In 2017, the commercials that ran during the Super Bowl cost sponsors in the neighborhood of $175,000 per second. Viewing parties chowed down on 1.33 billion chicken wings and nearly 30 million slices of pizza from Domino’s and Pizza Hut alone, chasing them with $2.4 billion in alcohol. Combine those numbers with stratospheric ticket prices, and any reasonable observer would conclude that the Super Bowl embodies consumer capitalism at its zenith.
Conservatives within the game have proudly argued that football tutors spectators in these capitalist virtues. Quarterback-turned-congressman Jack Kemp celebrated football as “democratic capitalism” in action; Fran Tarkenton, who incorporated himself as a business and published three books by age 30, called the game “part of our free enterprise system.”
But this has never been true. As former Cleveland Browns owner Art Modell once remarked, the NFL is run by “a bunch of fat-cat Republicans who vote socialist on football.” According to Harvard Business School’s Rosabeth Moss Kanter, few industry associations have more effectively wielded the power of collective advantage. In fact, it was not competition, but rather the NFL’s historic ability to scheme its way around competition — with encouragement from the government and fans — that enabled the creation of the Super Bowl.
In spring 1966, Tex Schramm, general manager of the NFL’s Cowboys, and Lamar Hunt, owner of the American Football League’s Chiefs, agreed that the free market was killing professional football. The best college players could pit the two leagues against one another, sparking competition for talent that produced skyrocketing salaries, most notoriously Joe Namath’s then-record $427,000 contract with the Jets. Veteran players could increase their pay by jumping leagues or by merely threatening to do so.
A merger, Hunt and Schramm decided, would save the owners from themselves by depriving players of leverage: With only one league, there could be no more deals like Namath’s because players would have to abide by the results of the draft instead of weighing a competing offer from the other league. And without the merger, “weak teams like Denver and Boston as well, perhaps, as Kansas City, Pittsburgh and Miami could not long survive a protracted money war,” an NFL spokesman admitted.
In June, Hunt, Schramm and NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle publicly revealed their plan to fold the AFL into the NFL, pay indemnities to the Giants and 49ers (who faced local competition from the Jets and Raiders) and play a championship game. Unfortunately, this plan had a problem: The proposed merger clearly violated the Sherman Antitrust Act.
But within three months, a bill greenlighting the plan made its way through the U.S. Senate. The swift passage of this legislation exposed how eagerly members of the Senate, hoping to lure professional football to their states, did the NFL’s bidding. According to President Lyndon B. Johnson’s special assistant for legislative relations, Lawrence O’Brien, public interest, “fanned by media,” created overwhelming legislative force.
It was the latest in federally sanctioned legal tweaks that, according to one economist, boosted professional football by standing “in stark contrast to American capitalism.” These included the draft of college players after 1935, which denied them the right to choose their employers; a ban on televising home games in 1953, which prevented TV stations from presenting the programs their audiences most desired; and leaguewide TV contracts in 1961, which treated the league as a single entity rather than as competing businesses. At the prompting of President John F. Kennedy, Congress hurriedly legitimized these contracts to ensure professional football’s survival, as long as “such agreement increases rather than decreases the number of professional football clubs so operating.”
The rush toward a merger stalled thanks to Rep. Emanuel Celler of Brooklyn, chair of the House antitrust and monopoly subcommittee. The Senate had signed off without even holding a public hearing. But Celler suspected that the new entity, which enjoyed “virtually unlimited power over a group of employees,” would benefit neither league’s workforce.
Rozelle, the football commissioner, tried the usual arguments on Celler, testifying that “substantially the same basis of economic opportunity” would exist, and a common draft would foster parity among teams and slow runaway salaries. He produced more than four single-spaced pages of supportive statements from newspapers and players, most of them veterans arguing that the huge bonuses to rookies produced by interleague competition damaged team morale. With the leagues merged, rookies would lose their bargaining power and these bonuses would drop. The NFL’s legal counsel added that antitrust law protected consumers and, “in this instance, the ultimate consumer [interest] favors this transaction.”
Dubious, Celler dug his feet in.
But powerful forces lined up behind the NFL. Most of Celler’s committee supported the bill. Democrats and Republicans alike agreed that stopping the merger would disappoint millions. The promise of future competitiveness for their local teams drove much of this support. Colorado’s Byron Rogers noted that the Broncos had won just one game that season but could “compete on more even terms with other franchises” with the law’s aid, and Minnesota’s Clark MacGregor, a “rabid fan” of the winless Vikings, agreed that the legislation would help his favorite team.
Missouri’s Stuart Symington exposed the more unseemly side of the political pressure on Cellar. In 1965, Symington had sent Hunt, the Chiefs owner, a note thanking him for moving his team from Dallas to Kansas City and pledging assistance if Hunt ever needed it. The next summer, Hunt called in the marker, asking for help to muscle the merger bill through.
Even before Hunt’s note, Symington was carrying water for the league, forwarding Celler a telegram from his “prominent constituents and my good friends” who owned the St. Louis Cardinals, asking that he hold hearings as soon as possible. Two months later, he sent Celler a Kansas City Star editorial supporting the merger with a note hoping “we can work this one out. … Anything you could do to expedite this legislation would be deeply appreciated by every Missourian.”
Rozelle threatened that congressional delay imperiled “the super game” (as AFL Commissioner Milt Woodard dubbed it) the following January. Schramm, of the Cowboys, added that Celler failed to grasp that “the nature of our business makes it essential that we maintain a competitive balance between the teams.” The vast majority of citizens who wrote Celler agreed that, somehow, at the height of the Cold War, this sort of anti-competitive behavior actually defined American values. “Since this fine sport is enjoyed by so many and epitomizes our wonderful America almost more than anything I know,” a man from Dallas begged; he hoped the chairman would reconsider.
Most NFL and AFL players disagreed. Players for the Browns and Oilers voted unanimously to oppose the merger, and desperate telegrams from players on the Giants (“fear of repercussions from owners prevents listing of our names”), Raiders, Chargers, Eagles, Redskins, the president of the NFL Players Association, the Association’s legal counsel and the AFL Players Association’s general counsel bombarded House Majority Whip Hale Boggs, begging for time to make their opposition clear. None got the chance.
Instead, “Pete found a way, as usual,” to outmaneuver Celler, as one team owner marveled. Rozelle shrewdly dangled the carrot of a team in front of politicians longing to bring football to their cities. Most crucially, the NFL appeased powerful Louisiana politicians — including Boggs — who had been lobbying strenuously for a franchise for New Orleans for more than a year.
In exchange for the league granting their wish, New Orleans native Boggs and another Louisianian, Senate Majority Whip Russell Long, subverted the opposition from Celler and the player by attaching the merger approval to a budget bill favored by the Johnson administration. The savvy Boggs ensured that he couldn’t be double crossed by holding up the bill’s passage until Rozelle guaranteed New Orleans a franchise; his son later confirmed the quid pro quo involved.
The maneuver worked. Cellar’s last attempt to stall the merger failed, and the NFL as we know it today — and the Super Bowl — launched.
Rozelle extolled the virtues of the NFL’s noncompetitive measures. In congressional testimony, he repeatedly emphasized the fact that the Packers, “from a community with some 78,000 people,” had nonetheless produced “one of the finest football teams in the history of professional football,” as proof. Super Bowl I, a 35-10 Green Bay blowout of Hunt’s Chiefs, certainly testified to that.
Success or failure, however, it’s a useful reminder that to this day the NFL, despite staging one of America’s biggest yearly capitalist bonanzas, is — if you own a team — actually a government-sanctioned socialist utopia.