OPINION: Rabalais – Without Louisiana, The Modern NFL Would Not Exist

It has been four days since the Saints and Rams clashed in the Superdome. We’ve all seen the replays of that pass interference no-call countless times already. By this point, the painful image is just burned into our memories. 

While much has been said this week about the relationship between the Who Dat Nation and the authorities over at the National Football League, lost somewhere in the opinions and outrage is an important fact. 

Had it not been for some savvy Louisiana politicians, the modern billion-dollar behemoth that is the NFL would not exist at all. 

Back in 1966, the league did not have the monopoly on professional football that it enjoys today. They had a rival at that time. The American Football League (AFL) played games on the same fall schedule, fielded comparable talent and drew equivalent television audiences. 

In addition, the two leagues were embroiled in a costly bidding war over players that threatened to bankrupt them both. 

Seeking a détente, then-NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle negotiated a settlement. According to America’s Game by Michael MacCambridge, the agreement specified that two leagues would merge into one, teams would play in conferences and meet in a final championship game, the Super Bowl. 

However, Rozelle could not merge the leagues by simply negotiating a contract. Since the move would give the NFL a monopoly on professional football, the leagues had to get congressional approval of the deal. 

When approached, Congressman Emmanuel Celler, a crusty New Yorker who chaired the committee with oversight of the matter, immediately shot the commissioner down. 

But Rozelle was undeterred by Celler’s opposition and began lobbying the members of the committee personally. In an attempt to reach Congressman Joe D. Waggonner of Shreveport, he called Dave Dixon, a New Orleans businessman who was his contact in the Bayou State. 

According to Dixon’s memoirs, he told the commissioner that unfortunately he didn’t know Waggonner, but was more than happy to put him in touch with his fraternity brother from Tulane, House Majority Whip Hale Boggs. 

After introductions and a few meetings, the wily Boggs laid out a deal for Rozelle. He would get the merger bill out of Celler’s committee and pass it in the House. Senate Finance Chairman Russell Long would then add the measure onto one of President Lyndon Johnson’s favored tax bills and get it through the upper chamber. Both Boggs and Long would also get themselves appointed to the conference committee revising the bill just to make sure nothing went wrong. 

But the senator and the congressman had an asking price for their political labors. In return for passing Rozelle’s bill, they wanted an NFL team to be placed in New Orleans as soon as possible. The commissioner was eager to get his measure approved and reached some semblance of a handshake deal with the men before leaving Capitol Hill. 

However, when Rozelle met with Boggs in the Rotunda on the day of the vote, he told the whip that he didn’t know how to thank him. 

“What do you mean you don’t know how to thank me?”a puzzled Boggs asked. “New Orleans gets an immediate franchise.” 

The commissioner came back with a non-committal response. 

Irritated, Boggs threatened to delay the vote until the commitment was more concrete. Faced with the prospect of a costly setback, Rozelle agreed to the terms on the spot.

The NFL bill passed on Oct. 21, 1966. New Orleans was awarded a franchise on Nov. 1. Less than three months later, the Green Bay Packers and the Kansas City Chiefs played in the first Super Bowl. 

It is safe to say that without the efforts of Hale Boggs and Russell Long, there would have been no merger between the NFL and the AFL. Without that merger, there is no way that the league today would be making billions of dollars off of things such as TV contracts, state-of-the-art stadiums and merchandising.   

More importantly, if the deal had failed, the Super Bowl would have never existed. Without playing that annual game, it is highly likely that the NFL would never have eclipsed Major League Baseball as America’s favorite sport. 

The NFL owes Louisiana…big time. Without us, they wouldn’t be who they are today.

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