Analysis

Pete Rozelle's big decision the product of another time

To understand how difficult it was to make the decision about whether or not to play NFL games on Nov. 24, 1963, you must understand how different news and television were 50 years ago.

I had just started working as a radio newswriter in Minneapolis. Radio was the primary source for breaking news for most people, and newspapers still had huge circulations. Television news primarily consisted of two programs -- the Huntley-Brinkley Report on NBC and the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite. ABC was not a serious competitor. Everything was in black and white, and if you wanted to change the channel, you had to get out of your chair and turn a knob on the set.

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News was shot on film, meaning it had to be physically transported to the television station, developed and edited before it could air -- a process that took a minimum of one hour and could take several. Sound film cameras were big -- think about carrying around a couple of cement blocks -- and could record a maximum of 12 minutes before changing the film was required. The only videotape machines were massive items, and tape had to be physically edited, a cumbersome process. To transmit news from anywhere, you had to order -- well in advance -- physical lines from AT&T. Most news was distributed by two wire services -- AP and UPI -- on machines that printed 60 words per minute. The news sat on the machine until someone went to read it. If you were in the field and wanted to make a call, you had to find a pay phone or talk someone into letting you use a private phone. And if you called someone and they were not there, there were no answering machines -- you had to keep calling until someone answered.

Why is all this important? The coverage and dissemination of news was slow (although the facts probably were more accurate) and this made the decision-making process slow as well. Parts of JFK's visit to Dallas were being covered locally only because the local stations decided to pool their resources. But NBC and CBS were not carrying the coverage. In fact, the networks were not even on the air -- stations were carrying their own local programming. It took some time for the national coverage to begin, but when it did begin, it went commercial-free for four days, the first time that had happened.

JFK was, for my generation, the first president who didn't look like he could be my father. He was young, he was funny and he had a beautiful wife. JFK also was the first "sports" president anyone of my generation knew. Eisenhower played golf, Truman walked and Roosevelt was limited by his paralysis due to polio. The Kennedy family played touch football on the lawn, sailed on Nantucket Sound and went on lengthy hikes. Kennedy actually played golf but refused to let that be filmed to draw a contrast with the Republicans.

Kennedy had intervened with the National Guard in 1961 to allow Paul Hornung to play for the Green Bay Packers in the NFL title game. He was conscious of his image as a young, sports-minded male, and people bought it.

Kennedy was assassinated around noon on a Friday. Nothing like this had ever happened in my lifetime. No one knew if this was an isolated incident or if there was a plot to assassinate other government officials (both the president and vice president were in Dallas); rumors were flying. In fact, the announcement of JFK's death was delayed to let Johnson get on his way to the airport and Air Force One. Even after Johnson was sworn in and back in D.C., no one was sure what was happening.

So, NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle had to weigh all this and make a decision in a short amount of time, consulting with a number of people who gave him differing opinions. In the end, NFL games were played, although there was no television coverage of them. And Rozelle later said he had made the wrong decision.

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