Rozelle, Pete

views updated May 08 2018

Pete Rozelle


American football commissioner

For nearly three decades, Pete Rozelle guided professional football as the commissioner of the National Football League (NFL). Under his direction, pro football attained unprecedented popularity with the American public, as well as a level of profitability that far exceeded anything seen before Rozelle. He engineered the merger of the rival American Football League (AFL) into the NFL, paving the way for the annual Super Bowl, a face-off between the best in the American Football Conference (AFC) and the National Football Conference (NFC). Upon Rozelle's death in 1996, Lamar Hunt, owner of the Kansas City Chiefs, told USA Today : "I think his greatest achievement was to supervise and organize growth at a time when other sports were battling and fighting among themselves. He had the ability to create compromise and make things work." A Gallup Poll in 1960, the year Rozelle took over the reins of the NFL, showed that thirty-four percent of Americans named baseball as their favorite sport, while twenty-one

percent preferred football. In just the first twelve years of Rozelle's leadership of the NFL, the game's popularity skyrocketed. In another Gallup Poll taken in 1972, thirty-six percent of Americans picked football as their favorite sport, while baseball had fallen to a popularity rate of only twenty-one percent.

Born Near Los Angeles

He was born Alvin Ray Rozelle in South Gate, California, near Los Angeles, on March 1, 1926. His uncle gave him the nickname "Pete" when Rozelle was only five years old. Raised in nearby Compton, Rozelle showed an early interest in sports, playing tennis and basketball for Compton High School. He graduated from Compton High in 1944 with World War II still raging in Europe and the Pacific. Fresh out of high school, Rozelle enlisted in the U.S. Navy, in which he served until 1946. After leaving the Navy, he returned to California and enrolled at Compton Junior College, where he served as the school's athletic news director. Rozelle also worked briefly as an assistant to the public relations director of the Los Angeles Rams, which had selected the junior college's athletic fields for its training camp. After completing two years at the junior college, he headed north to continue his studies at the University of San Francisco (USF). He remained close to sports at USF by editing the Rams' game programs in his spare time. While still a student at USF, Rozelle married Jane Coupe of Chicago, whom he had met while in the Navy. The couple, who eventually divorced, had a daughter, Anne Marie, born in 1958.

After graduation in 1950, Rozelle went to work for USF as its athletic news director. In that job, he attended a broad range of sporting events, building a network of contacts that would serve him well in the years to come. In 1952, Tex Schramm , general manager of the Rams, hired Rozelle as the team's public relations director. He stayed with the Rams for three years until 1955 when he left to join the San Francisco public relations firm of P.K. Macker. When Schramm left the Rams in 1957 after conflicts with some of the team's owners, NFL Commissioner Bert Bell asked Rozelle to take over as general manager of the Rams. The new general manager's ability to resolve conflicts within the Rams organization was particularly impressive to Dan Reeves , who owned fifty percent of the team.

Replaces Bell at Helm of NFL

After the sudden death of Bell in 1959, NFL team owners met in 1960 to find a successor and also map a strategy against the rival AFL. When owners deadlocked on Bell's replacement, Reeves offered Rozelle as a compromise candidate. Over the opposition of some of the league's most influential owners, Rozelle was elected the new NFL commissioner. He set to work immediately to convince NFL team owners to pool all media revenues and share them equally among all teams, putting each franchise on an even footing with the others. The rival AFL had already announced its intentions to follow a similar policy, and Rozelle thought the NFL needed to do the same to ensure its competitiveness against the new league. He also urged that the NFL provide a united front for the teams by bargaining collectively with the television networks for coverage contracts. To accomplish the latter, Rozelle was forced to argue before Congress for an exemption from the Sherman Antitrust Act. In September 1961 Congress approved such an exemption for the NFL.

As its television exposure grew, football attracted more and more fans. In 1962 Rozelle negotiated a $9.3 million contract with CBS TV. Football's growing popularity benefited not only the NFL but the rival AFL. The two leagues became locked in a costly bidding war for new players during the first half of the 1960s. By 1966, the situation had become untenable. Rozelle consulted with team owners in both leagues to promote the idea of a merger between the rival organizations. He also went back to Congress to argue for another exemption from antitrust law to make such a merger possible. He was successful on both fronts, and the AFL was merged into the NFL in 1966. The AFL became the American Football Conference (AFC), while the NFL teams were grouped in the National Football Conference (NFC). The merger and related organizational changes paved the way for the first Super Bowl, which was played between the Green Bay Packers of the NFC and the Kansas City Chiefs of the AFC in January 1967. A few years later, in 1969, Rozelle negotiated a contract with ABC TV creating "Monday Night Football." In 1974, Rozelle married Carrie Cooke, the former daughter-in-law of Washington Redskins owner Jack Kent Cooke.


