- Tensions between players and Commissioner Roger Goodell over collusion, drug policies, and revenue;
- The firestorm surrounding Colin Kaepernick and protests of police violence and inequality;
- Andrew Luck and others choosing early retirement over the threat to their long-term health;
- Paul Tagliabue's role in covering up information on concussions;
- The Super Bowl's evolution into a national holiday.
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A History of America's New National Pastime
By Richard C. Crepeau
UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESSCopyright © 2014 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
All rights reserved.
The First Pros
Super Bowl XLV between the Green Bay Packers and the Pittsburgh Steelers took place at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas, on February 6, 2011, to determine the champion of the National Football League. Attendance was 103,219, just a few hundred shy of the Super Bowl record. Another 111 million saw the game on television. It was the biggest television audience in U.S. history.
In 1920, the first season of the American Professional Football Association (renamed the National Football League in 1922), average attendance at games reached just over four thousand, with the largest crowds estimated at between ten thousand and twenty thousand. Because of uneven scheduling, the League Championship was not decided on the field, but rather at the winter meetings in Akron, Ohio, in April 1921. A vote resulted in the awarding of a loving cup as league champion to Akron, who "defeated" the claims of both Canton and Buffalo.
The journey from Akron to Arlington has been a long and convoluted one. Its roots are found primarily in the late nineteenth century among the professional and semiprofessional teams and leagues spread across the Ohio Valley and westward. These teams constituted the core of those entrepreneurs who formed the NFL after World War I, driven by growing optimism and prosperity and building upon the intense interest in high school and college football.
In the 1890s in western Pennsylvania and eastern Ohio, football at the semipro and professional level was easy to recognize as the game in its modern form. The field was a bit smaller and narrower; there were no hash marks and no end zone. Goal posts were on the goal line, 18 1/2 feet apart, as they are now, but only ten feet high. Passing was not allowed. The players were small by current standards, as the average lineman weighed 171 pounds, while backs averaged 151. Equipment was limited, the game was rough, and there was no substitution except for injury.
Throughout these early years, football rules continued to evolve, with colleges taking the lead. Following the college football crisis of 1905 precipitated by eleven deaths on the field of play, the schools adopted rule changes designed to make the game safer and more attractive to spectators. The professionals accepted those changes, which included allowing the forward pass.
The first documented case of pay for play occurred on November 12, 1892, when the Allegheny Athletic Association paid William "Pudge" Heffelfinger a reported $500 plus $25 in expense money to play for their club against the Pittsburgh Athletic Club. Three other players were also paid for this game, and by the late nineties there were at least five professional teams in Pennsylvania. Denial of professionalism was so much a part of the sporting culture that Heffelfinger spent the remainder of his years denouncing professionalism in football.
The transition from amateur to professional football was driven by the desire to win, and nowhere was that more apparent than in central Ohio, where the rivalry between Massillon and Canton led both teams to pay players as they pursued Ohio supremacy. Massillon was the first to cross the line, with a $1,000 payroll for the 1904 season. This opened the professional era in Ohio football. It also led to the signing of the first African American to a professional football contract when Charles Follis was inked by Shelby in 1904. Professional football in Ohio stabilized by 1910. Driven by boosterism and a willingness to spend a bit of money on ringers, and fueled by gate receipts and betting profits, a few teams were able to win championships and turn a small profit in the process.
By the end of the 1890s, professional football had spread across America. It was a reality in Butte, Montana, where a wealthy copper mining entrepreneur decided to become a professional football owner. There were athletic clubs in California, Oregon, and Washington sponsoring professional football teams. Coleman Brown of the Santa Barbara AC and the Los Angeles Stars was one of the first African American stars on the West Coast. Many considered him the best back of the decade.
The success of pro football depended on management, community support, and newspaper coverage. Managers handled all arrangements: they hired players, built schedules, arranged playing venues, negotiated guarantees, made travel arrangements, hired officials, sold tickets, and created advertising, plus handling all other details and problems that arose in the process of staging a game.
Following World War I and the influenza epidemic, professionalism was increasing as organization and structure grew: "Most importantly, the best independent football teams took on an all-star character that was reflected in the number of All-Conference and All-American college players recruited to play on their teams. These conditions marked a transition from independent, semi-professional football to professional football."
Professional teams had a variety of sponsors: railroad companies, commercial enterprises, church groups. They were invariably connected to local boosterism. The games drew fans primarily from the factories and mills of towns and small cities. With the factories running on six and six and a half-day work weeks, Sunday became the day for recreation. The football entrepreneurs moved to fill that need, offering tickets at prices below those for the college game. Blue-collar fans enjoyed the toughness and violence of the pro game and it gave them local heroes with whom they could identify. For entrepreneurs, pro football was a high-risk venture. The uncontrollable variables included weather, the volatility of the cost/revenue ratio, and the sustained appeal of the team. Keith McCellan argues that these risk takers had "the heart of a pirate and the mentality of a con man."
