Before the Sports Broadcasting Act: Professional Football Fifty Years Ago

Warning:  This essay contains pure, unadulterated nostalgia for the professional sports regime of the middle third of 20th century America.

I remember watching the 1960 World Series on television, but the first year that I really followed major league baseball was 1961, the year of Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle’s historic assault on Babe Ruth’s single season home run record. When the baseball season was over, my new-found enthusiasm for sports led me to become a pro football fan as well.

The 1961 season was the second in which the National Football League faced competition from the upstart American Football League. Although everyone I knew and everything I read viewed the NFL as the superior league, no one seemed to deny that the AFL was a major league. As with baseball, my two primary sources of sports information were the sports page of our daily newspaper, the Roanoke Times, and sports cards that came packaged with bubble gum, the purchase of which consumed most of my meager resources.

The local drug store from which I purchased most of my football cards carried the 1961 Fleer Pro Football set, which contained 220 player cards representing all 8 AFL teams and 14 NFL teams, including the expansion Minnesota Vikings. (There were only seven Viking cards, and the player pictured on each was shown in the uniform of his previous NFL team.) Cards came five to a pack with a piece of bubble gum. AFL and NFL cards were never mixed together, so you knew immediately whether you had gotten an AFL or a generally-perceived-to-be-much-more-valuable NFL pack.

For me, picking a favorite football team in 1961 was a real challenge. My home town in southwest Virginia was more than 300 miles from any city with a team; neither of my parents was a professional football fan, and my family, having always lived in rural Virginia and West Virginia, had no connection to any large city. In baseball, I had rooted for the New York Yankees and the Milwaukee Braves (the former because of Maris and Mantle and the latter because my youth league team was called the Braves).

However, these baseball connections did not automatically transfer into my becoming a New York Giants or a Green Bay Packer fan. (I now regret not picking up on the coolness of the Packers until I came to Marquette in 1995. I think the Green and Gold uniforms, which closely resembled those of the Narrows Green Wave, my town’s arch rival, eliminated them as a rooting interest.) I did root for the New York Titans (now Jets) in the AFL, but the AFL counted for very little among my circle—my friend Tommy Powell once offered to trade me his entire collection of AFL cards for my one Johnny Unitas card, but I refused the offer.

The ability to follow an NFL team in Pearisburg, Virginia, in 1961 was restricted in several ways. One was the limited number of television and radio options for following the NFL generally. The one local radio station did not carry any football games at all, and the options available on the one television station that we received were, needless to say, fairly restrictive.

Although the Sports Broadcasting Act was passed in the fall of 1961, the 1961 season was the last in which the previous broadcasting rules applied. Basically, because of judicial interpretations of the Sherman Act’s application to the NFL, the league was prohibited from negotiating a collective broadcasting contract with an individual television network (of which there were then three). As a result, individual teams negotiated with the networks or with independent stations for the rights to their home games. (Allowing the collective sale of broadcast rights was the major change brought about by the Sports Broadcasting Act.)

Throughout the 1950’s, most NFL teams sold their broadcast rights to CBS, but for the 1960 and 1961 seasons, the rights to the home games of the Colts and Steelers were acquired by NBC. In contrast, the AFL games had been sold as a block to ABC shortly after the league’s founding in 1960, apparently on the assumption that the Sherman Act did not apply to the AFL in the same way it applied to the NFL. (Presumably, this was rooted in the notion, given the nature of its founding where teams were started from scratch, that the AFL constituted a single economic entity whereas the NFL was a combination of teams, most of whose economic existence predated their membership in the NFL.

Unfortunately, because of the location of our house (and probably because of the technological limitations of our television antenna which had been purchased in 1955 or 1956), we could only pick up the signal of one television station, WSLS-TV in Roanoke, which was an NBC affiliate. Consequently, the only games I could watch featured either the Colts or the Steelers and whomever they might be playing. (The two teams, which were in different divisions, did not play each other in 1961.) Some people in the town with a better location (or a better antenna) could pick up a CBS station, but no one got ABC.

The other factor affecting the object of my fandom was the enormous popularity of the Baltimore Colts in southwestern Virginia. As far as I could tell, all of the pro football fans in my home town rooted either for the Colts or the Washington Redskins (which was the closest team.) Older adults could probably remember when the Redskins were a top team, but in the recent past they had been dreadful. (Just ask Professor Kossow, who even then was a season ticket holder.) In 1960, the Redskins were 1-9-2, and the year before that, which to me in 1961 seemed like ancient history, they were only 3-9-0. It was also clear to me that most Colts fans were of the view that only life’s losers rooted for the Redskins.