1926Born in South Gate, California, on March 1
1944Graduates from Compton (CA) High School
1944-46Serves in U.S. Navy
1946-48Attends Compton Junior College
1949Marries Jane Coupe of Chicago (later divorced)
1950Graduates from University of San Francisco and becomes university's athletic news director
1952Goes to work for Los Angeles Rams as public relations director
1955Joins public relations firm of P.K. Macker in San Francisco
1957Replaces Tex Schramm as general manager of the Rams
1960Elected commissioner of National Football League
1974Marries Carrie Cooke
1989Retires from NFL
1996Dies of cancer in Rancho Santa Fe, California, on December 6

Awards and Accomplishments

1960Moved headquarters of NFL to New York City
1961Won antitrust exemption allowing NFL to negotiate TV contracts collectively
1966Engineered merger of American Football League into the NFL and subsequent organizational changes
1969Negotiated contract with ABC-TV creating "Monday Night Football"
1977Negotiated four-year TV deal with ABC, CBS, and NBC
1982Negotiated five-year, $2.1 billion contract with ABC, CBS, and NBC
1985Elected to Pro Football Hall of Fame
1985Won Tuss McLaughry Award of the American Football Coaches Association

New Challenges Emerge

Despite the rapid ascendancy of the NFL under Rozelle's leadership, new challenges continued to emerge. A new rival, the World Football League, was launched in 1972 but was disbanded only three years later for lack of adequate financial support. Over the objections of Rozelle and the city of Oakland, California, the Oakland Raiders in 1980 moved to Los Angeles when it was able to negotiate a more favorable lease on a stadium in Southern California. The NFL and Oakland asked the courts to block the Raiders' move but were rebuffed when the courts ruled that such NFL constraints on teams' ability to move would violate antitrust laws. Another challenge arose over the matter of players' contractual rights. For most of its history, NFL rules forced players to renegotiate only with their team rather than offer their services to all NFL teams. After the merger of the AFL into the NFL, Rozelle had instituted what came to be known as the Rozelle Rule. The rule required any team that signed a player that previously belonged to another team to pay compensation for the lost player, and it had a chilling effect on the signing of free agents within the league. Players struck in 1982 and 1987 to win some form of free agency. Eventually the Rozelle Rule was suspended, and a controlled form of free agency was put into effect, along with a salary cap

With Rozelle skillfully leading negotiations, the NFL's television revenues continued to climb steadily through the 1970s and into the 1980s. In 1982 the NFL signed a five-year, $2.1 billion contract with ABC, CBS, and NBC to televise all regular season and post-season games. In 1987, the league and the three broadcast networks concluded a three-year contract worth just over $1.4 billion. That same year the NFL signed its first contract with a cable television network, agreeing to let ESPN broadcast thirteen prime-time games over the course of a three-year contract.

Elected to Hall of Fame

Rozelle in 1985 won some long overdue recognition when he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame while still active in professional football. This was a unique honor in that most Hall of Fame candidates are not inducted until after the end of their football career. Despite all that Rozelle had done to strengthen professional football and increase its popularity, the latter half of the 1980s saw a gradual erosion of faith in his leadership among NFL team owners. In 1989, with two years remaining on his contract, Rozelle reluctantly stepped down as NFL commissioner. He served briefly on the board of directors of NTN Communications Inc. of Carlsbad, California, but spent most of his time at his home in Rancho Santa Fe. A heavy smoker for much of his life, Rozelle died of cancer on December 6, 1996.

Probably no single person has had as profound an effect on a sport as Rozelle had upon football. After his death at the age of seventy, friends and professional colleagues alike were lavish in their praise of Rozelle's contributions. Lifelong friend Don Klosterman told USA Today : "He was the most incredible person I've ever met. Given that power, he never had an ego. A lot of people can't live with success. He was so easy with it. He was never a showboat." One of the highest tributes came from Paul Tagliabue, Rozelle's successor as NFL commissioner. Tagliabue told the Minneapolis Star Tribune: "No one was more responsible for the success of the National Football League and public passion for the NFL game than Pete Rozelle. Though he would credit others, Pete was the driving force in changing the face of professional sports in this country. His vision, integrity, and commitment made him the ideal leader."


The Super Bowl, Random House, 1991.

Related Biography: NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue

Like his predecessor as NFL commissioner, Paul Tagliabue's boyhood passion was basketball and not football. After he was sidelined by a ligament tear in his sophomore year at Georgetown, he began spending more time on academics, leading him eventually into a career in law. It was as a lawyer that Tagliabue first came into close contact with the NFL.

