Study Guide

NFL History Analysis

  • Race

    Four Stories of NFL Desegregation

    Everyone knows the story of Jackie Robinson, the preternaturally talented Black ballplayer who bravely desegregated Major League Baseball in 1947, stoically enduring racist abuse while letting his play do the talking. Robinson was named Rookie of the Year and National League MVP and starred in six World Series with the Brooklyn Dodgers. Jackie Robinson was a sports legend and a civil rights hero, fondly remembered today as one of the most beloved American citizens of the 20 century. He's the only man ever to have his jersey number—42—retired by every Major League team.

    But what if the story were more complicated? What if Jackie Robinson had been a football player instead? 

    In fact, he was. Many who watched Robinson play college ball at UCLA insisted that his talents on the gridiron even exceeded his considerable skills on the baseball diamond. In 1939, Jackie Robinson led the entire nation in rushing yards per attempt, averaging a staggering 12 yards per carry. At the close of his UCLA career in 1941, Robinson participated in the annual All-Star Game, which pitted the nation's best college players against the NFL's strongest team. While the NFL Champion Chicago Bears won the game by a wide 37–13 margin, the fleet-footed Robinson ran circles around the Bears' unprepared defenders. 

    Chicago defensive end Dick Plasman later said, "That Jackie Robinson is the fastest man I've ever seen in uniform. I thought [then-NFL star] Don Hutson was fast, but he could spot Don five yards and pass him by. The only time I was worried about the game was when Robinson was in there." 

    CBS, embarrassed by the controversy Snyder's raw comments generated, quickly fired Jimmy the Greek. But there's little question that many football fans, and even NFL insiders, shared Snyder's assumptions about race and football.

    In the 1990s and 2000s, Black quarterbacks became more and more prevalent in the NFL. Randall Cunningham, Jeff Blake, Kordell Stewart, Steve McNair, Donovan McNabb, Daunte Culpepper, Michael Vick, and Vince Young all followed in Warren Moon's footsteps by winning selection to football's all-star game, the Pro Bowl, at the quarterback position. In 2007, Black quarterbacks took snaps for 15 different teams, an all-time high.

    But Black quarterbacks still appear to be subject to a higher level of scrutiny and pressure than their white counterparts. As recently as 2003, conservative talk-show host Rush Limbaugh, who'd been hired by ESPN to fill a kind of "Jimmy the Greek role" as a populist commentator on its NFL Sunday Countdown broadcast, suggested that McNabb—the superstar Black field general of the Philadelphia Eagles—wasn't really as good as "the media" portrayed him to be. "I think what we've had here," Limbaugh said, "is a little social concern in the NFL. The media has been very desirous that a Black quarterback do well. There is a little hope invested in McNabb, and he got a lot of credit for the performance of this team that he didn't deserve. The defense carried this team." 

    Like Jimmy the Greek 15 years before him, Limbaugh was immediately canned by the network. But his comments resonated with a certain segment of the NFL fanbase, which sympathized with his suggestion that the recent proliferation of Black quarterbacks was somehow a product of "political correctness." 

    McNabb responded to Limbaugh's comments with an understated call for a colorblind NFL. "It's sad that you've got to go to skin color," the quarterback said. "I thought we were through with that whole deal."

  • Labor

    Picket Lines and Replacement Players: The 1987 NFL Strike

    A few weeks into the 1987 season, the NFL's players went out on strike, hoping to win the right to free agency and to guarantee themselves a larger slice of the league's growing revenue pie. The owners, determined not to be bullied by the players' union (as they arguably had been in 1982, when another players' strike forced the cancellation of five weeks' worth of NFL games), resolved that this time, the games would go on as scheduled—with or without the players. 

    What followed was one of the strangest months in pro football history, as NFL teams fielded lineups of amateur athletes unconvincingly masquerading as NFL players while the real players—many of them millionaires—walked picket lines, unconvincingly masquerading as blue-collar working stiffs.

    The NFL's players had organized themselves into a labor union, the NFL Players Association, all the way back in 1956, long before the league became the massively profitable economic juggernaut we know today. In the early days, the union focused on on small-scale bread and butter issues—making sure players received per diem food money for road trips, earned extra wages for playing preseason games, and so on. 

    By the 1970s and 1980s, however, as the value of the league's television contracts grew exponentially, the Players Association became more militant in seeking increased pay for the NFL's on-field personnel. In the fiercely competitive and often brutally violent game that's pro football, players' careers tended to be quite short. The average NFL career today lasts just three and a half years. The union sought to maximize its members' contracts, hoping to ensure that players could earn a lifetime's worth of wages before their bodies gave out or they lost their roster spots to younger, faster, and stronger players.

