When, years hence, the history of professional football is written, a New York restaurant named Chez Vito may well be mentioned along with a playing field in Latrobe, Pa. as the site of one of the landmarks of the game. On Aug. 31, 1895 Latrobe beat Jeannette, Pa. 12-0 in the first pro football game ever played. On May 2, 1969, in Chez Vito, over half a cantaloupe and to the strains of violins, Art Modell, the owner of the Cleveland Browns and the president of the NFL, told Commissioner Pete Rozelle that he was willing to move his club into the AFL next year. Thus the merger between the NFL and the AFL, which had been decided upon in 1966, finally became a reality. But not without agony.
After making his dramatic concession, Modell suffered an ulcer attack that put him in the hospital—an indication of the strong emotions and petty wrangling that marked the protracted negotiations to realign the leagues.
Over the years the resourceful Rozelle has used a variety of ploys in dealing with his willful and often cantankerous owners. To get them to accept a sensible realignment plan, he employed the old principle of logic known as reductio ad absurdum. This, of course, is the disproof of a proposition by demonstrating that it is absurd if carried to its logical conclusion. In the case at hand, the proposition was one advanced by several of the AFL owners, that the only true merger of their league with the more prestigious NFL would be a complete remix of conference and division lineups.
"It would have been impossible to arrive at a satisfactory division of the 26 clubs into two conferences and six divisions by negotiation," Rozelle said last week. "Originally, the joint committee of owners from the AFL and the NFL had recommended keeping the present alignment—10 teams in the AFL, 16 in the NFL—and playing anywhere from 30 to 50 interleague games. We found out at our meeting in Palm Springs last March that this was unacceptable to the AFL owners, so we recessed, and when we met in New York several weeks ago we had almost agreed that there were only two reasonable ways to effect a satisfactory merger for 1970."
May 25, 1969
The alternatives were: 1) shift the two five-team AFL divisions into the NFL, thereby creating two conferences of three divisions each; and 2) move three NFL teams into the AFL so that the two leagues would have numerical parity, a situation devoutly to be wished by AFL owners. The original proposition, which in Rozelle's opinion was unworkable, was a total remix, by lot, of the 26 teams into six brand-new divisions combining AFL and NFL teams.
To demonstrate to the owners the absurdity of this scheme, Rozelle conducted a dry run, drawing slips of paper bearing the names of the teams out of a hat. "This was a controlled drawing," Rozelle said, "because, by the terms of the merger, certain teams had to occupy preferred positions. The Giants and the Jets had to be in different divisions for television purposes, and the same held true for the 49ers and the Oakland Raiders. Los Angeles and San Francisco had to be in the same division, too."
The results of the draw were:
Division I: Los Angeles, Miami, St. Louis and San Francisco.
Division II: Green Bay, New Orleans, Pittsburgh and San Diego.
Division III: Boston, Cincinnati, Denver, Detroit and the New York Giants.
Division IV: Atlanta, Buffalo, Chicago and Philadelphia.
Division V: Baltimore, Cleveland, Dallas and Houston.
Division VI: Kansas City, Minnesota, Oakland, Washington and the New York Jets.
Even the most stubborn advocates of total realignment quailed at the obvious flaws in this hypothetical arrangement. Three of the top NFL teams—Baltimore, Cleveland and Dallas—were in one division, and the only traditional rivalry that was retained was Los Angeles-San Francisco in Division I, and that was by design, not by lot.
Having had the absurdity of total realignment graphically demonstrated, the recalcitrant AFL owners settled on merger by acquisition of three NFL franchises.
This point was reached by the end of the first owners' meeting in New York, which was recessed to allow Rozelle to explore the feelings of 13 of the 16 NFL teams about moving into the AFL. The Giants, 49ers and Rams were, of course, locked into the NFL.
On May 2, which was the date the meetings came to their unsatisfactory end, Rozelle had an indication from Modell that the Browns might be willing to shift. "We had dinner at Chez Vito," Modell said last week. "Tex Schramm [president of the Dallas Cowboys] and Pete and myself. I wasn't feeling well. It had been a hell of a couple of years, with the Player Association thing and the merger. Anyway, I told Pete I wanted to talk to him and I said that under certain conditions the Browns would move."
The first condition was that, if the Browns moved, Pittsburgh would move with them into the same division; over the years the Browns and the Steelers had built up a considerable rivalry. The second condition was that the Browns would be in the same division with the Cincinnati Bengals, the newest of the AFL expansion teams, which is managed and coached by Paul Brown. Paul, of course, was the Vince Lombardi of the '50s when he coached Cleveland. Brown was fired by Modell in the fourth year of a 10-year contract, an act that greatly aroused Brown fans. The Cleveland-Cincinnati rivalry would therefore be a natural.
