got some of the games, making all networks solely interested in broadcasting the games of the NFL, and not those of a rival league. By 1969, TV income had risen to $1.6 million per team in the NFL and $900,000 per team in the AFL.

The television deals signed by CBS and the NFL solidified the profitability of the NFL and the 1964 AFL-NBC deal enhanced football’s popularity. “The TV contract and then the June 1966 AFL-NFL merger made it possible,” said Wellington Mara, the longtime owner of the NY Giants, years later in analyzing the NFL’s success. “You can’t predict what would have happened, but we certainly would not have the league we have today. That was the most important decision ever made in the league.”

After the merger of the AFL and the NFL in 1966 (the television contracts did not expire until 1970), Rozelle thought a Monday Night televised game would be a ratings grabber. After CBS and NBC declined, due to the success of shows such as Laugh-In, Rozelle approached ABC.  ABC, which had been struggling in prime time for years, jumped at the chance in 1969. Monday Night Football (MNF) debuted in 1970, with ABC acquiring the rights to televise 13 NFL regular-season Monday night games in 1970, 1971, and 1972. The Jets lost to Cleveland 31-21 in the first Monday Night Football contest, and Howard Cosell and Don Meredith provided commentary. Joe Namath, star Quarterback for the Jets who eventually would be on the MNF crew, could not envision what kind of franchise Monday Night Football would become. “For players back then especially, we didn’t realize anything about prime time or how many people would be watching. It was another game for us. It was exciting knowing that you are on television,” said Namath. “Monday Night Football is great for the fans and the players alike. Heck, I didn’t have the foresight to see how important that was.”

Congressman Emanuel Cellar has never been honored by the NFL or recognized by the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio but he is as responsible for the NFL’s success as much as Rozelle, Halas, Namath, Red Grange and a handful of others including two Presidents Theodore Roosevelt (who single handily saved football) and Ronald Reagan (who signed into law the 1984 Cable TV Act and the 1986 Tax Act which changed sports). Cellar’s legislation propelled the NFL and by 1965, pro football eclipsed baseball as America’s favorite sport.  One of President John F. Kennedy’s most significant Oval Office achievements was signing Cellar’s bill.

The NFL today is a behemoth thanks to Kennedy’s autograph and between August and February gets people before the television sets. The 1961 legislation changed American sports habits and made the NFL.


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