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NFL played after Kennedy was killed, AFL didn’t

Wilson AP

On the 50th anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy, we want to address the event only if there’s something to add that you may not have already known.

Here’s something we (or at least I) didn’t already know.  While the NFL played its games only two days after the President was murdered, the AFL did not.

As explained by Scott Pitoniak of the Rochester Business Journal, Bills owner Ralph Willson pushed aggressively to cancel the slate of Sunday games.

“It was a slam-dunk that we shouldn’t play,” Wilson previously told Pitoniak.  “Fortunately [AFL commissioner] Joe Foss and his assistant [Milt Woodard] agreed with me.  Some of my fellow owners were on the fence at first, hemming and hawing, but I was resolute in my decision.  Had the commissioner forced us to play, I probably would have taken a forfeit — and we were in the playoff hunt at the time. That’s how strongly I felt about it.”

NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle would later explain that playing that weekend was the greatest regret of his 39-year tenure.  Rozelle made the decision to proceed with the games, which began roughly 48 hours after Kennedy was killed, after getting input from White House press secretary Pierre Salinger, a long-time Rozelle friend.

Salinger, per Pitoniak’s excellent article, believed that playing the games “would contribute to the country returning to a sense of normalcy.”  But CBS, which was the time was the league’s exclusive broadcast partner, televised none of the games that day.  The network didn’t even send crews to the various game sites.

That the ill-advised decision didn’t scar the NFL should be viewed as the first indication that the game was poised overcome any and all off-field issues and embarrassments, regardless of their origin or cause.  Regardless, the AFL’s decision to stand down may have helped lessen the impact of the NFL’s blunder on the overall game of professional football.

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16 Responses to “NFL played after Kennedy was killed, AFL didn’t”
  1. touchdownroddywhite says: Nov 22, 2013 12:51 PM

    Well, I’d say times haven’t changed much!

  2. fwippel says: Nov 22, 2013 1:07 PM

    Good grief, let it go. It was fifty years ago. Most NFL fans alive today either weren’t alive back then, or too young to remember it.

    A bad decision by Rozelle? Yes. Worth digging up fifty years after the fact to bash hiim or the league? No.

  3. crisper57 says: Nov 22, 2013 1:18 PM

    Thank you for sharing this. I did not know that.

    Is playing a sign of disrespect or necessary to return to normalcy?. It is interesting to see those two theories play out simultaneously. It was a question asked by this country again after 9/11. I am sure it will be asked again someday.

    With 50 years behind us, I think most would agree the AFL did things the right way, but I don’t think the NFL should be faulted playing games. It sounds like its heart was in the right place. Right idea (return to normalcy), poor execution (too soon).

  4. fin72 says: Nov 22, 2013 1:27 PM

    If Goodell were the commissioner they wouldn’t have played, but he would have insisted on an 18-game season in return.

  5. dcapettini says: Nov 22, 2013 1:39 PM

    I remember it. We were all begging for something on TV other than talking heads all saying the same things, mournful music with still pictures, and endless reruns of PT 109. You couldn’t go anywhere either because everything was closed. Not to be disrespectful, but it was just too much. Even 911 did not shut the country completely down like that. I was 17 years old.

  6. dezno24 says: Nov 22, 2013 1:52 PM

    You also forgot to mention how the NFL owners could have taken advantage of the 34 cents on the dollar on the inventory of seats not sold.

  7. dirtyjerzy says: Nov 22, 2013 1:53 PM

    Tough call. it’s a shame that they didn’t televise the games, which made playing them even more meaningless. I think they did the right thing by playing the games, showing the world that we are strong and we can move on even at the worse of times. If we closed down the country/businesses for every horrific act of violence, then the criminals/terrorist win.

  8. upperdecker19 says: Nov 22, 2013 1:56 PM

    Could have played the full schedule in London as America mourned

  9. j0esixpack says: Nov 22, 2013 1:58 PM

    I wasn’t alive then either but many I have talked to express what dcapettini said above.

    Not that there were many TV stations but every TV Channel, Radio Station, Newspaper etc. was all JFK all the time.

    This was an era before everyone was used to or addicted to 24/7 news (which I believe itself isn’t necessarily good for the psyche) so to me, allowing games to be played the following was a judgment call – and one that may have been the right one given a nation’s need for a distraction from tragedy.

    Certainly, 50 years later, playing an NFL game that weekend has not tarnished the legacy of respect for JFK.

  10. novajoemicmac says: Nov 22, 2013 3:09 PM

    Good on ya, Ralph. I only wish your decisions regarding the Bills over the past half-century were as profound as this.

  11. junglerat524 says: Nov 22, 2013 3:10 PM

    Playing so soon after 9/11 united our country. Different times.

  12. mackcarrington says: Nov 22, 2013 3:20 PM

    I guess a generation of people are coming of age who don’t have any respect or regard for the history of this country. That was an event that altered the fabric of this country in ways that are uncomprehensible to many of you. This isn’t a political forum, and you have the right to be shallow in your understanding of history. But it’s really shameful to see so many people saying “Just let it go”. You are the people who will accept anyone doing anything to you.

  13. deltaoracle says: Nov 22, 2013 3:57 PM

    Amen Mack. It’s said people get the government they deserve. Unfortunately when much of the populace doesn’t have a clue – or much interest in acquiring one – everyone gets the government that “they” deserve.

  14. edithpiaf51 says: Nov 22, 2013 4:06 PM

    Yes it was a very tragic time that changed the fabric of history forever. It is something that can never be forgotten. For me I was a little one year old girl in France so of course I do not remember it personally but I can see the impact this tragedy had on the nation and the world. Hoever playing the games (of course not being televised made them meaningmess to the populace), was a return to some form of normalcy to show that the american payche cannot be broken just like after 9-11. These colours do not run and therefore, having the games and other sports and distractions shows the Americans have not been beaten and the enemy or terrorists have not won.

  15. seaeagle707 says: Nov 22, 2013 4:29 PM

    I doubt that there were many (if any) college games (or high school matches) played on Saturday, and so the NFL games stood out even larger, by contrast.

    JFK had been at an all-time low in national approval at the time of his assassination. That trip to Dallas, was in fact a political trek to shore up his image in the South. But, all that changed with his murder, as Americans put politics aside and came together as one to denounce the act and mourn the President.

    Playing football suddenly didn’t seem all that important.

  16. thebigwhitecat says: Nov 22, 2013 7:55 PM

    The games played weren’t televised, however. And the Dallas, who played at Cleveland, was introduced as just “the Cowboys”, not the Dallas Cowboys.

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