What a difference a commissioner makes.
Pete Rozelle hadn’t been on the job long enough to find the executive washroom when he faced a gambling scandal a half-century ago that could have sunk the NFL.
League investigators had discovered star Green Bay running back Paul Hornung and Detroit Lions lineman Alex Karras were betting on games. The news had yet to break, and the young commissioner knew he had to move before it did.
“He called up Vince Lombardi and ordered him to come to NFL headquarters the next day, but Lombardi protested that he had a football team to coach,” said Jerry Izenberg, author of a new book on Rozelle. “He told Lombardi it was an order and to be there, and hung up. Then he held his breath because he didn’t know whether Vince would show up.”
The Green Bay coach did show up and was presented with a folder containing the evidence against Hornung and Karras. The next day, Rozelle held a press conference to announce he was suspending Hornung and Karras for what turned out to be a full season.
“Everyone writes about it the next day, but after that no one talked about it. They don’t talk about it today,” Izenberg said. “The scandal could have been twice as big as the current one for the integrity of the league and he handled it in three days.”
The story is documented in the new book “Rozelle” by the 84-year-old Izenberg, one of only two writers to have covered all 48 Super Bowls. Izenberg, now columnist emeritus for The Star-Ledger in Newark, New Jersey, makes no secret of his admiration for Rozelle, the one-time PR guy who took over the league in 1960 at the tender age of 33.
Izenberg didn’t plan it, but the book couldn’t be coming out at a better time. Because to understand how Roger Goodell has struggled trying to contain the Ray Rice mess it helps to know the story behind the commissioner most credit with making the NFL the powerhouse empire it is today.
Izenberg is flabbergasted how Goodell let one get away that the old PR guy would have quickly resolved.
“This guy waited and waited. He thought they could sweep it under the rug but it made it worse,” Izenberg said. “Two games suspension was ludicrous to begin with. He (Rice) had to be suspended for at least a year no matter what so people could understand just how bad it was.”
That it became a firestorm that has some calling for Goodell’s head, Izenberg said, is partly because times are different. Social media and the Internet means news and opinion flow instantly and constantly, unlike 1963 when it was limited to the nightly news and the newspaper on the doorstep.
But allowing the story to take on a life of its own wasn’t Goodell’s biggest mistake, he believes. That would be failing to properly investigate Rice’s attack on his then fiancee in the first place, something Rozelle would have never overlooked.
“The bottom line was he didn’t bother to find the facts,” Izenberg said.
Izenberg tells some interesting stories in the book about the public relations man who became commissioner almost by accident when owners hired him as a compromise candidate. Rozelle would be at the helm for 29 years, overseeing the first Super Bowl and steering the league through mergers, lawsuits and strikes to become the behemoth that it is today.
He did it in a way that would be hard to imagine today, when the commissioner’s most important job is to extract every last dollar for team owners. While Rozelle, like Goodell, worked for the owners, he always had the bigger picture in mind.
“He (Goodell) looks at things as how he can please the owners,” Izenberg said. “Pete looked at things with the view that the owners have to please the public.”
Izenberg knew Rozelle, who died in 1996, well and his book is full of insider information on how he operated. There are stories about him facing down owners and players alike, and how he paved the way for the national television contract by promising a team in New Orleans to a congressman who then pushed through an antitrust exemption for the league.
And then there was the USFL trial where the NFL lost an antitrust suit to the rival league but only had to pay $3.76 in damages after jurors saw enough of Donald Trump and Howard Cosell on the witness stand.
By that time Rozelle had little use for the pompous Cosell, the voice from the beginning for Rozelle’s “Monday Night Football.” He watched as a league attorney told Cosell to tell him if he didn’t understand a question.
“If you ask me a question I don’t understand, you’ll have the biggest story of the century,” Cosell replied.
Different times and a different league.
But a reminder that there was once a commissioner who would have done things differently.