November 22, 2013

The National Football League's Darkest Weekend

By - Keith Smith

Fifty years ago today, the world changed. America lost its innocence.

Two days later, so did the National Football League.

As the world mourned the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, the NFL did its best impression of Nero fiddling while Rome burned. Commissioner Pete Rozelle chose to play a full slate of games that weekend, even though numerous players and owners were against it.

Photo by: Anthony Camerano
The rival American Football League decided not to play, but a phone call to Rozelle from White House Press Secretary Pierre Salinger, stating that the president loved football and would've wanted the games to go on, seemed to be the deciding factor. Even Kennedy's brother, U.S. Attorney General Bobby Kennedy, wanted the games played, according to reports.

Most of the players and owners alike had no desire to play. It wasn't so much because they feared being seen as disrespectful, but because they didn't feel they could physically perform. The events from that fall day in Dallas had dealt a tremendous blow to them personally and the nation as a whole.

The games weren't televised that Sunday. CBS, who had the exclusive contract with the NFL at the time, had vowed continuous news coverage from the moment of the assassination until the burial, so the players couldn't understand the point of playing if those in the stands were the only ones who would see it.

To say their hearts weren't in it would be an understatement.

The fans, however, still showed up. Of the seven games played by the NFL, four were sellouts. The other three had slightly above average crowds. Reportedly, none of the crowds were particularly raucous, but they were there. For many, sports are cathartic and gives them a brief escape and distraction from the difficulties of life.

At the time, Rozelle adamantly believed that playing was the right decision, considering the information he had been given from the White House. What he didn't consider, apparently, was that while the players were larger than life to the fans, in reality, they were just like everyone else in the country at the time. They were saddened, dazed and confused by the tragedy, almost to the point of severe depression.

In a later interview, Rozelle said, "I wouldn't have played those games if I could make the judgment again."

In fairness to the commissioner, he was in uncharted waters. With the exception of Pearl Harbor, there really hadn't been a huge national tragedy comparable to the Kennedy assassination that he could gauge by.

The backlash was minimal when it happened. Players grumbled to themselves, but there wasn't the kind of players' union present back then that could file a grievance and go to bat for them against the league like there is now. The country was in mourning and didn't rise up in protest, because they were paralyzed by shock.

However, in the years that followed, Rozelle was repeatedly criticized, and it became one of the blackest marks on his otherwise quite stellar resume.

Since then, we've seen things like the San Francisco earthquake in 1989, the September 11th, 2001 tragedy at the World Trade Center, and Hurricane Katrina cause temporary work stoppages in sports.

I believe each time, the respective leagues took pause and looked back on that fateful November weekend, and made the right decision to postpone sporting events. The assassination of President Kennedy not only changed world politics, but the world of sports forever.


  1. This article has been been deleted from Intelligent Sports Talk. It is essentially a cut and paste from other articles written over the years. It also is blatantly one sided.

  2. Mr. Birch, I assure you, there isn't a bit of this cut and pasted. In doing a historical piece, you are bound to have some parts that seem like things you've read before. But as the writer, I resent your accusations.

  3. I would also love to know how you see it as one-sided? Especially when Rozelle himself has said that he wouldn't do it again, and the part about "In fairness to Rozelle..." clearly states that he didn't really have anything in the past to gauge a decision on. My suggestion, rather than deleted the piece, would be to rename your Facebook group.

  4. Don't even waste your time arguing with this clown, Keith. He started bitchin as soon as I posted it in the group about how it should have talked more about the good Rozelle did as commissioner and how there was so much more to the story and blah, blah, blah, when he clearly missed the entire point of the piece to begin with, which was simply to discuss the decision that was made and how it affected the world of sports moving forward. He's clearly one of those people that just likes to bitch, moan and complain just for the sake of bitching, moaning and complaining. I called him out on it in the group so he had me removed. Lol Moron.

