National Football League (NFL)

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National Football League (NFL)

Professional football in America dates back to 1892, the year that Yale's All-America guard—William "Pudge" Heffelfinger—accepted $500 to appear in a game for the Allegheny Athletic Association. Despite betting and recruitment scandals, the game enjoyed robust growth during the early decades of the pay-for-play era. But there was no organized league until George Halas and a group of forward-thinking gridiron scions convened in Canton, Ohio, in 1920 to form the American Professional Football Association (APFA). Within two years, this fledgling alliance officially changed its name to the National Football League (NFL).

As public relations director for the new league, Halas was charged with the unenviable task of convincing the public of professional football's legitimacy. Few believed the NFL would succeed given the competition of the "purer" and more tradition-driven college game. Halas' solution to the problem of legitimacy came down to two words: Red Grange. The "Galloping Ghost" was a college legend whose signature on a professional contract would give instant credibility to the pay-for-play enterprise. A shrewd businessman, Grange made sure to ask for a portion of the gate receipts in case the league took off. He made his NFL debut on Thanksgiving Day of 1925, inaugurating an association of football and drumsticks that continues to this day.

The Grange-led Chicago Bears became the marquee attraction in the early years of the NFL. Some 73,000 spectators crowded into the Polo Grounds that first season to watch the Galloping Ghost lead his compatriots into battle against the New York Giants. Doubts that the NFL could make it outside football's traditional hotbeds in the east and midwest were soon quashed when the barnstorming Bears played to a house of 75,000 fans at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. And though many expected the NFL to fold when Grange briefly left to join a rival league in 1926, it remained viable and even developed some new stars to replace him. By the time the Galloping Ghost retired in 1934, the league had expanded to 10 clubs and was unchallenged as the national forum for professional football.

The 1930s saw the emergence of the Green Bay Packers as the NFL's dominant team. Led by coach Earl "Curly" Lambeau, the Wisconsin-based franchise won three straight league titles to open the decade. A series of rules changes adopted in league meetings helped systematize the pro game and differentiate it from the college variety. Further enhancing the NFL's popularity was a 1934 exhibition game between the Chicago Bears and a team of college all-stars. The event drew 79,432 fans to Chicago's Soldier Field and resulted in a scoreless tie. Later that year, the NFL took another huge step in its development into a national institution when the CBS radio network broadcast the Thanksgiving Day game between the Bears and the Detroit Lions to a national audience.

The innovation of a national championship game, begun in 1933, resulted the following season in one of the NFL's first legendary games. In the so-called "sneaker game," the New York Giants donned basketball sneakers at halftime to gain an edge over the Bears in a game played on icy turf at the Polo Grounds. The switch from spikes to sneaks spurred a second-half rally that propelled New York to a 30-13 victory.

Perhaps sensing that large market clubs like the Bears and the Giants were gaining an unfair competitive advantage through their ability to recruit college players, the NFL instituted a draft system the following season. Under the rules, teams with poor records would select first from the available pool of undergraduate talent. University of Chicago halfback Jay Berwanger became the first man chosen in the first-ever NFL draft on February 8, 1936—though he eventually declined to join the league entirely.

Pro football attendance surpassed the one million mark in 1939, the same year that a contest between the Brooklyn Dodgers and the Philadelphia Eagles was telecast in New York City by NBC. The NFL thus entered the 1940s primed for a decade of growth. Manpower shortages brought on by American involvement in World War II, however, forced a number of teams to merge and others to suspend operations entirely. The Washington Redskins emerged as one of the league's elite teams of the war years, though the Chicago Bears remained the class of the pro circuit. Their 73-0 drubbing of the Redskins in the 1940 championship game is remembered as one of the signature routs in sports history.

In 1950, the NFL took in three teams from a now-defunct rival league, the All-America Football Conference (AAFC), establishing a pattern of "ignore and absorb" that it would follow with subsequent challengers to its hegemony. The Cleveland Browns, perennial champions of the AAFC, went on to become one of the dominant NFL teams of the 1950s. The decade also saw the debut of a new all-star "Pro Bowl" played at the end of the season. In 1951, the DuMont Network broadcast the first nationally televised NFL game, between the Browns and the Los Angeles Rams. In a further sign of the league's growth—and the expectation that there was more money to be made—the National Football League Players Association formed in 1955 to represent the players' interests.

