Saturday, January 23, 2010

How Hale Boggs saved the Saints (and football as we know it)

How Hale Boggs saved the Saints (and football as we know it)
By Evan Weiner 01/23/10 at 12:39 pm

If the New Orleans Saints football team wins the National Football Conference championship game on Sunday, one of the first people who should carry the George Halas Trophy is Cokie Roberts. Without Cokie’s father, the Louisiana Democrat Congressman Hale Boggs and Majority Whip of the House of Representatives in the mid-1960s, there probably would not be a New Orleans Saints franchise today.

The American Football League and the National Football League announced a merger plan on June 8, 1966, but the two entities could not become one without an anti-trust exemption from Congress. For those who think a sports league commissioner’s role is limited to just making sure the fans are happy and rooting for the home team, you’re about to get a lesson on political hardball.

A sports commissioner is a hardened political lobbyist and NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle was an old hand on Capitol Hill by the summer of 1966.

In 1961, Rozelle lobbied the House and Brooklyn (NY) Democrat Emanuel Cellar in an attempt to win a limited antitrust exception so that the National Football League could sell the league’s 14 franchises as one entity to a television network.

The Sports Broadcast Act of 1961 was signed into law by President John F. Kennedy on September 30th of that year and allowed the NFL to bundle the 14 franchises and sell a package of games to a TV network (either CBS or NBC in those days). The law helped propel the NFL into a different economic orbit. The league went from a mom and pop store operation that was open about six months a year to a mega business because of the legislation, which put hundreds of thousands of dollars into every NFL owner’s pocket.

Neither the Louisiana Democrat Senator Russell Long, who was the Senate’s Majority Whip and Chairman of the Senate Financial Committee, nor Congressman Boggs were very excited about the planned football merger. Neither saw a merger benefiting New Orleans, as the city had neither an AFL nor an NFL team. New Orleans blew an opportunity at getting an AFL in December 1964 after being awarded the 1965 AFL All Star Game because a group of players and AFL owners had a social conscience.

Buffalo Bills Quarterback Jack Kemp (who was becoming very interested in politics and worked on Barry Goldwater’s 1964 Presidential campaign) and his white teammates witnessed their African-American friends, teammates and competitors being ignored at the New Orleans airport by taxis when they needed a ride to New Orleans and watched as their black teammates were barred from eating in New Orleans restaurants and staying from in the same hotels in December 1964 as they were in the Jim Crow Louisiana. There were 21 African American players who were selected to be play in the game.

The American Football League was looking to expand and decided that New Orleans would be a perfect fit for the five-year-old league. AFL owners were told by New Orleans officials not to worry about Jim Crow laws because President Johnson has signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 on July 2nd. The AFL owners’ plans included a January 1965 All-Star game at Tulane Stadium and an announcement at the game that the league was going to put a team in the city.

Kemp, who was a co-founder of the American Football League Players Association in 1964, and the white All-Stars said they would support whatever decision the 21 African Americans made during their meeting, including the possible boycott of the 1965 AFL All Star Game.

Their decision was to boycott the game.

An outraged group of AFL players called Houston Oilers owner Bud Adams and said they were going to boycott the game. The eight AFL owners league moved the contest to Houston. The boycott ended the chance that New Orleans would get an AFL team.

Louisiana businessmen were pushing for a New Orleans franchise and saw an opening.

Rozelle spoke to Boggs and Long, asking for their support, but neither budged. Rozelle was not ready to hand out an expansion team, and the two Louisiana legislators were not ready to sign off on a merger bill. Originally there was a thought of moving some teams around to satisfy the Louisiana interests with the New York Jets franchise going to Los Angeles. Daniel Reeves would take his Los Angeles Rams franchise to San Diego and replace the Chargers. Barron Hilton then would take his Chargers to New Orleans. The Oakland Raiders would be moved to either Seattle or Portland. But Rozelle and other NFL officials went before Congressman Cellar’s Subcommittee on Antitrust and assured Cellar (who rammed through the Sports Broadcast Act of 1961 legislation through the House) that no teams would be moved because of the merger. But stadiums in the future would need to have more than a 50,000 seat capacity to house an NFL franchise.

Something had to give.

Rozelle and the NFL owners relented and worked out a deal with Boggs that included a placing a team in New Orleans. Congress approved the NFL-AFL merger by giving the two competitors an anti-trust exemption, which was added as a rider to an anti-inflation tax bill on October 21, 1966.

The NFL awarded its 16th franchise to New Orleans on November 1, 1966 on All Saints Day. One other thing about the merger, NFL owners, going back through history, always liked to collect money whenever they could on business deals which allowed teams from other leagues to join the NFL or when an NFL team decided to invade the New York or Washington market. NFL owners made some serious money on the merger.

The league pocketed an $8 million expansion fee from New Orleans owner John Mecom, which was split between the 15 NFL owners. Additionally, the New York Jets ownership paid $18 million to the New York Giants ownership, and the Oakland Raiders handed over $8 million to the San Francisco 49ers as both AFL teams “invaded” NFL territories. The AFL also agreed to pay the NFL the $7.5 million it received from the Cincinnati expansion fee in 1968.

“It was the right thing to do,” said AFL founder and Kansas City Chiefs owner Lamar Hunt years later. “It consolidated the sport. It assured the continuity of every team in both leagues. There were some teams that were pretty weak financially at that point. Some teams going out of business generally accompanied previous mergers in sports. We assured that every team would stay in business. We assured the addition of new teams in Cincinnati and New Orleans. It gave the public the Super Bowl. It also provided the teams and the league with a common draft, which provided for an equal dissemination of playing talent.”

Had the NFL and AFL not merged, Tex Schramm, the longtime Dallas Cowboy President and a chief architect of the merger along with Hunt, thinks pro football would not be the strong national presence that it is today. “I think football was on its way to self destruction with the two leagues,” said Schramm. “Both sides were spending themselves into bankruptcy and there were only four or five clubs that could remain really competitive…Teams were drafting players not on the basis on whether or not they could play, but whether they could be signed. Whenever that happens then your sport is in trouble and that’s the way we were headed then.”

Of the merger, Pete Rozelle said that at the time he was “surprised that the AFL was interested or that even [we] were interested because [we] were such bitter enemies. The war was going on and we were raiding players. Obviously the terms and conditions turned out to be favorable, particularly to teams that had to take in competitors in New York and San Francisco. History shows it is a good move, a costly one but it gave the league greater strength.”

Without Hale Boggs and Russell Long, there would have been no NFL team in New Orleans and no Super Bowl. That’s why Cokie Roberts should be handed the Halas Trophy if the hometown Saints emerge victorious on Sunday afternoon.

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