One has to respect the NFL and its defense of its position in the world of commerce and industry. Despite the rejection of the league's antitrust exemption by the U.S. Supreme Court, the NFL is looking to protect its rights under the current system.
The NFL has cyclically faced challenges. Until the late 1950s, there were leagues loosely formed and viewed as a chance to make quick money and, if they didn't succeed, disappear as quickly as they came in existence.
The first legitimate threat came from the AFL (American Football League). The NFL was approached by a handful of affluent businessmen who saw football as the game of the future, replacing baseball as the sport Americans would be most passionate about. The NFL was content with its place in the sports world and wasn't interested in expanding into markets like Kansas City, Houston, Buffalo, Dallas and the Twin Cities. Enough of these jilted millionaires (big money back then) got together and said if the NFL won't take them in, let's take them on. The rivalry between the leagues was cutthroat at best.
The Vikings and Cowboys both celebrated their 50th anniversary seasons in 2010 – although neither is bragging up that fact anymore, given their postseason meeting in 2009 that had both teams expecting huge 2010 success. Why were they both in their 50th season at the same time? The NFL promised both ownership groups that, if they pulled out of becoming a franchise with the fledgling AFL in 1959, they would make them NFL expansion franchises in 1961. Both were slated to be in the charter AFL. Who wouldn't take that offer? You can roll the dice on a potential fly-by-night franchise that may succeed and just as likely may fail or you can get your foot in the door to the big time with the established NFL – which was guaranteed to never be on the verge of financial collapse.
The Vikings' Gang of 10 ownership posse was brilliant to make the move. Dallas owner Clint Murchison, who was steeped in Mafia connections, wasn't the kind of owner the NFL would likely approve today. A behind-the-scenes political giant in the muddy world of Texas politics, he was tied closely with FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover in an orchestrated plan to smear the name of Democratic Presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson. Hoover backed up his relationship with Murchison by heavily investing in his oil business. However, in 1955, a U.S. Senate committee disclosed that 20 percent of the stock in the Murchison Oil Lease Company was owned by Vito Genovese – one of the most noteworthy Mafia bosses in the history of the country. He had the money the AFL needed. He had the power to get the attention of the NFL. When you have J. Edgar over for martinis, your enemies walk softly. He brought money and power.
The True Hollywood Story of the Vikings inclusion in the NFL was much simpler. Curly Lambeau and George Halas wanted nothing to do with the NFL. They split the market in Minnesota, Iowa and the Dakotas. You were a Bears fan or a Packers fan if you lived there. The last thing they wanted was a rival league in their yard. Dallas joined the NFL because Murchison, for good or bad, brought Texas oil money to the NFL. The Vikings appeased two aging icons – no more, no less.
The NFL never expected the competition to take root. They had faced challenges before from rival leagues throughout their history, but they were owned by sketchy cash-in-hand types and invariably failed by being viewed as an inferior product – a serious problem rival leagues faced before and since. If rival promotions, at that time akin to professional wrestling promotions, actually carved a niche in their community, they were absorbed into the NFL. The AFL was different. Its owners were, by and large, rich white guys that wanted into an exclusive club and couldn't get past the velvet rope. They were wealthy, healthy and ready to fight. The NFL was a content family-owned collection of businesses … perhaps too content.
The AFL went after the NFL the only way they could. Players, who were very much closer to the indentured servants Adrian Peterson recently misspoke about, weren't going to jump ship. The only established players that would move to the new league were guys who were told they had no future in the NFL. The early AFL was the Island of Misfit Toys – where trains with square wheels and Charlie-In-The-Boxes were commonplace. The AFL would have died early and quietly if not for one aspect the NFL never envisioned.
One of the tragedies of the American Dream is that, in 1960 when the AFL began playing, we lived in a vastly different society. At that time, in the South, Jim Crow ruled. African Americans weren't allowed in team hotels, fancy restaurants and, in many places, not even the same drinking fountain. One hundred years after Abraham Lincoln shook up the status quo, in the real world, if you were black, you were different. It was a stink that permeated society from top to bottom. The NFL was no exception.