  5. How is this Birch dude claiming this is one sided? It's not even on a side at all. lol Nice read Keith.

  6. I have no problem with him not liking the article. But you start calling me a plagiarist, and we have a big problem.

  7. These will be my last words on this, and will address a number of things.

    The article was allowed to be posted as a courtesy that I extended to you and several others. It was taken down as soon as the discussion turned into a personal attack. I created that group to allow people to share, debate and discuss sports related topics without attacking the people with dissenting opinions. In addition your comment "You're basically just bitchin for the sake of bitchin." toward me shows that the only reason you joined the group was to gain further visibility for your site, as opposed to actually participating. People that post there regularly and participate in the discussions, all know me as fair and balanced. I read every article that is posted. Some I agree with and some I disagree with, some get comments both pro and con, and some get deleted without comment.

    As to the article itself. It is essentially a rehash of an article written 20 years ago that appeared in Sports Illustrated. The cut and paste comment that you took literally was simply pointing that out.

    As far as my balanced comment. Your "Rome is burning comment clearly set the tone for both the historical perspective as well as your interpretation of what actually took place. His decision was applauded by many. There were just as many positive editorials written about his courage as there were negative ones. Robert Wagner, for example, who was mayor of NY, called it a courageous act that will help the healing process. There were as many owners that agreed with him as there were those who didn't. There were probably more players that agreed than those that didn't. You made very little effort to show the courage it took for him to actually move forward with the games. While it is true that Rozelle suggested he made a mistake, it is also true that Pierre Salinger told him his biggest mistake was doubting his original decision. That is the balance I was commenting about.

    Finally it was suggested that I didn't know what the article was all about. Well perhaps that is true, since you made a claim based on pure conjecture and waited until the end to do it so you didn't have to offer any proof. Well, in rebuttal: The 1989 World Series was delayed as much for building and TV issues as it was for respect for the devastation. As a matter of fact the commissioner threatened to move it to another city when the mayor suggested a longer delay. Likewise, the games postponed because of Katrina were because of storm damage. Finally, there is no anecdotal proof to suggest that Rozelle's decision impacted the decisions that came in the aftermath of 2011. So to suggest that type of linkage is hyperbole at it's worst.

    Hopefully you will take notice that this was written without the need to resort to adolescent name calling.

    Thanks for your time.

  8. Mr. Birch, please show me in what post I resorted to adolescent name calling? And you do realize that this is an opinion piece, don't you? Not hard news. I have written hard news in my career, but opinion columns have different criteria. If you will more thoroughly read what I wrote, you will say that this was one of the few Black marks on Rozelle's stellar resume. The fact that you disagree with the article is fine, but aren't you doing the same thing here that you accuse Kris of on your group page, attacking me for having a dissenting opinion from yours?

    1. Those comments were a compilation of my interactions with both you and Kris. He was guilty of the name calling, not you and as such that comment was directed toward him. Although your suggestion I change the name of my group was petty. The other parts addressed my opinion of your article. So no, I am not doing the same thing that he did. I am providing constructive feedback which you can accept, ignore or whatever other middle ground you choose. I attacked the content and the construct of the article, not you personally, except where you made a direct reference to my reading comprehension or cognitive abilities.

    2. For starters, it never turned into a "personal attack" in the group. You made a comment that basically suggested the article was written in a way that portrayed Rozelle in a negative light (when in the grand totality of the context, it CLEARLY doesn't). I replied that it wasn't an attack on Rozelle, but more or less just a summary of the decision he had to make that weekend, to which you came back with, "well were you or the writer even born then?" As if to imply anyone that wasn't a full-blown adult in 1963 has no business touching the subject. I then replied with, "you're obviously just bitchin for the sake of bitchin," and another sentence or two of rebuttal. By all means, explain where I turned it into a personal attack on you. I made a statement. Nothing more, nothing less. No names were called. And judging by how you had responded to each comment I had made prior to my final one, it was more than warranted as far as I'm concerned. We could have easily hashed it out in there, but instead you chose to go the bitch route and boot me from your little group. Which hey, that's fine. But instead of leavin it at that and callin it a day, you THEN decide to bring it onto this site, and at that point, you're on my side of the playing field, buddy. I'll say and do whatever I want in here. Perks of being the person in charge. You should know, since it's pretty apparent you take your administratorship at Intelligent Sports Talk way too seriously.

      And funny you should mention that all the people in your group know you as "fair and balanced," seein as how when I ran this entire dialogue by several other people that I know from the group, they all painted an entirely different picture of you than the one you paint of yourself.

      Imagine that. Lol