The NFL’s controversial decision to play on after JFK’s assassination

Like tens of millions of Americans, NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle was distraught about the assassination of President John F. Kennedy on a Friday in late November 1963. But he compounded his troubles by making a fateful decision — to play that Sunday’s slate of games just two days later.

“It has been traditional in sports for athletes to perform in times of great personal tragedy,” Rozelle said in a statement Nov. 23, the day after JFK was assassinated in Dallas. “Football was Mr. Kennedy’s game. He thrived on competition.”

Rozelle, who was 37 at the time and known for his astute PR skills, took a beating in the press for a decision he would later call his worst as commissioner.

New York Herald Tribune columnist Red Smith wrote that Rozelle “hung up the business-as-usual sign within hours of Mr. Kennedy’s death. For that exercise in tasteless stupidity there is neither excuse nor defense as nothing could illustrate more clearly than the banal, empty phrases with which Rozelle sought to justify the decision.”

Rozelle knew Kennedy personally and had shepherded a bill through Congress that provided the NFL (and other pro sports) a crucial antitrust exemption for broadcasting that Kennedy signed into law in his first year as president. When Rozelle heard the news about the assassination, he tracked down White House press secretary Pierre Salinger, a friend from their days as University of San Francisco students.

“We’ve got planes with the players ready to get in the air, and I don’t know when the services will be. What can you tell me?” Rozelle asked Salinger on the day of JFK’s assassination, as he related in a 1994 New York Times interview, two years before his death at 70.

“I think you should go ahead and play the games,” Salinger replied, according to Rozelle.

Rozelle recalled that he thought more about it after hanging up.

“I discussed it with everyone in the office,” he said. “Late that afternoon, I made the decision. I had to — our teams were calling; they wanted to know what to do.”

‘We’ve got to cancel the games’

The NFL wasn’t the only entity that faced a decision. Some leagues — such as the NFL’s rival, the American Football League — shut down out of respect. Other leagues, such as the NBA and NHL, went forward with at least some of their games that weekend, including a few contests the day after the assassination. But Rozelle’s decision got an outsize reaction because football was far more popular than basketball or hockey and was on the verge of eclipsing baseball as the country’s most popular sport.

College football, for the most part, took a different route than the NFL.

“President Kennedy’s alma mater, Harvard, led the way yesterday in the postponement and cancellations of sports events scheduled for this weekend,” The Washington Post reported Nov. 23. “The traditional Harvard-Yale football game, a sports spectacle dear to the heart of the sports-loving late president, was called off just minutes after JFK’s assassination.”

The paper reported that Michigan State turned down a request from Gov. George Romney — a Republican and father of future GOP Sen. Mitt Romney — to postpone its game against Illinois. But the game wound up being postponed, along with more than 75 percent of major college football games, the Times reported the following day.

Tim Kaine: Kennedy’s death seen through a 5-year-old’s eyes

Some NFL owners disagreed with Rozelle’s decision.

“I think we’ve got to cancel the games,” Pittsburgh Steelers chairman Dan Rooney told him before Rozelle spoke with Salinger, Rooney recounted in a 2013 interview with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

About an hour later, Rozelle called him back.

“He said Pierre said that Jack would have liked for us to play and that he felt this would be good for the nation and for the people, to get a diversion,” recalled Rooney, who died in 2017. “I said I thought this was too big a story, that what happened was just too big. Too big of an historical fact. I just felt we shouldn’t do it. We talked more, and he said he was leaning toward playing and finally I said, ‘Okay, look, I disagree with you, but I’ll back you, whatever you do.’ ”

The Washington Redskins and Philadelphia Eagles requested that their game in Philadelphia be postponed. The mayor of Philadelphia also urged a postponement. There wasn’t much at stake: The Redskins had a 2-8 record, and the Eagles were 2-7-1.

“He told me he had made his decision and he was sticking with it,” Redskins vice president C. Leo DeOrsey said, The Post reported at the time.

DeOrsey added: “President Johnson has proclaimed Monday as the day of mourning but President Kennedy’s body lies in state in the nation’s capital where we are citizens. I think our situation is different.”

Eagles President Frank McNamee said he would bow to “orders” but that he wouldn’t attend the game — the first home game he would miss in 15 years. Instead, he said he would attend a Kennedy memorial service at Independence Hall.

In a Washington Post column headlined, “A.F.L. Shows Maturity, Shames N.F.L.,” Shirley Povich wrote that the NFL was saved from “an even more embarrassing decision” with the Redskins on the road.