He was born Paul John Tagliabue in Jersey City, New Jersey, on November 24, 1940, the third of four sons born into a working-class family with roots in Italy. As a boy, he excelled in both academics and sports, playing three sports at his Jersey City high school. It was his prowess at basketball, however, that eventually won him a scholarship to Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. After graduating from Georgetown, he studied law at New York University. He began his career as a law clerk in the U.S. Claims Court in 1965. In 1969 he joined Covington & Burling, where he gradually took on more and more of the firm's NFL account. In the 1980s, Tagliabue became a managing partner at the firm and was made its lead lawyer on NFL matters. The decade saw an explosion of litigation involving the NFL, during which Tagliabue became a close adviser to NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle.

Ironically, the flood of litigation that brought Tagliabue closer to the NFL and Rozelle are believed to have played a large part in Rozelle's decision to retire from the league in 1989. Tagliabue was tapped as Rozelle's successor. Of Tagliabue's qualifications for the job, Minnesota Viking President Mike Lynn told the St. Paul Pioneer Press : "He's a forward-thinking man. He's a man of ideas who can take us into the next century."

Tagliabue and his wife, Chandler, whom he married in 1965, live in New York City, which is also home to the headquarters of the NFL. The couple has two children, Drew and Emily.

(With Joseph Hession) Forty Niners, Foghorn Press, 1993.



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

"Paul Tagliabue." Newsmakers 1990. Issue 2. Detroit: Gale Group, 1990.

"Pete Rozelle." Encyclopedia of World Biography Supplement, Volume 19. Detroit: Gale Group, 1999.

"Pete Rozelle." Newsmakers 1997. Issue 4. Detroit: Gale Group, 1997.


Celizic, Mike. "More Than a Visionary, Rozelle Exuded Class." Record (Bergen County, NJ) (December 8, 1996): S13.

Forbes, Gordon. "Deft Negotiating Touch Good as Gold for NFL." USA Today (December 9, 1996): 4C.

Glauber, Bob. "1926-1996: Rozelle Got Last Word In on Detractors." Newsday (December 8, 1996): B6.

Jones, Del. "League Community Mourns Former Leader's Death." USA Today (December 9, 1996): 4C.

Kindred, Dave. "Most Significant Developments This Century: No. 4, Pete Rozelle Becomes NFL Commissioner." Sporting News (April 21, 1999).

Lewis, Michael. "TIME 100: High Commissioner Pete Rozelle." Time (December 7, 1998): 188.

"NFL Visionary Pete Rozelle Dies." Minneapolis Star Tribune (December 7, 1996): 1C.

Wilbon, Michael. "Visionary Pete Rozelle Left NFL Monumental Legacy." St. Louis Post-Dispatch (December 15, 1996): 1F.


"Pete Rozelle." Pro Football Hall of Fame. (October 17, 2002).

"Rozelle Was NFL Innovator." ESPN Classic. (October 17, 2002).

Sketch by Don Amerman

Pete Rozelle

views updated May 23 2018

Pete Rozelle

Pete Rozelle (1926-1996) served as commissioner of the National Football League (NFL) from 1960 until 1989, leading the League to unprecedented profitability and popularity.

Born in the small California town of South Gate, outside of Los Angeles, on March 1, 1926, Alvin Ray "Pete" Rozelle took an early interest in sports. He played basketball and tennis for Compton High School, from which he graduated in 1944. Upon graduation, Rozelle enlisted in the U.S. Navy, serving until 1946. He then enrolled in Compton Junior College and returned to the world of sports as the college's athletic news director. Rozelle also covered high school basketball for local newspapers. The same year that he entered Compton Junior College, the NFL's Cleveland Rams moved to Los Angeles and chose the college as the site of their training camp. Rozelle showed an interest in the team and became an assistant to Maxwell Stiles, the Rams' public relations director. Rozelle made a good impression on the Rams' administration, but his position was strictly temporary. In 1948, he left to finish his degree at the University of San Francisco (USF).

Rozelle graduated from USF in 1950 and became the University's athletic news director, a part-time position. He was able to attend major sporting events and made many contacts that would help him professionally in the years to come. One such contact was Tex Schramm, general manager of the Los Angeles Rams, who hired Rozelle to serve as the Rams' public relations director in 1952. Rozelle remained in that position until 1955, when he left to join the public relations firm of P.K. Macker in San Francisco. While in this capacity, Rozelle represented Australian athletes and sports firms during Australia's hosting of the 1956 Olympic Games.