In contrast, the late 1950’s and early 1960’s were the Golden Age of the Baltimore Colts. The Colts had won NFL championships in 1958 and 1959, and the names of their star players—Johnny Unitas, Lenny Moore, Kenosha’s Alan Ameche, Raymond Berry, Gino Marchetti, Eugene “Big Daddy” Lipscomb, L. G. “Long Gone” Dupre, and Art “Fatso” Donovan—were as well known in the Mid-Atlantic region as the Lombardi Packers would be in 1960’s (and later) Wisconsin. The Colts appeared to be on their way to a third straight championship in 1960 until they mysteriously lost their last four games of the season, and were replaced as Western Division champions by Vince Lombardi’s upstart Green Bay Packers, which, before Lombardi’s arrival, had spent most of the 1950’s competing with the Redskins for the title of “sad sack” of the NFL.

So I began the season unsure of which team I liked best. My next door neighbor, Tom Givens, convinced me that I should be rooting for the Redskins, so I started off trying to be a Redskins fan, but after the still all-white team started the season 0-9-0 while being outscored 245-68, I sort of gave up on them. As it turned out, it didn’t get much better for the Skins, who finished the season 1-12-1 with a tie and a final game victory over the Dallas Cowboys, which were in their second year of existence.

Watching the Steelers on television on a regular basis made me sort of a Steelers fan, and they did have some very cool players: halfback Tom “the Bomb” Tracy (who specialized in the halfback option pass, although he only rarely completed his tosses), fullback John Henry Johnson (presumably named after the legendary railroad worker who was a local hero where I grew up), and quarterback Bobby Layne, whom the announcers treated like some revered elderly figure and who kicked extra points, but not field goals.

However, the Steelers didn’t do that well either. They lost their first four games—only one of which was televised–before finally getting their first win of the season, a shutout of the Redskins. (Who else?) Plus, Bobby Layne was injured and missed the middle half of the season, and even though the Steelers won four of their next five games after the 0-4 start, they dropped three of their last five to finish 6-8-0. By mid-season, I was basically a Colts fan.

But the Colts also had problems. The shortcomings that had plagued the team at the end of the 1960 season, which were probably personnel related, continued in the early part of the 1961 season. After opening with a narrow 27-24 victory over the Los Angeles Rams, the Colts lost four of their next six games, including losses to the Packers and Lions, which along with the Colts had been the preseason favorites in the NFL West, and two defeats at the hands of the Chicago Bears in the space of 15 days.

At mid-season, the Packers were in first place in the West with a 6-1-1 record while the Colts were in fifth place, trailing not just the Packers, but also the surprising Bears, the 49ers, and the Lions.

The Colts appeared to be on the verge of rallying in the second half of the season when they pasted the Packers, 45-21, in a November 8 game in Baltimore. Unfortunately, the Colts dropped their next game to expansion Minnesota Vikings, by an embarrassing score of 28-20. This loss left them three games behind the Packers (who that same day bested the Bears 31-28 in Wrigley Field) with only five games to play.

Although the Colts won four of their last five games, the Packers continued to win and actually clinched the West Division championship at the end of Week 12, two weeks before the end of the regular season.

The race in the NFL East Division was much closer, and basically featured a three-way contest among the defending champion Philadelphia Eagles, the New York Giants, and the Cleveland Browns that lasted until the final day of the regular season. The Eagles either held or shared first place for 10 of the first 12 weeks of the season, but at the end of Week 12, the Eagles and Giants were tied for first with records of 9-3-0, with Cleveland a game behind at 8-4-0.

On Sunday, December 10, the Division leaders squared off against each other in Philadelphia. The Eagles led 10-7 after the first quarter, but the Giants then replaced starting quarterback Y.A. Tittle with his aging back-up Charlie Conerly. Conerly rallied his teammates, throwing three touchdown passes and no interceptions as the Giants held off their rivals to the south and came away with a 24-20 victory. This put the Giants one game up on the Eagles with one game to go, assuring them of at least a tie for first place. That same day, the Browns were eliminated by a close 17-14 loss to the Bears in Chicago in a game in which the Browns had led 14-0 in the 4th quarter before faltering.