Modell didn't easily arrive at his decision to make the Browns available to the AFL. After he told Rozelle that the Browns might move, he didn't touch his food and left the table five or six times to walk the street outside, breathing deeply and fighting off nausea. Later he went to bed but awakened at 3:30 a.m., went to the bathroom and fainted. When he regained consciousness he returned to bed but was sick again in the morning. Rozelle took him to New York's Doctors Hospital, where it was discovered that he had suffered an ulcer attack.
When the owners met again from May 7 to May 10, Modell monitored the sessions from his hospital bed. Rozelle labored to find three teams willing to leave the comfortable old NFL, but Modell was the only owner who evinced any willingness to move.
Art Rooney and his son Dan, who own the Pittsburgh Steelers, met with Modell in his hospital room and, overcoming a sentimental attachment to the NFL that had been nurtured by 35 years in the league, finally agreed to go with Modell. Rozelle then needed to find only one more team that was willing to move and that the AFL would accept. He eventually settled upon the Baltimore Colts, whose owner, Carroll Rosenbloom, had told him that if all else failed the Colts would go.
"I wanted to get in the same division with the Jets," Rosenbloom explained last week. "I think that it's an instant rivalry of tremendous interest, and we have a score to settle. And then I think, looking ahead, that most owners place too much importance on traditional rivalries which are not really that traditional. In the last couple of years we have built up a tremendous rivalry with the Rams, but four or five years ago our Rams game was just another game. It became important when the Rams began challenging for the championship of the West. In the years to come other rivalries will build the same way. In five years no one will care—or remember—what the rivalries were before the merger took place."
When Rozelle called Rosenbloom into his office on May 9 and told him that the AFL would accept Cleveland and Pittsburgh in one AFL division if the Colts were agreeable to moving into another, the farsighted Rosenbloom agreed. "I expect that in the years to come, some of the NFL clubs that turned the move down will regret it," he said later.
The other NFL owners then argued fruitlessly on how to split themselves up into three divisions, finally postponing that decision until a fourth and, hopefully, final meeting, which is slated for June 2 and 3. Meanwhile, Cleveland and Pittsburgh will move into a division with Cincinnati and Houston, giving the AFL the biggest stadium (82,000 capacity) in pro football in Cleveland and a new stadium (53,000) under construction in Pittsburgh. Baltimore will be in a division with the Jets (their instant traditional rival), Boston, Miami and Buffalo. The third AFL division must be content to get along without an NFL team but it has three of the most attractive AFL clubs in Oakland, San Diego and Kansas City, plus Denver.
One incentive that may have induced Cleveland, Pittsburgh and Baltimore to move was a sizable cash payment. This was arranged early in the third meeting. "I arrived at a figure I thought was fair, and the owners agreed," Rozelle said. "We got together on the figure before we decided on which teams would move because we didn't want it to appear that specific teams had been bribed to leave the NFL for the AFL. And by arriving at a figure beforehand, we said, in effect, 'Take it or pay it.' "
The figure is $3 million and it is payable over a five-year period. This deal hasn't been announced and will probably be denied, but it is, after all, a reasonable amount. The money will be paid by the remaining 13 NFL owners; the AFL owners, who shelled out $25 million under the terms of the merger, are spared the additional bite.
Rather surprisingly, Baltimore, Cleveland and Pittsburgh fans accepted their new status (as of 1970) with a good deal of equanimity. Modell, resting in his hospital room in a great profusion of flowers and books that had been sent by well-wishers, received only one discordant note; a fan greeted Art as "Dear Benedict" and complained that his feelings upon learning the Browns would move to the AFL were much the same as if someone had told him his wife was unfaithful. After stating that he wanted to cancel his season tickets for 1970, the fan closed with this sentiment: "By a vote of four to three, my family wishes you a speedy recovery."
In retrospect it would appear that Rozelle—with the help of Modell, Rosenbloom and the Rooneys—has designed the best of all possible realignments. The new setup retains the identity of the AFL and the NFL and the importance of the Super Bowl as a singular confrontation between the champions of the two leagues. It also makes the television markets more equitable and, therefore, more salable. Where CBS, with the NFL, once had a 2-to-1 margin in TV viewers in the city markets, the margin is now only 7 to 5. When Rozelle starts dickering for Monday night TV games this summer, he will be talking to four potential buyers—CBS, NBC, ABC and Howard Hughes' Sports Network—and the two conferences will be eminently attractive, each on its own merits.
Rozelle is now faced with the ultimate problem. The 13 remaining NFL owners must decide how they are going to realign themselves into a conference of two four-team divisions and one five. But Pete may have a solution for that, too, and this time without recourse to reductio ad absurdum.
"There are head-to-head confrontations that would seem to make realignment by agreement almost impossible," he points out. "But maybe we can really pull this one out of a hat. We'll arrive at the three or four realignments most nearly agreeable to the owners, then put them in a hat and the one I pull out will be it."