(EDITOR'S NOTE: To access the Joe Browne interview, click on the following attachment: Ep 70: Remembering 9/11 Part One: Joe Browne | Spreaker)
Shortly after the assassination of President John Kennedy in 1963, then-NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle decided to play regularly-scheduled games two days later. It was, he was told, what the family wanted. So it was what he decreed.
He later called it the biggest mistake of his life.
Nearly four decades afterward -- 20 years ago Saturday, to be exact -- then-commissioner Paul Tagliabue was faced with a similar dilemma in the wake of 9/11, waiting two days before making a decision to call off that weekend’s games. It was, as one NFL executive closest to Tagliabue said, something that Tagliabue “anguished over.”
Unlike Rozelle, however, he never regretted it.
“It was the right thing to do, not to play the games,” said former NFL executive vice president Joe Browne, Tagliabue’s first lieutenant, on the latest “Eye Test for Two” podcast (fullpressradio.com). “He’s an emotional, Italian guy from New Jersey, and, although he sometimes can come across as aloof, down deep he anguished over what the right thing to do was.
“Because you had some owners saying, ‘Damn it, let’s play.' And teams that said, ‘Let’s play.’ The league was divided both in the ownership ranks and among the player ranks.”
According to Browne, there were five options that Tagliabue … or the NFL office … considered for Week Two of the 2001 season:
1. Play the games as scheduled. “Some of our owners who had served in the military were very strong advocates of ‘we’re not going to let the S.O.B.’s … meaning the terrorists … change our way of life.’ That’s what they wanted to do. So that was on the table.”
2. Postpone Week Two games and play them wildcard weekend on January 6-7.
3. Postpone Sunday games and play them all the following Monday, Sept. 17.
4. Cancel all Week Two games and play a 15-game schedule. Unusual? Yes. But there was a precedent. The league had a 15-game season in 1987 after a 24-day players’ strike following Week Two.
5. Flipping some of the sites for that Sunday’s games. “For instance,” Browne said, “the Packers were sue to play the Giants that Sunday at Giants Stadium. There were games a home for both Washington and Pittsburgh, two areas that were most affected in addition to New York. So there was talk about flipping the sites of those games. “
In the end, Tagliabue chose the second option, resumed the season in Week Three and was able to keep a 16-game season by moving Super Bowl XXXVI back one week after resolving a scheduling conflict with the National Automobile Dealers Association. But he made that decision with considerable help, much of it from the New York Giants and Jets, whose players were adamant that they would not play in Week Two.
“One of the first calls we got on Tuesday was from (then-NFLPA executive director) Gene Upshaw,” said Browne. “Because his kids, his boys, were in school right near the CIA building. So he had gone over to get them and get them home safely.
“He called Paul, and Gene was asking what Paul thought we were going to do. Gene said he was going to canvas his clubs … his teams and his player reps … which he did. And the next day he came back, and he said, ‘There are teams that want to play, and there are teams – such as the Giants and the Jets – who say, ‘No way.’ So it was weighing both of those factors.”
Plus, there were owners divided on the subject.
“Ultimately, it was Paul’s decision,” said Browne. “Speaking to some of the committee chairmen, like Jerry Richardson and Dan Rooney and Wellington Mara, it was Paul’s decision not to play.
“But the players certainly weighed in … and understandably so. Because from Giants Stadium, where both the Jets and the Giants played their home games, you could see the smoke clearly across the river into Manhattan. And it was a scary, scary sight.”
The terrorist attacks happened Tuesday morning on Sept. 11, 2001. It wasn’t until two days later that Tagliabue – who heard from the White House, as well as pro and collegiate sports leagues -- made his decision to call off games. Huddling with persons in the league office late Wednesday, he told them he would make his decision that evening and announce it the following morning.
And he did.
“It was 70-30 we were not going to play,” said Browne, “but not 100 percent. The next day he said, ‘There’s no way we can play.’ It was a time for mourning … a time for remembrance … and that’s what we all did.”