To retain the East Division title, Philadelphia had to defeat the Lions in Detroit the next weekend and hope that Cleveland could travel to New York and win out over the Giants. In that case, the two teams would play a 15th game to determine the division champion.

The Eagles defeated the Lions, but it was for naught as the Giants and Browns battled to 7-7 in Yankee Stadium. With a record of 10-3-1, the Giants edged the 10-4-0 Eagles by a half game.

Two weeks later, on New Year’s Eve, the Packers and Giants met in Green Bay for the 1961 NFL Championship. Although the Packers had played in the 1960 championship game, their last NFL title had come in 1944, when they bested the Giants 14-7 in New York’s Polo Grounds. The Giants were not strangers to the title game either; in fact, although their last NFL title had come in 1956 when they trounced the Chicago Bears, 47-7, Gotham’s team was playing in the championship tilt for the fourth time in six years.

The 1961 championship was played in 17-degree weather with a 10-mph wind in the Packers still new stadium, which had opened in 1957. Known originally as “City Stadium” or “New City Stadium,” the structure would not be renamed Lambeau Field until 1965. The game was televised on NBC, which held the exclusive rights to broadcast the NFL championship game from 1955 through 1963.

The game itself was a complete anti-climax. After a scoreless 1st quarter, Packer halfback Paul Hornung, the NFL’s leading scorer, ran the ball over the goal line from six yards out. Quarterback Bart Starr then tossed TD passes to wide receiver Boyd Dowler and tight end Ron Kramer. When the next Packer drive stalled at the 10-yard line, Hornung finished off the 24 point quarter with a 17-yard field goal. (In 1961, NFL goal posts were positioned on the goal line, hence the 17 yard field goal.)

In the third quarter it was more of the same, with Horning kicking a 22 yard field goal, and Starr tossing another TD pass to Ron Kramer. The only scoring in the final quarter was a third field goal by Hornung, this one from 19 yards out, giving him a total of 19 points for the game (one touchdown, four extra points, and three field goals)

For the game, the Packers outrushed the Giants 181 yards to 31, with Hornung and Jim Taylor leading the way with 89 and 69 yards, respectively. Starr passed for 164 yards and three touchdowns, compared to a combined 119 yards for Tittle and Conerly. Ron Kramer led the Packers in receptions with four (two for TDs), and both Dowler and Hornung pulled in three catches. Popular wide receiver Max McGee was shut out in the receiving department, but no one really noticed.

The Packer defense was particularly effective that day, as the 37-0 score suggests. In addition to holding the Giant running backs to 31 yards on 14 carries, the defense sacked Tittle twice for losses of 20 yards and intercepted him four times. As in the earlier Giant-Philadelphia game Charlie Conerly was brought in off the bench when Tittle faltered, but in the championship game there would be no magical comeback, as Conerly was able to complete only four of eight passes for a paltry 54 yards.

The names of the starters for the Packers in the 1961 NFL championship game still resonate deeply for many Wisconsin sports fans. The offensive backfield that day included Bart Starr (QB), Paul Hornung (HB), Jim Taylor (FB), and Boyd Dowler (FL). The ends were Max McGee and Ron Kramer, and the offensive line included center Jim Ringo, guards Fuzzy Thurston and Forest Gregg, and tackles Norm Masters and Bob Skoronski. (Starting guard Jerry Kramer missed the game with an injury, forcing Forest Gregg to move to guard from his normal starting tackle position.)

The Packer defensive line was made up of defensive ends Willie Davis and Bob Quinlan and defensive tackles Henry Jordan and Dave Hanner. The starting linebackers were Bill Forester, Dan Currie, and middle linebacker Ray Nitschke, while the defensive backfield included cornerbacks Hank Gremminger and Jess Whittenton, strong safety John Symank, and free safety Willie Wood. Wide receiver Boyd Dowler handled the punting, and Hornung did the place-kicking.

The 1961 NFL season did not actually end, however, until January 14, 1962, the date of the post-season all-star game officially known as the East-West Pro Bowl game. It too was televised by NBC.

I can still remember listening to the game sitting on the floor in our den. I say listening because some time after Christmas 1961, a tube blew out in our television set, a fairly common occurrence in the pre-printed circuit era of electronics. Although the sound continued to work, the screen remained completely blank, effectively turning the television into a radio. When this happened, my parents invariably treated it as a kind of divine signal that my brother and I needed to take a break from TV, and they usually waited a few weeks before getting the tube replaced.