Sportswriters and the college crowd looked down on the professional game or simply ignored it. The upper classes and middle classes objected to the concept itself. Casper Whitney, a self-proclaimed guardian of the moral code of sportsmanship who wrote for Outing magazine, condemned the intrusion of professionalism into the amateur world of gentlemen. He was appalled by the notion that one could sell loyalty for personal gain. Whitney and his colleagues were caught up in that ludicrous professional-amateur distinction imported from British upper-class sport, which was, ironically, both inappropriate for and simultaneously appealing to Americans. Even though Americans accepted this distinction, it was never rigidly enforced, as it was more convenient to allow winning to trump amateurism. So, the best players were paid under the table, allowing them to maintain the fiction of amateur standing and enhancing the possibilities of victory. College players who dabbled in the professional game played under assumed names, or did so only when they lost their eligibility for the college game. At times, anonymity was maintained in deference to objections to playing games on Sunday.
"However, if you were a working stiff—a mill worker, railroad worker, or factory worker—you saw it differently. You were not worried about developing manly virtues, you had them by the nature of your work." You were not concerned about being a gentleman or about your alma mater. You simply enjoyed the opportunity to cheer for the home team on that one day a week available for rest and relaxation. "Scorned and ridiculed by the college crowd, loved only by factory workers and a few fanatics, professional football was taking root in America's midwestern factory towns."
Professional football remained on shaky ground throughout the 1910s and into the 1920s. Many teams existed Sunday to Sunday. Sponsors helped, with railroad companies providing transportation or breweries providing cash for jerseys. Survival was a struggle. In Catholic communities, local priests organized teams and fans loved watching Catholic players, particularly those from Notre Dame, even if they were playing under assumed names.
The game itself continued to evolve. By 1912 the field was altered to one hundred yards, with ten-yard end zones. A rule change moved the kickoff from midfield back to the forty yard line. Another change required seven offensive players on the line of scrimmage. There were four downs to move the ball ten yards for a first down. All restrictions on the quarterback were eliminated. Equipment remained minimal, with some players using a mouthpiece and a few pads, and some wearing nose guards.
In 1919 Massillon, Akron, Cleveland, and Youngstown fielded teams that constituted an Ohio League of sorts. When the managers met they agreed on officials' salaries, as well as on a nontampering rule, but they could not reach agreement on player salary limits. This failure led inevitably to overspending. Looking ahead, those close to the professional game called for the creation of a strong league along the lines of professional baseball that could control salaries and contracts and end the use of college players.
Laying the Foundation at Canton
These developments set the stage for bold entrepreneurs, men of vision who loved football, to move the professional game onto a new stage with the creation of the National Football League. This was the central story of the 1920s. It was not a story of instant success and glory. Franchises came and went. It was a decade of progress, glory, growth, and development, in which the foundation of the NFL was laid. The decade brought struggle and success that centered on George Halas and Red Grange, and it ended in the economic uncertainty of the Great Depression.
On August 20, 1920, seven men representing four teams met in Canton, Ohio, at Ralph Hay's Hupmobile Agency, hoping to establish a professional football league. All four teams were from Ohio: Canton, Akron, Dayton, and Cleveland. The result was the creation of the American Professional Football Conference. Less than a month later, on September 17, a second meeting convened at the Hupmobile Agency, and the American Professional Football Association (APFA) was officially born.
This second meeting included representatives of seven additional teams. Among them was George Halas, who recalled sitting with others on the fenders and running boards of Hupmobiles, "drinking beer from buckets while we tried to plan the future of professional football." The work at hand included an attempt to bring some regularity to scheduling, establish control of bidding for players, control salaries, and prevent the raiding of rival rosters by league members. Jim Thorpe, the most prominent football name present, was elected league president.
In addition to the four Ohio franchises, the APFA brought aboard Rochester, Buffalo, and Hammond at the August meeting. The next month brought teams from Decatur, Rock Island, Columbus, Detroit, Muncie, and Massillon, plus the Chicago (Racine) Cardinals and the Chicago Tigers.
So began the first season of the APFA. There was little press interest and virtually no fan interest outside league cities. Such simple matters as who won, including who won the league championship, remained in doubt. Even the identity of the first game in league history was a matter of at least minor dispute. Given the inability to answer these basic questions, one could argue that the APFA was a league in name only, a reality only in the world of public relations and perhaps not even there. The small crowds of the 1920s paled in comparison to the growing popularity of the college game. There, crowds for the biggest games exceeded 100,000 in a decade of stadium building and expansion.
At the end of its first season, APFA representatives from each team reported on finances. The news was less than encouraging. Nonetheless, the league made a decision to move forward into a second season. Owners approved a constitution and bylaws and decreased the cost of association membership from $100 to $50. The goal of the APFA was to sign up every significant pro team in America. It was agreed that college players would not be used, and any team violating the rule would be expelled. No player, unless first declared a free agent, could be signed away from another team in the APFA.
