A recently unearthed recording from the National Archives reveals that President Richard Nixon was furious at NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle over the NFL’s blackout policy, which in the early 1970s did not allow for any game to be televised in the city where it was played, regardless of whether the game was sold out or not.
The recording of a December 19, 1972, phone conversation between Nixon and Attorney General Richard G. Kleindienst has been posted online by the Associated Press, and it shows that Nixon, who had just won re-election in a landslide, considered getting football games on TV to be a major policy priority. At the time of the conversation the Washington Redskins were just days away from hosting a playoff game against the Green Bay Packers, and Nixon (pictured with Redskins coach George Allen) told Kleindienst that he was going to be furious if the people of Washington, D.C., couldn’t watch the game.
“If you can get playoff games, believe me, it would be the greatest achievement we’ve ever done,” Nixon said.
Nixon went on a Jim Mora-like “Playoffs!?!” rant in stressing to Kleindienst how important he thought it was for fans to be able to see playoff games on TV.
“The folks should be able to see the goddamn games on television,” the president told the attorney general. “Playoff games. Playoffs – all playoff games should be available.”
At the time, the NFL was concerned that televising home games would result in fans refusing to buy tickets, but the league was also concerned that Congress would force it to televise all home games. Nixon said that if the NFL would compromise and allow playoff games to be televised, he would support Rozelle’s efforts to keep regular-season games blacked out.
“If you make the move, for these playoff games, we will block any – any – legislation to stop anything else,” Nixon told his attorney general to tell Rozelle. “I will fight it personally and veto any – any – legislation. You can tell him that I will veto it. And we’ll sustain the veto. . . . Go all out on it and tell him he’s got the president’s personal commitment. I’m for pro football all the way, and I think it’s not in pro football’s interest to allow this to build up because before you know it, they’ll have the damn Congress go all the way. We don’t want Congress to go all the way.”
Rozelle didn’t take that deal, and in 1973 Congress passed a law banning the NFL from blacking out any game that was sold out at least 72 hours before kickoff. That law has since expired, but the NFL has adopted it as its own blackout policy. The day before this year’s Super Bowl, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell defended the current policy and said the league has no plans to revisit the blackout rules.
Whether the president and Congress should have better things to do than focus on football on TV is a fair question. But Nixon was right: The NFL’s old policy of blacking out playoff games, even when they were sold out, was a raw deal for the fans.