Bert Bell – The Forgotten Commissioner

NFL commissioners get quite a lot of press these days. Pete Rozelle is remembered as arguably the greatest commissioner in professional sports, Paul Tagliabue oversaw the development of the NFL into the billion-dollar juggernaut it is today, and Roger Goodell is under endless scrutiny for his handling of things like player discipline and safety in today’s league.

But what about the men that went before them, and specifically the man that shaped the league as we know it, Bert Bell?

On October 11, 1959, Commissioner Bert Bell died of a heart attack in the stands of a game between the team he co-founded (The Eagles), and the team he had co-owned (The Steelers).

Bell, perhaps more than any other man, is responsible for the NFL that we know and love today, yet he remains largely forgotten in the mists of time, and his 50th anniversary went largely unnoticed as the league instead took to celebrating the AFL, inflicting those vertical striped socks that the Denver Broncos wore on us all.

By the time the upstart AFL took on the establishment of the NFL in 1960, the NFL was in excellent health, thanks largely to the work of Bell.

At the time of his appointment as Commissioner in 1946 the league was in danger of imploding. With ten strong-willed owners (think a room full of Jerry Jones clones) all vying for power and demanding that their plans be followed, the league was floundering in a money-losing stalemate. It had no direction, and was struggling simply to survive while owners fumed and railed at each other whenever they held a meeting. No league meeting was more chaotic and brutal than the annual meeting, because this was where the upcoming season’s schedule was decided.

The schedule at that time wasn’t decided the way it is today. With ten teams in the league divided into two divisions, the only requirement to a league schedule was that each team played a home and home series with every other team in their division. That accounted for 8 of the 12 games every team would play. The other 4 were up for grabs to the owner who argued the hardest and showed the most stamina in meetings. Teams wanted to play games that would net them a valuable gate receipt – games against the league glamour sides were at a premium.

Art Rooney once described the kind of staying power needed for these meetings: “The guys who snuck out to get some sleep wound up getting murdered the next season because they weren’t there to defend themselves, we’d give them all the dates we didn’t want.”

Over the 10-year span between 1937 and 1946 the Bears and Packers from the Western Division and the Giants and Redskins from the Eastern Division accounted for 19 of the 20 spots in the NFL Championship game. The league had become a tired exercise in professional football, and the teams that could win were the teams that turned a profit. The rest of the league more often than not was losing money and mounting debts. In the days where talent acquisition was simply a free for all those teams also found it increasingly hard to bid competitively on college players as they were in direct competition with every other NFL team.

Bell had had first hand experience of the pitfalls of ownership and the problems facing a struggling franchise. Early in his career he had bought the rights to the defunct Frankfort Yellow jackets and re-branded them the Philadelphia Eagles in time for the 1933 season. Under his leadership the Eagles were horrid, and Bell still accounts for one of the poorest winning percentages in NFL coaching history (Hey, I didn’t claim he was perfect!). Coming from that experience as the league’s doormat, Bell’s philosophy was that the league was like a chain, a chain that was only as strong as its weakest link, and he had experienced enough time as its weakest link to know better than anybody.

One of the first things he did when he took over as Commissioner was to take responsibility for the schedule away from the owners and begin to draw up the schedules himself, in his dining room, using cardboard, matchbooks and team-names. Think of the kind of crap Goodell takes these days for taking control of discipline, but Bell walked in and took the schedule away from the owners – the very foundation of the league and money revenue.

His plan going forward was that the weaker teams should play other weaker teams early in the season and the stronger teams should face each other. This would keep more teams in the race for longer, and also have the effect of helping out the weaker sides that had been losing fan support and crucial gate receipt dollars when their sides fell out of the race early in the season. He was aiming to make the league more competitive, and more of a spectacle for the fans.

Before he ever became league Commissioner, he had been responsible for another revolutionary change proposed whilst still owner of the Eagles – The Draft. Before Bell each NFL team had exactly the same rights to any available college player as any other team. The richer owners, the more successful teams naturally had a better chance of signing the elite players, and the divide between rich and poor within the league continued to widen. His proposal, 63 years ago, is more or less identical to what we all recognize as the NFL Draft: “At the end of each football season, we pool the names of all eligible college seniors. Then we make our selections in inverse order of the standings – that is, the lowest-ranked team picks first. We do this round after round until we have exhausted the supply of college players.”

Again, this is a fundamental shift in philosophy coming from one man. Rather than continue with a situation that could have led to a couple of rich teams owning the league in perpetuity, Bell proposed a change that would level the playing field one off-season at a time, or at least give everybody a shot at the talent.

The league’s first two scheduled title games, in 1933 and 1934, had featured the Giants and Bears, both controlled by strong owners, but Bell was a strong enough character to sell Tim Mara and George Halas on the necessity of such a plan. Bell’s vision was for the benefit of the league, and the fact that he was able to get even the most powerful owners with the most to lose to go along with it is a testament not only to the integrity of the plan, but to his standing within the league. It is also a striking demonstration that despite everything these longstanding owners did still value the NFL as a whole above everything else. They may have been prepared to bicker for days when necessary, but they were in this for the love of the game, not the pursuit of money or glory.