    Owners, on the other hand, sought to maintain the league's profitability by ensuring that player salaries didn't spiral out of control. If salaries grew faster than revenue, the NFL would quickly lose its financial viability. Among the league's most important strategies for controlling player salaries were internal rules that effectively barred free agency by requiring any team that signed another team's out-of-contract player to a free-agent deal to compensate the player's former team with players, draft picks, and/or cash. The requirement for such heavy compensation made teams extremely reluctant to sign other clubs' players to free-agent contracts. By limiting free agency—the ability of a player to sell his services to the highest bidder on the open market once he reached the end of his contract—the NFL prevented outright bidding wars among its teams to obtain top talent and so, the union claimed, unfairly suppressed player salaries.

    The long 1982 strike—in which both sides held firm for more than a month, forcing the cancellation of nearly a third of the NFL schedule—ended inconclusively, with neither side particularly satisfied with the ultimate compromise. When the collective bargaining agreement struck in 1982 expired five years later, both sides once again dug in for prolonged battle over the question of free agency.

    On September 22nd, 1987, the Players Association turned its negotiating threats into reality and went out on strike. The NFL was forced to cancel all games on Sunday, September 27th, but vowed that the next weekend's contests would go on as scheduled, with unfamiliar "replacement players" wearing the familiar uniforms of the league's 28 teams. The replacement players—mostly second-tier talents who'd been cut from NFL teams in the recently completed preseason—had been offered $1,000 a week, plus a chance to fulfill, at least temporarily, their NFL dreams, to serve as strikebreakers.

    On October 4th, "Replacement Sunday," 12 NFL games kicked off as scheduled. The regular coaching staffs, officials, and TV announcers were all there. The games counted in the standings. Only the regular players were missing, replaced by a motley crew of hastily thrown together has-beens and wannabes. The football offered up by the all-but-anonymous "stars" of the replacement NFL definitely left something to be desired, and most fans stayed away. Stadium attendance fell to about one-fourth of normal and TV ratings plummeted. The striking players denounced their replacements as "scabs" and some fans ridiculed the replacement versions of their favorite teams as the San Francisco "Phoney-Niners," Los Angeles "Shams," or Chicago "Spare Bears."

    Teammate vs. Teammate on the Picket Line

    Still, shambolic as the on-field product may have been, the replacement games provided the owners with crucial leverage in their showdown with the players. By playing games, no matter how farcical, the league ensured that its vital TV revenues would continue to pour in. And because the replacement players' salaries were so much lower than those of the regulars, owners' short-term profits actually increased during the strike.

    The union, meanwhile, had built up no strike fund to provide financial support to its players. As the weeks dragged on and the players forfeited more and more of their pay, solidarity within the union's ranks began to crack. By the time the third week of replacement games rolled around, about 15% of the league's regular players had broken ranks and gone back to work. Future Hall-of-Famer Steve Largent, the Seattle Seahawks' star receiver, returned to the field and unsurprisingly had the greatest game of his career against replacement opposition, burning the Detroit Lions' semi-pro secondary for 261 yards. 

    Several teams witnessed nasty disputes between players who wanted to go back to work and those who wanted to hold firm to the union's demands. In Dallas, superstar running back Tony Dorsett put his body in front of star defensive lineman Randy White's pickup truck to prevent White from crossing the players' picket line to collect his paycheck. An enraged White goosed his clutch, causing his truck to lurch forward and forcing Dorsett to dive out of the way. Needless to say, such ugly incidents even between teammates could shatter trust and camaraderie among the players. By the strike's fourth week, the internal tensions unleashed by the strike caused a fracture within the union. Having won none of their demands, the players voted to go back to work on October 15th.

    The 1987 strike ended in total defeat for the NFL Players Association. Having lost all leverage, the players crawled back to work without winning free agency, without winning a guaranteed share of league revenue, and without even reaching agreement on a collective bargaining agreement. The owners' victory was so crushing that in 1989, the Players Association actually went out of business as a union. Under federal labor law, workers gained standing to file class-action lawsuits against their employers only if they didn't belong to a union. Therefore, having been utterly thwarted in their 1987 strike, the players took the radical step of decertifying the union two years later to pursue their goals in court.

    The Courts and the Grand Compromise: Free Agency and the Salary Cap

    The players found more success through litigation than they had through labor action. In 1988, a federal judge first ruled that the NFL's rules limiting free agency did, in fact, impose unlawful restriction on the players' rights to sell their labor to the highest bidder. Ironically, the owners' victory in the 1987 strike proved to be so lopsided that it actually opened up the NFL to legal vulnerability by encouraging the players to abandon their union and pursue their grievances in the courts. Between 1988 and 1992, lawyers representing the NFL and its players tangled in numerous lawsuits, with the players usually, but not always, emerging victorious.