By 1958, the NFL's popularity was at an all-time high. The championship game that season, pitting the New York Giants against the Baltimore Colts, attracted a record number of television viewers, reaching more American households than any other sporting event to date; nor did the contest disappoint, as the Colts won a thrilling 23-17 victory in sudden-death overtime in what many consider the greatest game ever played. The pro football landscape looked so promising as the 1960s dawned that yet another rival league, the American Football League (AFL), was formed for the new decade.

To keep the league on course and meet the challenge of the AFL, the NFL selected a new commissioner, Pete Rozelle, in 1960. He was to be the architect of the league's greatest growth and expansion of popularity. His signal achievement of the 1960s was the negotiation of a merger between the NFL and AFL in 1966. The two leagues maintained separate schedules for the first three years of the arrangement, though they agreed to meet in an annual championship game (not called the Super Bowl until 1969) beginning in 1967. Green Bay won the first two such contests, reinforcing the prejudice that the AFL upstarts did not belong on the same field as the "real" NFL pros. But Super Bowl III saw New York Jets quarterback Joe Namath—a college standout whose decision to join the AFL had been a major coup for the fledgling league—boldly predict an upset win over the heavily favored Baltimore Colts. The Jets' remarkable 16-7 victory helped legitimize the merger, solidify the primacy of the Super Bowl as sports' pre-eminent championship, and spur the NFL on to even greater national prominence.

In the 1970s professional football became a national power-house. Rozelle negotiated new national television contracts favorable to the league, including a deal with ABC to televise a Monday night "game of the week" during the regular season. Monday Night Football became an instant ratings hit and a venerable weekly showcase for the NFL's best teams. The AFL merger swelled the league to 26 teams, but business was so good it expanded even further in 1976 with new franchises in Tampa Bay and Seattle. The Pittsburgh Steelers became the decade's dominant team, winning four Super Bowls in six years. The World Football League (WFL) briefly flourished, then folded. Nothing, it seemed, could compete with the allure of the NFL.

In the 1980s, it became increasingly clear that the only threat to the NFL's golden goose came from the NFL itself. Player's strikes in 1982 and 1987 forced the league to cancel games and briefly experiment with replacement players, to the consternation of fans who now paid high prices for tickets. The United States Football League (USFL), a spring/summer alternative to the NFL, lasted only three seasons but managed to drain away some high-profile players. It filed an anti-trust lawsuit against the NFL and won, but was awarded only one dollar in damages. More damaging to the league's prestige was the ongoing feud between Commissioner Rozelle and Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis, who sued successfully for the right to move his team to Los Angeles, where an NFL team already existed; he later moved it back to Oakland.

Despite these distractions, the NFL continued to flourish throughout the 1980s and 1990s. The San Francisco 49ers, and later the Dallas Cowboys, inherited the mantle of Super Bowl dominance from the Steelers. The league expanded globally, first with the World League and later with the more discretely focused NFL Europe. "Super Bowl Sunday" became an unofficial national holiday, with advertising fees for 30-second commercials during its telecast ranging into the millions of dollars. Even the 1989 retirement of Pete Rozelle, the league's highly effective leader for almost 30 years, could not slow the NFL juggernaut. New commissioner Paul Tagliabue quickly established his authority and continued along Rozelle's expansionist path.

In 1993, pro football entered the age of free agency, as players won the right to negotiate for their services on the open market. But this change, which had proved so problematic for Major League Baseball, caused little disruption for the NFL because of wise fiscal guidelines agreed to by the league and its players. In a way, this lack of rancor is emblematic of the NFL's success. From its beginnings, the NFL has benefitted greatly from the astute management of a handful of visionaries, from George Halas to Pete Rozelle. This sound stewardship has enabled a league once derided by purists and largely ignored by the masses to expand exponentially, decade by decade, until it stood as the pre-eminent sports league in America.

—Robert E. Schnakenberg

Further Reading:

Fox, Stephen R. Big Leagues: Professional Baseball, Football, and Basketball in National Memory. New York, William Morrow, 1994.

Harris, David. The League: The Rise and Decline of the NFL. New York, Bantam Books, 1986.

McDonough, Will, editor. The NFL Century: The Complete Story of the National Football League, 1920-2000. New York, Smithmark, 1999.

Neft, David S., Richard M. Cohen, and Richard Korch. The Football Encyclopedia: The Complete History of Professional Football from 1892 to the Present. New York, St. Martin's, 1994.

Ross, Charles Kenyatta. Outside the Lines: African Americans and the Integration of the National Football League. New York, New York University Press, 1999.

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National Football League (NFL)

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National Football League (NFL)