May 28, 2024

Why the NFL didn’t postpone games following JFK’s death: Reexamining a contentious choice and fan ire toward the Cowboys in 1963

 

Why the NFL did not postpone games after JFK’s death: A critical analysis of a divisive decision and fan outrage directed at the Cowboys in 1963

This much is certain: the country was overcome with grief and bewilderment, rage and agony, and consequently, the National Football League.

Pete Rozelle, the commissioner, had to make a choice.

Why NFL didn’t cancel games after JFK’s assassination

With scarcely two days separating the tragedy at 12:30 p.m. CT on a Friday and the start of the league’s Sunday schedule, Rozelle consulted with, among others, JFK’s trusted press secretary Pierre Salinger, who counseled to play the games. But Rozelle also heard from several owners who strongly voiced that the games should be canceled.

Only two days separated the Friday tragedy at 12:30 p.m. CT and the league’s Sunday schedule opening. Rozelle conferred with a number of people, including JFK’s trusted press secretary Pierre Salinger, who recommended playing the games. However, Rozelle also received strong opinions from a number of owners suggesting that the games ought to be canceled.

Teams were waiting to hear if they should travel when Rozelle, who was 37 at the time, made the decision.

He issued the following statement on Saturday, Nov. 23: “It has long been customary in sports for athletes to compete during extremely difficult personal times. For Mr. Kennedy, football was his game. He was a competitive person.

The Sporting News published an editorial in the issue right after Kennedy’s assassination, pointing out that he was more than just a sports fan. “John F. Kennedy… True Friend of Sports” reads the headline.

Kennedy actually enjoyed going to major league Opening Day in Washington, D.C., and often attended college football games, especially those of the service academies and his beloved Harvard University. He was also a regular at Senators games when the Red Sox were in town.

However, the decision was met with a swift and powerful backlash.

Two years prior to his passing, in 1994, Rozelle told the New York Times about the choice he had to make, saying, “I talked it over with everyone in the (league) office.” I made up my mind late that afternoon. Our teams were calling, asking for advice, so I had to.

The AFL, the NFL’s fledgling rival, on the other hand, decided not to hold its games that Sunday. Most of the college games scheduled for the previous day were also canceled, including the 80th football game between Harvard and Yale, a series that had never ended since 1875.

Author and NFL historian Michael MacCambridge argues in his book, “America’s Game: The Epic Story of How Pro Football Captured a Nation,” that Rozelle could not have predicted the part television would play in the nation’s mourning that weekend.

“The majority of Americans only heard about the devastating events that had previously affected their lives through radio reports, such as the attack on Pearl Harbor, the passing of Franklin D. Roosevelt, or the detonation of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. However, during the weekend of November 22–24, a country watched itself suffer and, for the first time in its history, came to understand who it was.

Ironically, that Sunday’s games were not televised by CBS, the NFL’s TV partner at the time.

Rather, it aired, along with the other networks, a horse-drawn caisson transporting Kennedy’s coffin from the White House to the Capitol Rotunda, where he was to lie in state, that afternoon.

After getting to know Kennedy firsthand, Rozelle acknowledged his remorse and declared that playing the games on Sunday was “obviously a mistake” some thirty years later.

Rozelle recalled to the Times, “You have to understand, I was more than depressed over the assassination.” “I was a close friend of the Kennedy family, and I had lost someone I had respected as our nation’s leader.”

Why there was resentment towards the Cowboys following the assassination of JFK
The Cowboys, who were scheduled to play the Browns in Cleveland that Sunday, were targeted because Kennedy had been assassinated in Dallas.

“I was disappointed that it would happen anywhere,” veteran Cowboys personnel director Gil Brandt recalled in a 2013 interview with USA TODAY Sports. “But my next thought was, ‘What a terrible thing to happen in your city.’”

 

 

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