This was the first time the concept of parity, now a keystone of the NFL, began to be pursued, and it was Bell that started the chase. Indeed it was Bell that first coined the phrase “On any given Sunday”, referring to the competitive nature of the NFL after these changes. No Bell, no Al Pacino speech, or at least a crappier movie title for it.

The magnitude of these two revolutionary changes is impossible to overstate. Not only are they fundamental cornerstones of the league we recognize today, perhaps the only league in sports that strives to promote parity amongst its teams, but without those changes the NFL may never have made it through the next ten years. The league may not have survived the very real challenge of the upstart AAFC led by the powerhouse Cleveland Browns.

Bell not only reshaped the principles of the NFL, but he might well have saved its very existence.

The league was up against it in the battle with the new AAFC. The younger league had perhaps the country’s most recognized and respected coach in Paul Brown, and a group of owners significantly more wealthy than their NFL counterparts. The NFL had to rely on the good will it had already built up with the public. This good will was almost eroded completely in 1946 when an attempt to fix the NFL Championship game was uncovered by New York detectives. In the January 1947 meetings, the owners granted Bell the power to suspend for life any player or team official involved in a game-fixing attempt. Bell acted swiftly and suspended both of the players caught up in the scandal indefinitely. At a time when American sports was rife with corruption, Bell’s decisiveness in acting quickly and ruthlessly was instrumental in the NFL maintaining its standing in the eyes of the public. Bell knew for the league to survive the game had to be clean and beyond reproach. Public confidence in the NFL was everything. Goodell might be more draconian in his approach than the man he replaced, but he isn’t the first commissioner to act swiftly and harshly for what he perceived to be the good of the league.

As the war raged on between the NFL and the AAFC it was Bell’s earlier pursuit of parity and competition within the league that began to prove decisive. Whilst the AAFC was losing the interest of fans due to the runaway dominance of the Cleveland Browns, the NFL was enjoying spirited competition throughout. The nosedive in fan support of the AAFC ultimately led to the rival league capitulating in 1949 and the resultant ‘merger’ between the two leagues involved just 3 AAFC franchises being absorbed into the NFL: The Champion Cleveland Browns, the title game losing San Francisco 49ers, and the Baltimore Colts.

Seen initially as a challenge that the NFL might not be able to survive, the AAFC ended up being simply another entity pistol whipped into shape by Bell. The NFL recorded a resounding victory that reasserted its primacy, and picked up the excellence of Paul Brown and the Cleveland Browns as icing on the cake.

Bell was also instrumental in the way the NFL handled the emerging power of the TV markets, without which the NFL wouldn’t be the billion dollar corporate dynasty it is today. He came up with the unpopular, but undeniably effective blackout policy the league has employed for the better part of sixty years. This gave the league the benefit of TV money and exposure but without running the risk of losing gate receipt money as a trade.

He also created the 2-minute warning, a devise that would ensure that the TV companies would be able to air at least one commercial break per half during a game. This was the first concession to TV networks that has mutated into the modern coverage of the NFL with a commercial break every three seconds, so we might not look too kindly on old Bert for that one, but it’s important to realize that this is where the dollars come from – it’s advertising that makes the networks their money, and enables them to pay colossal sums for the NFL broadcasting rights in the first place. Bell also suggested the televising of night games, and his innovative policies surrounding TV coverage of the NFL were truly visionary for such a young technology, setting the template for the way the modern NFL works in many ways.

Bell’s reign as Commissioner of the NFL had seen him become such a shining beacon of integrity within the game, and develop such an unimpeachable powerbase that he was able to take on even the owners that had hired him. Going directly against their wishes, Bell recognized the NFL Players Association as a legitimate entity acting on the players’ behalf when it was formed. When the angry owners confronted him he simply referred them to the league’s constitution, which permitted him to act on any matter ‘in the interests of pro football’. Labor strife may not sound like a great bestowal, but the league benefits by players being looked after and protected independently.

His legacy was cemented in his lifetime and when the Pro Football Hall of Fame opened its doors in 1963 for the first 17 inductees, Bert Bell was the first name on the list of inductees. Of all the men the NFL had to thank for its success and prosperity by 1963, Bert Bell was the first man chosen.

In 1963 Bell was recognized as one of the men responsible for shaping the NFL, for bringing pro football into the consciousness of the American public and beyond, and he was rightly regarded as a colossus of the sport, deserved of his place at the very lead of the game’s heroes. It is now more than 50 years since he died in the stands of a game between the team he co-founded and the team he once co-owned, both franchises still active and successful, yet his name had faded from the memory of not only the average fan, but seemingly NFL reporters, and league offices as well.

The NFL owes too much to Bert Bell to allow his memory to fade into obscurity. Bert Bell may have done more for the NFL than any single other man, and deserves more than to be lost in the ether by anybody associated with the NFL, to be consigned merely to the history books.

P.S. Thanks to Pete Damilatis who alerted me to that video of Bell I hadn’t seen before.

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