The qualified African American college players were cut off from inclusion in the NFL. Those that couldn't be denied athletically were prized commodities. The rest of the roster was predominantly (very predominantly) white. The story goes – check it out with your favorite teams if you doubt it – the NFL had an unwritten rule once the color barrier was broken. It was that there would be an even number of black players on NFL teams. Players roomed together in training camp and when they played on the road. Teams had two African American players. They had four. Some even had six. But nobody had three, five or seven.
The AFL embraced players that had talent, taking race out of the equations. Players who couldn't make it in the NFL became stars in the AFL. All that was missing was their opportunity. The NFL referred to the AFL consistently as inferior to the NFL, but, in hindsight, the AFL did more to become the genetic DNA blueprint of the current NFL that there was. The AFL played its games head to head against the NFL. Initially, it was viewed as a lesser product. But, as a new generation of fans came to the game, the revolutions of the 1960s – politics, race, gender – all came to the forefront. Old-school football was a casualty of that psychological shift.
As a society, the 12-9 slobber-knockers in the NFL didn't make for great television. By contrast, 42-38 AFL shootouts were what the generation energized by the space race and the Kennedy Administration's youthful historical swing were the looking for. They didn't have Paul Hornung, but they passed the ball a lot. It was fun. The NFL was "your dad's league." The AFL wasn't.
The AFL was the first to seriously challenge the NFL's antitrust exemption. Their battle started in the courts, led by Al Davis (who was 50 percent more "mavericky" back then). The AFL was getting the attention of a lot of people, including Congress, which started to question football's status in antitrust discussion. They had competition, such quality competition that, to quiet down investigations and potential challenges to the NFL's antitrust authority, they did what all smart companies do. If you can't beat them, you join them. The leagues agreed to merge in 1966, but it didn't happen until the 1970 season. One byproduct of the merger was the recognition of the NFL Players Association (which had been in existence since 1956) into legitimate union status, alongside the Teamsters and AFL/CIO.
The NFL's greatest expansion came as the result of fears of losing in court and, in the process, losing their antitrust status. It wasn't the players that were the concern back then. It was other owners. Since then, everything has changed. The "us vs. them" scenario has had the owners in the "us" camp working as a united front to "protect the shield."
The NFL has done mild expansion since absorbing the AFL. Six teams have since joined the NFL – Seattle, Tampa Bay, Jacksonville, Carolina, Cleveland and Houston – via expansion.
Since then, rival leagues, at least to conspiracy buffs like me, have come up conveniently close to the time that the NFL is going to face a challenge to its authority and antitrust exempt status.
After seeing what could be done by ambitious businessmen, the World Football League came into existence in the mid-1970s. Some rich white guys with ambitions to be NFL owners started the rival league at a time when the NFL was starting to get players having the audacity to think that, if they can get paid more to play in another city, they should have that right. The WFL came up at a time when there was a lot of unrest about the labor situation in the NFL.
The league made a few big-splash signings, but there was little doubt that the league could not compete head to head with the NFL. The Dolphins saw Paul Warfield, Larry Csonka and even Jim Kiick cash in big contracts. Former Black and Silver renegades Ken Stabler and Darryl Lamonica jumped ship. Vikings wide receiver John Gilliam jumped to the new league. But, with a talent pool that nearly doubled with the absorption of the AFL, the WFL couldn't compete. But the timing, to conspiratorial types, not only came without fight from the NFL hierarchy, it came with its blessing. Competition is there. It silences the antitrust discussion.
The WFL started strong, but faded fast. The NFL had won the war, even though they had lost in the courts. The realization that owners could afford to offer absurdly high contracts when competition for talent existed wasn't lost on the players. Wanting a representative piece of the growing pie for future players and fair union benefit treatment of former players, in 1982 the NFL saw its players go on strike. Two weeks into the season – the only time players believed their grievances could be heard – they walked off the job. For two months, from the end of September to mid-November, there was no football for the first time in history.
