And so, faced with third down and long yardage, Joe Namath ate the ball. By agreeing last Friday to Commissioner Pete Rozelle's demands that he divest himself of his interest in the New York nightclub, Bachelors III, and, as well, that he become more selective of the company he keeps, the Jets quarterback was permitted to join the other world champions in their preseason training camp.
The Peace of Park Avenue was reached virtually altogether on the commissioner's terms. Not only did Namath agree to sell the bar, but the deal must be made with a buyer who meets Rozelle's approval. The New York Times also disclosed that the commissioner has the right to turn down any other potential investors who may wish to join with Namath if he opens new Bachelors Ills in such other cities as Boston, Miami and Los Angeles.
Of course, it was not so much ownership of the bar as it was the unsavory Mafia types who frequented the place that was the real brunt of the issue. Pro football's security forces had observed known gamblers and mobsters in the bar for months. As early as January Rozelle was concerned enough to try to meet with Namath about the situation. The day after the press conference heralding Namath's return to football Rozelle made it clear that the settlement did indeed touch on matters beyond the simple sale of the bar.
"When I said Namath and I had reached full accord and understanding," Rozelle carefully explained, "it was a sweeping thing, covering all aspects of the case. We reached total accord on the matter of his associations as well as on the sale of his interest in Bachelors III. You can assume from this statement that in the future he will be sure he knows the background of anyone with whom he becomes friendly, and he will duck anyone he knows to be undesirable. We have a clear understanding on this; he will know about people before he gets close to them."
July 27, 1969
At the press conference in the pro football offices Namath had stoutly upheld his blamelessness. Sitting next to the commissioner behind a long mahogany table, Namath—in sports shirt, bell-bottoms and sneakers—could not help but break into a grin when Rozelle said flatly: "Joe has agreed to sell his interest in Bachelors III."
Then it was Joe Willie's turn. "I've done nothing wrong," he said, "but because of the way some of the people have written and some of the things that have been said in the past, and because this has caused so much trouble for football and for me, we feel we should divorce ourselves of the restaurant at this time, though everything that's been said about myself having dice games is wrong." (Actually, there has been no public suggestion that Namath himself was involved in dice games, although enforcement authorities have said that such games were held in Namath's shared East 76th Street apartment.)
Rozelle had wanted to talk informally with Namath—"just to get to know him, to find out what makes him tick"—as far back as the week after the Super Bowl. When business took him to Jacksonville, where Joe was preparing for the AFL All-Star Game, Rozelle checked into Namath's hotel and left a message for him to get in touch. Namath never called back, however, and Rozelle had to leave town the next day. "I can understand it," the commissioner says. "It was only six days after the Super Bowl, and there must have been a million people trying to reach him. But I always felt that if we could have had that talk, maybe this whole thing wouldn't have gone as far as it did."
Eventually the two men did talk. Rozelle told Namath what his investigators had found in Bachelors III and informed the quarterback he would be suspended unless he got out of the place. As late as June 3—the night the New York Football Writers honored Namath at the Waldorf-Astoria—Rozelle had little reason to believe Joe would not comply. On June 6, however—at a press conference in Bachelors III—Namath tearfully announced that, instead of selling, he would retire. He had done nothing wrong, he maintained; it was strictly a matter of "principle."
The decision blind-sided both leagues, which only shortly before had agreed to a realignment plan that would send Cleveland, Pittsburgh and Baltimore—all NFL teams—into the AFL in 1970. With Namath gone, nothing was the same—especially the Colts' tailor-made rivalry with the Jets and vital television contract negotiations. Rozelle and Namath did not meet for three weeks, and when at last they did get together for two hours of discussions on June 26, nothing was resolved.
On July 11 while Namath was in Hollywood making a film a report was published that he would show up at the Jets' camp when it opened July 13. This stratagem would have forced Rozelle's hand by making him officially suspend Namath. This unpleasantness, however, was avoided. When camp opened at Hofstra University on Long Island, Namath was not there.
So the next day Rozelle took the lead. He telephoned Namath's lawyer, Jim Walsh, and suggested that he and Joe meet the following afternoon. On Tuesday, July 15, Namath appeared at the commissioner's apartment about 2 p.m., remained until 7, left, then came back at 10 for two more hours of discussion. "Our conversations never reached heated proportions," Rozelle said afterward. "They were low-key and amiable." On Wednesday the two talked again over the telephone, and that night Namath slipped secretly out to Hofstra, where he met with his teammates in their dressing room to reiterate his side of the story in detail.
The Jets were in the dark as much as everyone else. Early in the week Defensive Captain Johnny Sample, acting as the team's official spokesman, had demanded that the commissioner come out to Hofstra and tell the Jets exactly what Namath had done wrong. Rozelle thought the timing was bad. "I didn't want to go out there while Joe and I were discussing this situation and do anything that might disrupt the satisfactory solution to a very difficult problem," he said.
On Thursday Rozelle met for four hours with Walsh and, determined to clear everything up before the weekend, requested another meeting with Namath on Friday. Namath, booked on a 2 p.m. flight to Los Angeles, moved his reservation back five hours. Accompanied by Mike Bite, another of his attorneys, Namath walked into Rozelle's office at 3 o'clock Friday afternoon. "We reviewed the situation for about an hour and a half," Rozelle said. "There were no historic words. About 4:30 he just put out his hand, we shook and that was it."
Coach Weeb Ewbank, who had been trying to get his team—and especially 39-year-old backup Quarterback Babe Parilli—ready for the College All-Star Game in Chicago August 1, got the news just before leaving for dinner. A few minutes later he rose from his seat at the training table, tapped a glass with a spoon and told the Jets that Namath was selling his interest in Bachelors III and would be in camp Sunday night.
Still, everything isn't exactly super with the champions. A severe lack of communication between the players and management—Ewbank, in particular—was heightened last January when Assistant Coach Give Rush took a job as head coach of the Boston Patriots. Rush was the one man the Jets felt they could talk to candidly and, more important, he knew how to handle Broadway Joe. Ewbank, aware of this, last March hired Ken Meyer, an assistant coach at Alabama during Namath's college days, in a longshot hope that he can fill Rush's role.
All this is hardly a guarantee there will not be more fireworks involving the New York Jets this season, but—for the time being, at least—everybody is glad to see the white shoes back in the huddle. After all, that's where Joe Namath is at his best, regardless of what you may have heard.