With 2¾ years to run on his sentence, Pete Rozelle opted for parole. For more than 29 years he had been commissioner of the NFL, the best commissioner in the history of sport, many people felt. Franchises were selling for SI million or so when he took over in 1960. The last one to change hands, the Dallas Cowboys, went for a reported $140 million-plus last month. Rozelle brought pro football into the living room and into prime time. He negotiated TV contracts that now guarantee each team close to $17 million a year. He successfully lobbied Congress for the revenue-sharing plan that made the owners rich. He gave reporters an endless supply of copy, always handling his press conferences with style, class and humor.
This is an article from the April 3, 1989 issue
Then came the lawsuits, the endless rounds of depositions and court dates, the lawyers who would get a little publicity for themselves by attacking the NFL and its commissioner, owners who sued one another and the league (or threatened to), a Management Council that couldn't, or wouldn't, make a collective-bargaining agreement with the players. Rozelle's term as commissioner had become a prison sentence. So on a brilliantly sunny day last week in Palm Desert, Calif., he told the world what he had told his wife, Carrie, five months earlier. After 29 years, he had had it. No màs.
As a 22-year-old student-publicist at the University of San Francisco, he would walk into a newspaper office with an armful of releases and try to hustle up space, any kind of space, for his Dons. Rozelle remained a fan, and he loved nothing better than sitting around swapping stories about Gino Marchetti or Ollie Matson. Then the job wasn't fun anymore. Where's the fun in a lawyer's office or a courtroom?
"I didn't want to die in office like Bert Bell did before me," he said on March 23, the day after he announced his retirement at the NFL spring meetings in Palm Desert. "I'm 63.1 can't remember the last time Carrie and I had a real vacation. I've got to get out while I can enjoy some years without stress."
But why the urgency? Why not finish the term that would have ended after the 1991 season? "Because now, in my 60s. I realize that I'm not going to get everything cleared up," he said. "I look back on the 1960s and 1970s as. well, the Eisenhower years compared with the '80s. Sure, we had problems, but nothing compared with what followed. All those days dealing with lawyers—-you're playing defense all the time rather than working on anything constructive. My eyes were bloodshot. I wasn't getting enough rest. I looked bad, felt bad. I was smoking two packs of cigarettes a day. I asked myself. Is that all there is to life—work, die and never experience retirement? I wanted at least a few years of leisure without stress."
After enduring three court cases in six years—two involving the Raiders' move to Los Angeles, in 1981-82, and then the USFL trial in '86—he looked terrible. The old image of the suave, nicely tanned young man was gone. "Hell, I haven't had enough sun to get a tan since the 1970s," he says. He always looked tired. Sometimes he slurred his words. An NFL assistant would have to prompt him. How many years could he goon like that?
"What you saw," says Carrie, "was the combination of fatigue plus cigarettes. He says he smoked two packs a day. but during that period it was probably three, maybe even more. He'd devote a whole day to depositions, to attorneys who didn't understand sports or couldn't care less about football. He'd come home at night and go to bed at around 11:30—he always wanted to watch the 11 o'clock news—and two hours later he'd be up, roaming around, smoking one cigarette after another, working things out on a legal pad."
The start of a new season was generally an upper for Rozelle. But when the '88 season began, he faced a daunting stack of problems—the unresolved collective-bargaining agreement, the drug controversies, the growing specter of steroids and even a threat to his authority. Tampa Bay Bucs owner Hugh Culver-house had gained enormous influence during his 13 years in the league, and he had become the dominant force in the six-member Executive Committee of owners, which oversees the Management Council's dealings with the Players Association. An insurgent group led by Cleveland Browns owner Art Modell was preparing to mount a challenge to Culverhouse's power in an attempt to resolve the impasse with the players. The owners were a house divided.
"It really got to Pete last fall," says Carrie. "It finally reached the point where he was sick and tired of going to the office every day and dealing with problems that couldn't be resolved and trying to keep these people from killing each other off."
So one day in October he decided to quit. He asked Carrie to sit on his decision for five months, until he could tell the owners as a group at their annual meetings. He said he owed it to the people who employed him to tell them before he told anyone else outside the family.