Joe Carr replaced Jim Thorpe as president of the APFA, as Thorpe lacked business skills, seemed more interested in playing than administering, and was having problems with alcohol. Carr was a sportswriter, promoter, and manager of the Columbus Panhandles football team, and founded the Columbus baseball team in the American Association. He was content to administer, leaving the major decisions to George Halas. Twenty-one teams contested the 1921 league championship, with ten new franchises joining. Only thirteen teams survived to the end of this second season.
Team owner A. E. Staley decided to get out of the football business. He wrote a check for $5,000 to George Halas to help the team get through the 1921 season. Halas took on Dutch Sternaman as a partner and chose the "Bears" as the new nickname for the team, a bow to Halas's beloved Chicago Cubs. It was a modest beginning for the long and storied professional football career of George Halas, a Chicago native who had played college football and graduated from the University of Illinois. Starting with a $50 investment and the bankroll of $5,000, Halas became principal owner of the Chicago Bears, a team valued at no less than seventy million dollars when the grand-old-man of the NFL died in 1983.
A New Name with Much the Same
In the June 1922 league meetings held in Cleveland, owners renamed the association the National Football League. Issues surrounding schedules and salaries were discussed, and new franchises were awarded. The league grew to eighteen members, including the all–Native American Oorang Indians, based in Ohio.
In 1921 the Green Bay Packers had been expelled from the league for using college players. The 1922 Packers struggled financially. Facing disaster, the team arranged for a $2,500 loan from a local newspaper. Then, the Packers sold shares in the team for five dollars. Each shareholder received a season ticket. By the end of the 1923 season, the Packers had $5,000 in the bank and a unique arrangement with its fans.
The Packer resurrection was one of several remarkable developments in the volatile early history of the NFL. Nearly forty franchises populated the NFL in the 1920s. Many came and went in the course of one or two seasons. By the middle of the decade, many of the smaller towns that had been founding members were gone, and many individuals, including Joe Carr, who envisioned the future of the NFL in the bigger cities across America, were happy to see them go. As NFL president, Carr did his best to standardize and reorganize league procedures and regulations. Uneven scheduling, teams that played entirely on the road, weak and failing franchises, and the determination of the league champion occupied his energies. He responded with plans for reorganization and rationalization of NFL operations, and by the late twenties he was confident in the league's progress.
Credibility increased for the NFL as it attracted more attention when star college players, a number of them African Americans, entered the league. Such stars as "Fritz" Pollard, Ernie Nevers, Johnny Blood, and Red Grange created considerable buzz for the league. In the case of Grange it also created considerable friction with college football authorities and set off a national debate over the legitimacy of professional football.
Getting the Attention of the Football Nation
The biggest story of the 1925 season and postseason was in Illinois, where the Bears made massive headlines with the signing of Harold "Red" Grange, the "Galloping Ghost," a record-setting running back from the University of Illinois. It was one of the biggest stories of the decade, as Grange was much more than just a college football player. He was a character of mythic proportions spoken of in similar tones as the other members of the sports trinity of the decade, Babe Ruth and Jack Dempsey.
The 1920s was America's first age of celebrity and sports heroes, and this trinity was at the top of the heap. All three came from poor and obscure backgrounds, rose to the top of their sport, and had the charisma to capture the imagination of the public. It was a decade in which the public focus turned away from Europe and the world and inward in search of what President Harding had identified as normalcy. America entered a consumer culture spurred on by the booming advertising industry, as Americans sought pleasure and instant gratification from the world of materialism and celebrities.
Grange came from Wheaton, Illinois, where he was raised on the simple values of America's heartland. In four years of high school football, he scored seventy-five touchdowns, converted eighty-two extra points, and earned sixteen varsity letters in four sports. In twenty college games at Illinois Grange scored thirty-one touchdowns and gained 3,362 yards, while becoming the idol of the sports pages and newsreels where football fans across the country could watch his magic unfold. Grange spent his summers delivering ice in his hometown as a means to stay in shape. Photos of Grange with a block of ice on his shoulder led to a second nickname, "The Wheaton Ice Man." Robert Zuppke, the University of Illinois football coach, recognized the potential talent of the boy from Wheaton, recruited him, and built his Illini team around Grange.
Excerpted from NFL Football by Richard C. Crepeau. Copyright © 2014 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESS.
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Table of Contents
I The Formative Years
1 The First Pros 3
2 Depression and War 20
3 The NFL Comes of Age 33
II The Rozelle Era
4 Moving to Center Stage 55
5 A Troubled Decade 74
6 The Perfect Television Game 92
7 The Cartel 112
8 Unraveling 126
9 Labor Conflict 135
III The New NFL
10 A New Era 155
11 New Challenges 171
12 The Money Tree 190
13 Super Sunday 209
Appendix A NFL Franchises 237
Appendix B The NFL 100 All-Time Team 243