The day after President John F. Kennedy was shot in Dallas in 1963, National Football League commissioner Pete Rozelle announced that the games would go on that weekend, and unleashed a firestorm of criticism. Years later, Rozelle would say it was one of the few calls during his tenure he'd like to have back.
Over the coming days, his successor, Paul Tagliabue, may have as difficult a choice: to play or not to play if the United States goes to war. From all indications, it will be business as usual for the NFL and the television networks that broadcast its games, with occasional interruptions from news divisions to intrude on America's football fixation.
NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said yesterday the league is exploring all its options, from worst-case scenario to no-case scenario if peace prevails. "Circumstances will dictate what we do," he said. Later in the day, the league announced in a brief statement it is "planning to complete the remaining postseason games as scheduled. If events during the next three weeks lead us to reevaluate our plans, we will make an announcement to that effect at that time."
Aiello did say that a headline in the current issue of Advertising Age -- "Gulf War Could Delay Super Bowl" -- was "inaccurate and terribly misleading. . . . We'll stick to our statement" on the remaining playoff schedule "and leave interpretation to other people."
Dennis Chase, executive editor of Advertising Age, said in response: "I don't think it's inaccurate and misleading. What we heard from their spokesman was that under certain conditions they would consider postponing it. We asked it several different ways. The only response we got was that 'we are considering all our options.' That to me, that's a code word for considering postponing the Super Bowl."
Meanwhile network sports executives and publicists were scrambling all over one another yesterday to say that their news divisions will always make the final decision on whether to cut away from a game for a news conference or a breaking bulletin, or stay with the limited mayhem out on the playing field.
In Monday's Washington Post, Style's TV columnist, Tom Shales, wrote that he believed CBS and NBC both fumbled the ball. CBS broke away from President Bush's news conference Saturday to pick up a slightly delayed kickoff of the Redskins-49ers game. And NBC did it on Sunday, leaving an impromptu presidential news conference on the White House lawn before the start of the Raiders-Bengals game in Los Angeles.
Tagliabue and his aides worked with network sports officials to delay the kickoffs of both games, but in both cases, decisions were made by news divisions to leave the president and go back to the games. That's exactly how it should be -- news executives calling the shots. But this time, their aim was badly off the mark.
Was it really that important to get back to fun and games before the president had stopped taking questions on a subject of vital concern to all of us? In fact, a spokesman for WUSA-TV-9 said the station registered virtually no complaints from viewers when the game did not come on as scheduled, a remarkable occurrence in this town with the Redskins involved. Similarly, there were no calls to The Washington Post sports department about the delay.
Terry O'Neil, executive producer of NBC Sports, said the sports division had no input into the decision to cut away from Bush.
"News has priority on NBC's air at all times, no matter what the scheduled program," he said. "There's no debate, no discussion, they don't have to ask for permission. . . . That's properly the way it should be. No one resists it. The news division and war, by a factor of a million, is a higher priority than football."
Similarly, Susan Kerr, spokesman for CBS Sports, said: "Sports is going to abide by any decision made by CBS News. It's CBS News's decision to decide if it merits coverage, it's the NFL's decision on the time of their kickoff. They are the policymakers."
The NFL knows all of this is a touchy subject, and is trying to tread as lightly as possible. The league says that it does have contingency plans in event of war, but that it is premature to make any final decisions.
Quite obviously the NFL has many concerns. Do you play football games at a time when soldiers are being killed in combat? Do you cut back on the excess of Super Bowl week -- the parties, the gaudy pregame and halftime shows -- while the nation is at war? And what about adding to the already massive security arrangements for such a high-profile event?
The league already is pointing to precedent for playing its remaining games should war develop. "Look back at history," said Aiello. "Sports and entertainment continues and is expected to continue for the morale of the people at home and for the troops. That's not to say the game is played no matter what, but we'll just have to wait and see."
On Jan. 15, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt wrote to Judge Landis, the commissioner of baseball, urging him not to suspend the season because of World War II.
"There will be fewer people unemployed and everyone will work longer hours and harder than anybody before," Roosevelt wrote. "Here is another way of looking at it: If 300 teams use 5,000 or 6,000 players, these players are a definite recreational asset to at least 20 million of their fellow citizens -- and that, in my judgment, is thoroughly worthwhile."
Forty-nine years later, the NFL is hitching its wagon to the same concept. Hopefully, the league, in concert with network news and sports executives, will keep it in that same context, even if it means blowing a kickoff, even if it means postponing a game.