    By 1993, both labor and management had become more willing to compromise than they had been for many years. Appeals of the league's various labor-related lawsuits were still pending in the courts; neither side could be sure of victory, and both deeply feared the consequences of defeat. So, the Players Association was again certified as a union, allowing both sides to return to the bargaining table, and in 1993, the league's players and owners agreed to a grand compromise that allowed the ratification of the first new NFL collective bargaining agreement in more than a decade. 

    The owners finally granted free agency to veteran players, but in exchange, the union agreed to a "hard" salary cap, limiting player salaries to no more than 64% of league revenues. For 15 years, that stability-bringing compromise has proven largely beneficial to both sides. League revenues and profitability have continued to grow, even while player salaries have increased substantially from an average of $217,000 in 1985 to $1.9 million today. 

    The bargain struck in 1993, however, allowed either side to opt out in November 2008, which is exactly what NFL owners chose to do. A story similar to the one above unfolded once again in March of 2011.

    Players voted to end the NFL Players Association's status as a union, and with agreements tough to reach, they went to court. Antitrust cases were filed and included big NFL names like Tom Brady and Peyton Manning, and the longest lockout in league history ended in August 2011, only after the union was reinstated and a new collective bargaining—effective until 2020—was agreed upon.

  • Culture

    The Story of the Super Bowl

    In the beginning, the Super Bowl was hardly the larger-than-life cultural extravaganza that we now enjoy as a virtual national holiday. In fact, in the beginning, the Super Bowl wasn't even the Super Bowl. It was merely the AFL-NFL World Championship Game, a hastily organized affair played before a half-full stadium in Los Angeles in January 1967.

    The game grew out of merger negotiations recently completed between two competing football leagues that had spent the 1960s fighting for the allegiances of America's sports fans. The venerable National Football League, which had been around since the 1920s, favored a smashmouth brand of football popular among traditionalists, while the upstart American Football League, founded in 1960, offered a more wide-open, high-scoring version of the game that appealed to younger fans. In 1966, after half a decade of fierce rivalry between the NFL and AFL, the two leagues' owners hammered out an agreement to merge into one unified organization: the modern NFL, a single football league that would be divided into two conferences (the NFC and AFC) to reflect the old NFL/AFL split. 

    At the time of the 1966 merger agreement, however, both the AFL and NFL had to honor separate television contracts that made full integration of the two leagues impossible until 1970. In the meantime, the teams that won each league's separate playoffs would meet each January in a single, end-of-season game to crown a true national champion. That game—unpoetically named, at first, the "AFL-NFL World Championship Game"—quickly became known as the Super Bowl. And the rest, as they say, is history.

    The first Super Bowl—it would become known as "Super Bowl I" only later, after the NFL began numbering each game with Roman numerals in 1969—didn't end up being much of a contest on the field. The NFL's Green Bay Packers, a true juggernaut of a team led by legendary coach Vince Lombardi, thrashed the overmatched Kansas City Chiefs of the AFL by a final score of 35–10. Boasting a suffocating defense and a ruthlessly efficient offense, the Packers rolled to an easy victory, even though their aging star running back Paul Hornung missed the game due to a neck injury. In a postgame interview, Lombardi suggested to reporters that the AFL Champion Chiefs were only about as good as an average NFL team.

    In many ways, the lopsided action on the field in Super Bowl I was less interesting than the behind-the-scenes drama that allowed the game to kick off at all. While the AFL and NFL agreed in principle to merge—and to begin playing Super Bowls—in the spring of 1966, the merger deal couldn't be made official until the league received a special antitrust exemption from Congress. But key legislators in Washington reacted coldly to the prospect of the NFL achieving a virtual monopoly over pro football. The league only won its coveted antitrust exemption in October, after months of heavy lobbying ended with the NFL effectively buying the crucial vote of powerful Senator Russell Long by promising to locate its next expansion team in his home state of Louisiana.

  • Economy

    The World's Richest Sports League

    The National Football League today is the most profitable and valuable economic force in sports, easily eclipsing baseball, basketball, and all other competitors in the American sports-business universe. The NFL—by far the richest sports league in the world—generates close to $15 billion in revenue, with teams worth an average $2.5 billion. The league's most valuable teams (Dallas, New England, New York, and and San Francisco) all hit that $3 billion mark, with Dallas being worth over $4 billion.

    The league receives more than $7 billion a year from its television contracts alone and rakes in billions more from sales of tickets, advertising, and merchandise.

    And for every one of those jerseys, hats, or whatever, NFL Properties gets its cut.

    Steady increases in the NFL's revenues from broadcast rights and merchandise licensing have been paralleled by booming ticket sales and increased corporate spending on NFL sponsorships and advertising. The entire package adds up to a massively successful business enterprise, making the NFL by far the most valuable sports league in the world. As an economic force, pro football has come a very long way since that fateful meeting in Akron's Hupmobile dealership in 1920.