The two sides reached an agreement, but there were question of player rights and the league's ability to hide behind antitrust exemptions. As had happened in the late '50s with the AFL and the early '70s, when the wind was ripe with talk of pushing to eliminate the NFL's antitrust exemption, a rival league grew out of the horizon. The AFL, thanks in no small part to the Old Boys Network that ran the NFL at the time, succeeded because it saw color only on jerseys. Rival leagues like the WFL mysteriously sprouted up at times of strife in the NFL. I'm not sure any league since the AFL and its racially blind policy at a time when the NFL was systematically dragging its feet could realistically succeed. The labor peace in the NFL was tenuous at best when they reached a hard and bitter peace in 1982.
Enter the USFL, stage left.
Coincidence? At the time, NFL players are salty about getting a fair piece of a pie that is overlapping the owners' table. The first significant revenue spike is NFL TV money. Why? Major League Baseball, the professional sports Big Daddy, was getting its teeth knocked out in labor negotiations and the involvement of the courts.
Baseball has been in the courts since the landmark Curt Flood incident in 1969 and, after years of legal battles, the sport achieved free agency for its players. The antitrust exclusion remained, but the players were rocking the boat until they tipped it. Free agency began, revenue sharing wasn't considered and we have what we have in Major League Baseball – where a half dozen teams effectively control the league by outspending smaller market teams for star players. There isn't a level playing field anymore in the MLB. The NFL impasse with the players was likely going to end up in the courts. Hello, USFL.
The genesis of the USFL was businessman David Dixon of New Orleans. In 1965, the AFL was making headway and Dixon said, "Why not me?" New Orleans was an ideal site for a new fan base. He lured the AFL All-Star Game to be played in New Orleans, but, after black players boycotted as the result of second-class racist treatment in New Orleans, the game was moved to Houston and gave the Big Easy a big black eye (on the face of whites in the city). Dixon knew his entre into the AFL was done, so he proposed the United States Football League as a result. Not looking to face another potential challenge, like the Vikings to appease Lambeau and Halas, Dixon was invited into the NFL with the New Orleans Saints in 1967. It killed the USFL until it was needed back.
In 1983, just months after the NFL was accused of having a football monopoly, the USFL began play. This time, the competition wasn't so much between existing players, but for draft choices. The USFL played in the spring – it had no intention of going head to head with the NFL. But a growing cable TV market promised that their product would get seen – a ploy the AFL succeeded in achieving. Without TV, you have nothing. The USFL got that, primarily because there was no competition from the NFL in the fall.
The USFL may have directly been the cause of the 1987 players strike because it signed three straight Heisman Trophy winners to huge contracts, including former Viking Hershel Walker. Still, it wasn't a threat. It was only after growing egomaniac Donald Trump got involved in the USFL that it became a threat. It proposed playing in the fall and going heads-up with the NFL. It went to court to fight the NFL's antitrust exemption. It won.
History doesn't remember it, but the USFL beat the NFL in court. A "yah, youbetcha" Minnesota jury awarded the league $1 in damages. The USFL, clearly aware of the judicial discretion to treble damages, sued for $567 million. The hope was a favorable verdict, an impressed presiding judge and a check for $1.7 billion under antitrust law. The jury found the NFL guilty of a broadcasting monopoly, but awarded the USFL $1. It was trebled and the NFL cut a $3 check.
Courts in the Twin Cities have consistently become the site du jour of NFL trials since the free agency era, as challenges to the still-upheld antitrust exemption remains with the NFL. There are four major networks in the United States – ABC, CBS, NBC and FOX. All four have contracts with the NFL – Monday Night Football is broadcast on ESPN – under the same Disney umbrella as ABC. As it stands, all four of the major networks have NFL deals. Does that constitute a monopoly? Maybe.
As the league and players find themselves heading to court, there is no competition to the NFL's omnipotence in the football world. Oh, wait. Isn't there the UFL. How along ago did they start? Hmm.
History is great, especially when it repeats itself.
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Viking Update web site or magazine, click here.
NFL always gets proper competition
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