Consequently, I was forced to listen to the game and imagine in my mind what turned out to be the most exciting professional football all-star game of all time. The West led for most of the game, jumping out to a 14-3 lead in the first quarter. However, the East regrouped and managed to narrow the gap to 17-10 at the half. At the end of the third quarter, the West still led, 24-16, as both teams scored touchdowns, but the East’s extra point attempt was blocked by Green Bay Packer (and University of Virginia graduate) Henry Jordan.

However, the East offense caught fire in the final quarter, and put a quick 14 points on the scoreboard when Title passed two yards to his team Alex Webster for one touchdown and fullback Jimmy Brown ran 70 yards for another.

With the East now in the lead, 30-24, the West offense continued to sputter, and with less than two minutes to go in the game, the East had the ball with the intention of running out the clock with a series of rushing plays. However, a crushing tackle by Chicago Bear linebacker Bill George caused an uncharacteristic fumble by Jim Brown, which was recovered by George on the East’s 42 yard line, providing the West with one final shot at winning the game.

West quarterback Johnny Unitas quickly completed a pass of 14 yards to tight end Mike Ditka of the Bears, and then on the next play, one of 15 yards to his Baltimore Colt teammate Lenny Moore. However, a second pass to Moore fell incomplete, and with only seconds remaining, the West had the ball on the twelve-yard line. On the game’s final play, Unitas hit Los Angeles Ram halfback Jon Arnett in the back of the end zone for a game tying six points, and with time expired the West converted the extra point for the victory.

In spite of his fumble, Jimmy Brown was named the player of the game while top lineman honors went to Henry Jordan.

It was a great way to end a great season. We talked about it the next day in my Fourth Grade class, and a half century later, I still remember the 1961 season.


Continue ReadingBefore the Sports Broadcasting Act: Professional Football Fifty Years Ago

Do We Need an Anti-Siphoning Act in the United States?

The remarkable Milwaukee Brewers have now reached the second round of the Major League Baseball play-offs, but many Brewers fans have yet to have the opportunity to stay at home and watch the team play post-season games on television. The reason, of course, is that this year all first round play-off games as well as the second round of National League play-offs are shown only on cable television. Those who don’t subscribe to cable are shut out of watching the Brewers on television, unless they can make their way to Long Wong’s Sports Bar on Blue Mound Avenue, or some other similar establishment.

This was, of course, not always the case. Until 1996, all Major League Baseball post-season play-off games were on free television. That year, ESPN won the right to broadcast any first round play-off games not aired by NBC or FOX, then Major League Baseball’s primary broadcast partners. Since that time, the number of play-off games on pay television has been steadily creeping upward.

In Australia and in many European countries, the local equivalent of Major League Baseball’s playoff games would be required by law to be broadcast on free television. Called anti-siphoning statutes, these laws dictate that certain sporting events must be made available for broadcast on free, open-air stations, if they are broadcast at all.

In Australia, for example, every regular season and play-off match played in both the Australian Football League Premiership (Australian Rules Football) and the National Rugby League—the country’s two most popular sports leagues—are on the anti-siphoning list. On the list as well are a host of other sporting events, many of which take place outside of Australia, ranging from the FIFA World Cup to the U.S. Masters Golf Tournament to all test matches played by Australia’s senior representative cricket team.

In the European Union, the 2007 Audiovisual Media Services Directive encourages individual members to adopt similar protected lists, and guarantees legal immunity from any other EU rule or regulation that might arguably apply. Such guarantees exist in a variety of European countries, including Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, and the United Kingdom.

The failure of Arab countries to adopt such statutes meant that the vast majority of Arab citizens were not able to watch, at least legally, the 2006 World Cup, because the exclusive broadcast rights were sold to a single satellite broadcaster that charged exorbitant rates for its signal. (I have written about this issue in some detail in an article entitled “The Over-Protection of Intellectual Property Rights in Sport in the United States and Elsewhere” that appeared in the Winter 2011 issue of the Journal of the Legal Aspects of Sport.)

Almost twenty years ago the United States Congress expressed concern about the migration of high profile sporting events to pay television when it adopted the Cable Television Consumer Protection and Competition Act of 1992, which authorized the FCC to study the issue. To date, most of the major sporting events in the United States—the World Series, the NCAA Final Four, the NBA Finals, and the Super Bowl—remain on free television, but that may soon change.

