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The End Run That Gave Us The Super Bowl

By Daniel Rapoport

Sunday, January 30, 2000; Page B01

Professional football--especially its premier event, the Super Bowl--is awash in money these days. The National Football League's creative marketers deserve much of the credit for the bountiful times now enjoyed by owners, players and the television networks. Eager advertisers are paying an average of $2.2 million for a 30-second spot during today's Super Bowl XXXIV broadcast (that's more than $73,000 per second) and fans have forked over hundreds of dollars to attend the event in Atlanta's Georgia Dome. Let the good times roll.

But an argument can be made that there would be no Super Bowl at all--imagine that!--if not for the strong arms of a couple of Louisiana lawmakers skilled in the art of political log rolling and back-room negotiation. More than 30 years ago, as part of a deal that brought a football franchise to New Orleans, the pair helped cement a merger of the upstart American Football League (AFL) and the established National Football League (NFL). A few months later, the two league champions met for the first time ever. That much-anticipated grudge match was, in effect, Super Bowl I.

This legislative end run brought howls of protests from players of the day, who argued their earnings would suffer in a merged league. But the average NFL salary this season was close to $1 million. Should that be seen as a ringing endorsement of big mergers? Not quite, as the full story shows.

The tale begins in 1966, when professional football was teetering on the brink of financial self-destruction. The six-year-old AFL had proven to be a more durable competitor for star players than the NFL had anticipated. (In 1965, the AFL's New York Jets had snared the University of Alabama's Joe Namath with a $400,000 contract, the most ever paid to a rookie at the time.) The bidding war threatened the stability of both leagues.

Club owners concluded that unification was their only salvation. It would allow them to regain control of players' salaries, parcel out franchises and command a strong bargaining position in negotiating TV deals. But one obstacle stood in the way: Lawyers advised the owners that their plans were a clear-cut violation of antitrust laws. They needed a legislative exemption if they wanted to merge.

NFL lobbyists went right to work. In no time, they succeeded in winning Senate approval of a merger bill. The House, however, proved to be a much tougher challenge. Standing in the way was the estimable chairman of its Judiciary Committee--Emanuel Celler, a 78-year-old Brooklyn Democrat. Celler was not only a stern guardian of the nation's antitrust laws; he had never forgiven organized baseball for allowing Walter O'Malley to move the Brooklyn Dodgers to Los Angeles. Celler kept the Senate-passed bill bottled up in his committee.

By mid-October, with Congress shooting for an Oct. 22 adjournment, the measure was given up for dead by virtually all knowledgeable observers--with the exception of Louisiana Sen. Russell Long. Son of the legendary Huey Long and nephew of onetime governor Earl Long, the wily Democrat had read the gloomy headlines about the merger bill. He remembered that New Orleans was one of seven cities competing for the single expansion franchise the NFL was planning to grant in the coming year.

Long invited NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle up to his Watergate apartment for a chat. "We talked about matters of the day," recalled Long a few years later. "One of the matters was the merger. I showed him how it could be done. Of course, there was a small consideration. The next franchise was to go to New Orleans. Rozelle said that if the merger went through, New Orleans would get it."

As chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, Long was in charge of a tax bill vitally important to the Johnson administration. Why not attach the merger bill to the tax bill, and send it over to the House where a friend of the consolidation would take over?

Long arranged for the amendment to be brought up during what he called "the cocktail hour," that time of day when weary senators, including antitrust zealots, retreated to various watering holes just off the Senate floor. In their absence, the Senate passed the amended bill and sent it to the House where Rep. Hale Boggs, a Louisiana compatriot, was waiting to escort it through the chamber. Boggs was the Democratic Whip and the ranking majority member of the Ways and Means Committee, the panel that controls all tax legislation--and he was from New Orleans, where he was facing a stiff Republican challenge in the following month's election. Bringing professional football to New Orleans wouldn't hurt. Long went to Ways and Means chairman Wilbur Mills and pleaded with him to accept the amendment.

"Hale said, 'You've got to take this,' " recalls Gary Hymel, who was Boggs's principal aide then. 'The Republicans are out to get me. I need this to save me.' "

Mills agreed. But before proceeding, Boggs wanted to make sure Louisiana and the NFL understood each other. He met Rozelle just off the House floor. As Boggs later related it to Hymel, he told Rozelle that things were looking good.

"Great, Hale, that's great."

"Just for the record, Pete, I assume we can say the franchise for New Orleans is firm."

"Well, it looks good, Hale, but you know it still has to be approved by the owners. I can't make any promises on my own."

Boggs glared at Rozelle. Then he smiled and said, very deliberately, "Well, Pete, why don't you just go back and check with the owners? I'll hold things up here till you get back."

Rozelle quickly decided he could indeed speak for the owners. "That's all right," he assured Boggs. "You can count on their approval."

The House approved the merger on Oct. 21, 1966. On Nov. 1--All Saints Day--Long, Boggs and Rozelle held a news conference in New Orleans to announce that the NFL had granted the city a franchise. The following Tuesday, Boggs easily won reelection. On Jan. 7, the franchise's owners dubbed their new team the New Orleans Saints. On Jan. 15, the NFL champion Green Bay Packers beat the AFL's Kansas City Chiefs 35-10 in the first Super Bowl. In 1970, the leagues completed consolidation and formally merged.

But it would be a mistake for advocates of today's high-profile mergers to portray the NFL-AFL union as a typical example of the good that flows from consolidation.

The Louisiana Caper was initially a defeat for the players. But like a football team that learns from its losses, the players rebounded. They turned their association into a full-fledged union, moved their headquarters to Washington and hired a lobbyist. They crushed the owners' subsequent attempts to further chip away at antitrust laws. They won bargaining concessions such as free agency and a guaranteed share of collective club revenues.

Their efforts--along with the power politics of Long and Boggs--changed professional sports, for better or worse.

Daniel Rapoport is a Washington writer who covered Congress for many years.

© Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company

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