The American Presidency and the Business of Pro Football (1960-1976)

In 1972, President Richard Nixon charged Attorney General Richard Kleindienst with an important task: stop the National Football League (NFL) from ‘blacking out’ the playoff games on local television. For two decades, the NFL had blacked out games that took place within 75 miles of their playing site in order to increase ticket revenue and guarantee attendance at home games. The president, an ardent football fan, was determined to turn the League’s controversial policy to his political advantage: ‘Playoff games – just like the World Series – should be open to the public’, he told Kleindienst. ‘But let me say that I want us to get some publicity out of this…believe me, it’ll be the greatest achievement we’ve ever done.’ Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, politicians became increasingly invested in the business of professional sport, and the nation’s leading athletes concurrently became more involved in business of politics. Presidents’ willingness to engage with football players and League executives rose in conjunction with the sport’s popularity during this period. For example, the Nixon administration offered substantial business loans to Black players in exchange for their valuable political endorsements during his re-election campaign. This paper determines the origins of presidential involvement in the NFL, and argues that various administrations – both directly and indirectly – helped the League grow its commercial and cultural influence in the United States. It examines media coverage of government-football relations in the context of the Cold War and the Civil Rights Movement, and considers the lasting impact of presidents’ relationships with those who helped make the National Football League the country’s most powerful – and profitable – sports enterprise.