In recent years, a variety of popular sporting events have been shifted to pay television, including most of the races constituting NASCAR’s Chase series, early round play-off games in the NBA and NHL, as well as Major League Baseball, two of the four tennis majors, and one of golf’s four majors. Moreover, last year the BCS championship game was, for the first time, broadcast exclusively on cable television (ESPN), and will be for the foreseeable future.

That there has not been more uproar over the recent shifts may reflect that fact that an estimated 75% of the United States population now has access to basic cable or satellite television, placing those of us who do not in a distinctively minority position.

Furthermore, whether an American anti-siphoning law could withstand First Amendment scrutiny is an interesting question. Early on in the history of cable television in the United States, the FCC issued a draconian guideline that essentially prohibited cable television broadcasters from airing any live sporting events at all (as well as prohibiting original programming not first shown on free television). This rule was struck down by the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals in Home Box Office v. FCC, 567 F.2d 9 (D.C. Cir. 1977), but that directive was far more restrictive than any modern anti-siphoning statute, all of which permit the simultaneous broadcasting of events on free and pay television. However, given the solicitude shown for commercial speech by the current United States Supreme Court, the fate of such legislation is hard to predict.

As a baseball fan, I feel aggrieved by not being able to watch the Brewers games on free television. However, so far I do not feel aggrieved enough to subscribe to cable television or, for that matter, to complain to my Congressman. For the time being, I will just have to root for the Brewers to make it to the World Series, which, thankfully, is still on regular television.

Continue ReadingDo We Need an Anti-Siphoning Act in the United States?

The Shocking Testing Scandal in Atlanta

I don’t think “Bad Teacher,” the movie currently playing in theaters, is going to do damage to the reputation of teachers or education in general across the United States. It may be gross, dumb, tasteless, and a lot of other things, but it’s a movie.  People can grasp that it’s not a documentary.

But the current test-score cheating scandal in Atlanta is a different matter. It is pretty much the most disturbing and shocking single episode in American education that I can think of in the last decade. This is a case of teachers and administrators being shown in real life to have engaged in vividly discrediting educational practices. 

I heard or read often in recent years about the successes of the Atlanta public schools. Test scores had risen, the elected school board was a model case for those who opposed mayoral control of schools, and Superintendent Beverly Hall was one of the most honored and respected school leaders in the country. I remember then-MPS Superintendent William Andrekopoulos telling me several years ago what a great person Hall was, and that view was definitely in the mainstream of educators.

All of that makes the scandal that has been unfolding in Atlanta for months all the more stunning. The Atlanta Journal Constitution deserves a lot of credit for pushing hard to bring to light a sweeping culture among teachers and their superiors, right up to Hall, in which doctoring students’ test scores sheets was done routinely, almost openly, and with indifference to both the rules and to children’s actual education needs. A culture of cheating, with a partner culture of intimidation of those who might resist it, pervaded Atlanta’s school system.  Hall has resigned and is now considered highly discredited, the school district has fallen into turmoil, and criminal charges may lie ahead.

The Journal Constitution’s story about a special investigative report released by the governor’s officeTuesday, summarizes the scandal in revolting detail.

Critics have long argued that standardized testing is a bad way to judge kids and, among other problems, leads to cheating by educators who have strong incentives to show good results for their students. My guess is even few of the critics thought there was a scandal of the dimension now unfolding in Atlanta. From now on, the word “Atlanta” is going to be to debate about high stakes testing what the word “Columbine” is to discussions of student violence.

Will the Atlanta situation change the course of the movement that has made standardized testing a key part of accountability around  the US? My guess is that overall, it won’t. But it certainly should cause everyone to think deeply about how to make testing a constructive step. That includes more work on improving test security, creating climates of ethical practices around testing, and monitoring the pressures being put on educators to come up with good results.

Results on state standardized tests for Milwaukee school children may be discouraging, but at least they are, to the best of my knowledge, generally honest. I’m only aware of one real cheating scandal in Milwaukee Public Schools in the last decade or so. It involved one school a few years ago, and, while MPS succeeded in keeping most of the details from public view (it was labeled an employee discipline matter), best as I could tell, the district dealt with it reasonably well.  (By the way, speak up if you know differently, not only with MPS but any school or district.)

I used to think it would be nice if Milwaukee had Atlanta’s record when it came to rest results. Obviously, it is time to think the reverse, especially when it comes to integrity.

Continue ReadingThe Shocking Testing Scandal in Atlanta