While Rozelle advanced his career in public relations, the Los Angeles Rams were experiencing administrative difficulties. Fifty percent of the team was owned by Dan Reeves, and the other half was owned by two people who could not get along with him. To escape this strife, Schramm left the Rams in 1957, and the club was without a general manager. NFL commissioner Bert Bell offered the position to Rozelle, who overcame initial misgivings and took the post before the end of the year. He proved an immediate success with the Rams, using his talents as a public relations professional to soothe the turmoil within the organization. In the process, he greatly impressed Reeves.

State of the Game

The popularity of football had increased steadily throughout the 1950s. In 1958, the sport received a gigantic boost when one of its first nationally televised championship games (featuring the Baltimore Colts and the New York Giants) turned into one of the most well-played and exciting games of all time. Although interest in football had increased, a 1960 Gallup poll revealed that 34 percent of Americans named baseball as their favorite sport, with just 21 percent preferring football.

When the owners of NFL franchises met for their annual meeting in 1960, their league faced serious challenges. Bell, who had served as commissioner of the League since 1946, had died suddenly the previous year, and a rival professional league, the American Football League (AFL), had been established. The AFL promised to compete with NFL teams for both players and markets. Various factions among the 12 NFL owners advanced candidates to fill Bell's position as commissioner, but after ten days and 23 ballots, no candidate had secured a majority. Finally, Reeves put forward his employee, Pete Rozelle, as a compromise candidate. Rozelle was elected, but was opposed by some of the NFL's most established and influential owners.

"League Think"

Upon becoming commissioner, Rozelle immediately set out to revolutionize the administration of professional football. Borrowing from the stated intention of the AFL owners, Rozelle proposed that all NFL teams pool revenues they received from television contracts and advertising, and then distribute them evenly. This approach to the distribution of media revenues was not popular with owners in large markets such as New York and Los Angeles, but Rozelle saw a collective approach as essential to the survival of teams operating in smaller markets, such as Green Bay, Wisconsin. Furthermore, by presenting a collective front, the NFL would be able to secure better national television contracts. Rozelle referred to his collective approach as "League Think." Although League owners soon saw the benefits of Rozelle's tactics, legal obstacles to his plan still existed. In order to pool their television revenues, the NFL would need a partial exemption from the Sherman Antitrust Act, which prohibits monopolistic business practices. Rozelle argued the NFL's case before the U.S. Congress and secured the required exemption in September 1961.

Rise of the AFL

Under Rozelle's leadership, NFL television revenues tripled between 1962 and 1964 to $14 million per year, and the popularity of football began to increase rapidly. The AFL had also benefited from football's increased popularity and soon began to pose a serious threat to the NFL's prosperity. Competition between the leagues resulted in greatly increased salaries for players, which in turn began to effect the financial health of both leagues. The situation had become intolerable by 1966, and Rozelle was forced to act. First, he convinced the team owners in both leagues to allow the AFL to merge into an expanded NFL. Rozelle then convinced Congress to grant a further Sherman Antitrust Act exemption for the NFL to enable the merger to proceed. This merger also resulted in the creation of an end-of-season game between the champions of the NFL and the AFL, which soon became known as the Super Bowl. The first Super Bowl, matching the Green Bay Packers of the NFL and the Kansas City Chiefs of the AFL, was played in January 1967.


The reconstituted NFL enjoyed unprecedented popularity throughout the 1960s and 1970s. Television revenues continued to rise and Monday Night Football, first shown on the ABC network in 1970, soon became a national institution. Gallup conducted another poll in 1972 that revealed football was the favorite sport of 36 percent of Americans while just 21 percent favored baseball. Despite the growth of the NFL during the 1970s, new challenges emerged. Players threatened to strike in 1974 for the right to become free agents when their contracts expired. Also, another rival league, the World Football League (WFL), came into existence the same year, but went defunct in 1975 due to insufficient financial backing. By 1980, the NFL comprised 28 teams, up from 12 in 1960, and had reached new heights in both profitability and popularity.

Labor and Legal Challenges

Rozelle's "League Think" strategy had succeeded beyond the owners' wildest dreams, but the economic realities of sports were beginning to change again in the 1980s. Although the NFL's television revenues continued to rise, reaching an all-time high of $2.1 billion for the 1987 season, the importance of stadium leases, concessions, and the sale of "luxury boxes" became an increasingly important part of team revenues. Luxury boxes were private blocks of seats featuring amenities including televisions, bars, and buffets, which are normally sold to corporate clients for an entire season. Older stadiums, which lacked luxury boxes and were often owned by the home team's city, generated far less revenue than newer venues. Furthermore, cities desperate for a professional football franchise were willing to build stadiums at public expense and offer generous payments to teams willing to leave their traditional markets. Owners received offers they literally could not refuse. One of the League's most storied and profitable franchises, the Oakland Raiders, moved to Los Angeles after securing a favorable stadium lease in 1980. Rozelle opposed the move in the courts, as did the city of Oakland, but they were unable to prevent the Raiders from moving. The courts eventually ruled that the NFL would violate antitrust laws if it barred its owners from moving their franchises to secure more lucrative arrangements in new cities. Following the resolution of this case the Baltimore Colts, another of the NFL's most famous teams, moved to Indianapolis, Indiana, for the 1984 season.