He told his daughter, Anne, and his stepchildren in December. A week before the spring meetings were to begin, on March 14, Rozelle called his longtime friend Wellington Mara, the owner of the Giants, and set up a meeting for the next day in the Manhattan office of Jet owner Leon Hess. "Leon negotiated my last contract," says Rozelle. "I wanted to work out a consultant's contract this time, should the league want me to stay on in that capacity."
"The meeting was for 10 a.m.," says Mara, "but I got there early. My first thought was that it was something involving the two New York teams. Pete said he wanted to talk to us face-to-face, not over the phone. Then he told us that after 29 years he was leaving. My first reaction was shock, the kind of feeling we've come to expect lately—how many more things can go wrong now? Pete broke down once or twice, but the real sadness of it didn't fully hit me until he told the entire owners' body a week later. That's when I got misty-eyed, along with everyone else."
Rozelle told his staff shortly after noon on March 22, just before the owners went into an executive session. His announcement to the owners took barely more than a minute. He had tears in his eyes when he left the room. Raider owner Al Davis, Rozelle's bitterest foe, shook his hand on the way out and then embraced him. Rozelle went directly to a press conference, which lasted 10 minutes, until someone asked him, "Was it very emotional when you told the owners?" Rozelle broke down.
There was a rush to the pay phones. "No, we don't have enough tape," said a TV man. "How the hell did I know this was coming?"
Mara then spoke to the reporters, saying, as his voice broke, "I believe Pete Rozelle forevermore will be the standard by which all sports commissioners will be judged."
A six-man search committee was formed to pick a successor. Mara, the NFC president, and Kansas City owner Lamar Hunt, his AFC counterpart, are heading it. The rest of the group consists of Modell, Buffalo owner Ralph Wilson, Pittsburgh president Dan Rooney and outgoing Green Bay president Robert Parins. The idea is to find a commissioner by the start of the 1989 season. Rozelle will remain in office until the new man takes over and will serve as a consultant "for as long as he feels I'm needed."
"I'm going to propose something I've thought about for some time," says Modell. "Divide the areas. First, get rid of the Management Council, which has been totally ineffective, and appoint a league man to deal with labor-management concerns. He'll be the owners' representative. Hire someone else to deal with the game itself, the integrity of the game, drugs, steroids, whatever. A Whizzer White type. It's too much to ask of one person to do everything. We shouldn't have asked that of Pete."
"You need a litigation specialist to take that kind of pressure off the office of commissioner," says Bob Wallace, counsel to the Cardinals. "Then I think you need two league presidents who are really presidents, as they are in baseball, not just club owners who happen to have the title, as in the NFL."
"It should be like a president and his cabinet," says San Francisco general manager and former coach Bill Walsh, "with the areas divided, but one chief executive who's clearly in charge."
Dividing the commissioner's duties among two or more executives makes sense. The NFL is a far different league from the one the 33-year-old Rozelle captivated in 1960. One man shouldn't have to deal with the conduct of the game itself and its finances and its litigation, which will start again when the Players Association's antitrust suit goes to trial in November.
Walsh was one of the people mentioned early as a possible commissioner, however the job is defined. "That's clearly speculative," he said. "There will be hundreds of names brought up, every day a different one."
The name mentioned longest and loudest last week was that of former AFL quarterback Jack Kemp, who is now secretary of housing and urban development. He quickly stated that he was "happy in his job." A year ago he had said he would welcome being commissioner.
Only one current NFL executive has ever been a league commissioner. Davis briefly headed the AFL before the 1966 merger with the NFL. He is well versed in all football matters, including litigation. He successfully sued the NFL and was a witness for the USFL in its suit against the league. Some team executives said privately that he would make a terrific commissioner, but it is hard to imagine the owners going for someone who played a leading role in causing Rozelle's resignation.
What will be Rozelle's legacy? Solvency, certainly. And parity. He envisioned a league in which the rich would never gobble up the poor, in which football would be decided on the field instead of in the bank. And public awareness. No one ever promoted a sport more effectively.
But decency was always there, too. Rozelle loved the game, and he shepherded it through the 29 most dramatic years of its history. He chose to leave it before it destroyed him.