“Suppose the Redskins were scheduled to play in Washington that day, instead of Philadelphia, and only 20 blocks from the Capitol rotunda where, at the game hour, the nation’s leaders were in public bereavement before the coffin of the late President, with millions glued to television?” he wrote. “How unseemly would have been a pro football game with its sounds echoing from nearby.”

In his book, “America’s Game: The Epic Story of How Pro Football Captured a Nation,” Michael MacCambridge argued that Rozelle couldn’t have predicted the role that TV would play during that weekend of national grieving.

“The previous cataclysmic events that had been touchstones for most American lives — the attack on Pearl Harbor, FDR’s death or the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki — had been experienced through radio reports,” he wrote. “… But on that weekend of November 22-24, a nation sat in front of the television, watching itself mourn, and gaining a sense of itself in a way it never had before.”

Packed stadiums, mixed opinions

“Everyone has a different way of paying respects,” Rozelle said at Sunday’s game between the St. Louis Cardinals and New York Giants at Yankee Stadium in New York. “I went to church today, and I imagine many people here at the game did, too. I cannot feel that playing the game was disrespectful, nor can I feel that I have made a mistake.”

But three decades later, Rozelle conceded to the Times, “Obviously, it was a mistake.” He also said he had “brooded” over his decision the entire game.

“You have to understand, I was more than depressed over the assassination,” Rozelle recalled. “I had lost someone whom I’d respected as the leader of our country, but I was also a close friend of the Kennedy family.”

Robert Rauschenberg’s sad, silk-screened salute to JFK

In his book, MacCambridge described an encounter between Red Smith and Rozelle in the Yankee Stadium press box before the game.

“I think you’re doing the wrong thing,” Smith said.

“Why?” asked Rozelle.

“Because it shows disrespect for a dead president of the United States who isn’t even buried yet.”

That afternoon, as a horse-drawn caisson took JFK’s coffin from the White House to the Capitol Rotunda, where he lay in state, a sellout crowd of nearly 63,000 packed Yankee Stadium for the Giants-Cardinals game. In fact, even though many fans were upset about the NFL’s decision to play that weekend, thousands of others wound up filling seats from New York to Los Angeles. Four of the seven games were sellouts — including the battle for last place in the Eastern Conference between the Redskins and Eagles in Philadelphia. But the league’s broadcast partner, CBS, didn’t televise any of the action.

In Los Angeles, the Rams offered to refund fans for unused tickets — a first since the franchise moved from Cleveland, the Los Angeles Times reported. Owner Dan Reeves told the newspaper: “If we have offended anyone by playing today, we sincerely apologize. We meant no disrespect to President Kennedy’s memory.”

America’s (most hated) team

There was anger at Dallas because that’s where JFK had been killed, and the Dallas Cowboys were the target of some of that hatred. After the team arrived in Cleveland for a game against the Browns, airport baggage handlers and hotel employees refused to handle the Cowboys’ bags, MacCambridge wrote, citing a recollection by Cowboys defensive tackle Bob Lilly.

“We were [viewed as] killers, [as though] we had killed the president,” Dallas tight end Pettis Norman later said, according to a 2021 story. “It was amazing. I just could not believe that.”

Even some Browns players shared that view.

“This city, Dallas, killed our president,” Browns offensive lineman John Wooten told NBC’s Bob Costas in 2013. “That was the feeling that we had. We wanted to get after Dallas.”

Before the game, there was more shocking news from back home: Jack Ruby had shot Lee Harvey Oswald, the presidential assassin, live on national TV.

“There was a tiny television in the visitors’ locker room at Cleveland Stadium,” Cowboys quarterback Eddie LeBaron told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram in 2008. “We had just come back in from [pregame] warmup when we saw Oswald get shot by Jack Ruby.”

He advised his teammates: “Put your helmets on — and keep ’em on.”

Browns owner Art Modell told the public address announcer to refer to the visiting team as simply the Cowboys, leaving out the city, and ordered extra security to protect them.

Five years later, JFK’s brother, Robert F. Kennedy, would also be slain by an assassin, just moments after winning the 1968 California Democratic presidential primary. Like the NFL, Major League Baseball blundered ahead and went forward with games the weekend of his funeral. That sparked a mini-rebellion among some players who refused to play.

In 1963, there were football players who doubtless felt the same way. But the early part of the decade was a far different era than the more activist late 1960s. There was no NFL player walkout.

In a Sports Illustrated piece 20 years ago, Charles P. Pierce wrote that “players around the league began to rebel, in their hearts if not on the field.”

On the morning of Sunday, Nov. 24, The Post published a story about the effort by the Redskins and Eagles to postpone their game. It quoted a member of the “official Redskin party” expressing his lack of power.

“You know what they say about big business,” the person said. “I’m just a little man trying to make a living. I can’t say anything.”

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