The contractual rights of players continued to haunt the NFL during the 1980s. Throughout the League's history, players had, in effect, been the property of their teams. When a player's contract expired, he was forced to renegotiate only with his own team, rather than being able to market his skills to all NFL teams. This meant that players were forced to take whatever salary their teams were willing to pay, which had the effect of holding salaries down. In the heyday of the AFL, a sort of free agency had existed, since AFL teams felt free to offer contracts to NFL players, and salaries had risen dramatically. Following the incorporation of the AFL into the NFL, competition between franchises for players became almost nonexistent once again. Rozelle had done his best to secure this arrangement by instituting what became known as the Rozelle Rule, which required any team that signed a player previously belonging to another team to offer compensation for the lost player. The effect of the Rozelle Rule was to make signing a free agent a very risky prospect for a team, which would only find out after the fact what type of compensation they would be required to make to the player's original team. Under these circumstances, player salaries stagnated throughout the 1970s and the mood of the players became increasingly militant. Players struck in 1982 and 1987 to secure some form of free agency, or at least a modification of the Rozelle Rule. Eventually, a very controlled form of free agency was put into place, a salary cap installed, and the Rozelle Rule suspended. This compromise solution is still in effect today, although it had been made with some acrimony, alienating fans and hurting the League's popularity.

In addition to its labor and legal troubles, the NFL was increasingly confronted with the problem of substance abuse among its players. The use of steroids to enhance on-field performance, which had been condoned by many teams, became anathema due to public outrage and the discovery of the physical side-effects of steroid abuse. Additionally, off-the-field use of recreational drugs by players caused a seemingly unending series of embarrassing incidents. Rozelle was shocked by the pervasiveness of drug abuse in the League, as was the public, and by 1986, the NFL's television ratings were beginning to drop for the first time during his tenure.

Another Rival

A new rival professional league, the United States Football League (USFL), came into existence in 1981. The USFL enjoyed far more secure financial backing than had the WFL, including among its owners multi-millionaire Donald Trump. Despite the fact that the USFL avoided direct competition with the NFL by playing its games in the spring, the very existence of the new league had the usual effect of creating a form of free agency and causing players' salaries to rise dramatically. The USFL enjoyed several years of prosperity before eventually moving its games to the fall in an attempt to compete directly with the NFL. It combined this move with the filing of an antitrust lawsuit against the NFL, seeking $1.5 billion in damages for what it alleged was the NFL's restraint of trade within the business of football. Under Rozelle's direction, the NFL successfully defended itself against the USFL's competitive and legal challenges. The new league folded shortly after it lost the preliminary judgment in its court case against the NFL in 1987.

Rozelle guided the NFL through the troubled 1980s, with television revenues per team climbing from $69 million to $493.5 million between 1977 and 1986, but at a high personal cost. By the end of the decade, he was having difficulty sleeping and was smoking three packs of cigarettes per day. Rozelle's influence and effectiveness were officially recognized when he was elected to the NFL Hall of Fame in 1985. Despite this honor, the perception that the League's popularity and profitability were stagnating was beginning to undermine Rozelle's support among owners in the late 1980s. In 1989, with more than two years remaining on his contract, Rozelle decided that he had had enough and resigned as commissioner of the NFL.

Rozelle served briefly on the board of directors of NTN Communications, Inc. of Carlsbad, California, in 1994, before retiring due to his failing health. He died of cancer on December 6, 1996 in Rancho Mirage, California.

Further Reading

Columbia Reference Encyclopedia, Columbia University Press, 1993.

Harris, David, The League, Bantam Books, 1987.

Broadcasting and Cable, April 18, 1994.

Fortune, August 4, 1986.

Jet, April 29, 1985.

New York Times, March 23, 1989.

Newsweek, September 20, 1982.

Sporting News, February 4, 1985; December 16, 1996.

Sports Illustrated, September 1, 1983; January 30, 1989; April 3, 1989.

Time, December 7, 1998.

U.S. News and World Report, January 26, 1987. □