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|
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.