NFL senior exec Joe Browne looks back on 50 years in league

 

The following piece appeared in the September 7 edition of the Sports Business Journal

 

I look forward to Thursday’s kickoff of another NFL season just like millions of sports fans around the country.

This will be a special one for me because it marks 50 years since I started as a college student working part time in Pete Rozelle’s league office in New York in 1965.

It also will be special because I have decided this will be my final season working for the only employer I’ve ever had.

I recently began telling my younger colleagues that they should consider changing jobs every 50 years or so if for no other reason than to keep fresh.

I have been in the commissioner’s office for more than half of the league’s 96 seasons. I became the longest-serving league office employee several years ago, which was not one of my goals when I began. It’s time for some younger 60- or 50-year-old to take my place.

When I started, I needed working papers from New York state because I was not yet 18. My first football game was a Giants-Steelers matchup in 1965. I sat in a nonreserved section behind the home-plate screen on ground level at Yankee Stadium. I could not see much but … I think the Giants wore blue.

I was so proud to use for the first time that day a gold-plated pass all league employees received that enabled us to enter any stadium in the league. There were only 14 teams then. I wish I had kept that wallet-sized pass.

There were 11 full-time employees when I started in our Rockefeller Center office, including the commissioner and the receptionist.

Now we have 1,100 employees in offices around the globe, and I’m afraid I don’t know all of them by first name.

We moved our main office to Park Avenue in 1968 on the same day I left for Parris Island, S.C. Pete used to tell friends I was the only guy ever to join the Marines simply to get out of an office move. When I returned, I was assigned to Don Weiss and our small public relations department, where I stayed most of my career.

Working for Pete was like getting a Ph.D. in sports business, management and promotion. It was no coincidence his initials were PR. “If you understand that the clubs get the credit and our office the blame, you may survive in this business,” he told me one day at lunch. Pete drank Coke in the morning, smoked Marlboros at all hours, hated staff meetings and hardly ever lost his cool. He understood the impact of network television better than anyone in or outside sports. He was a quiet leader who let you do your job.

Paul Tagliabue began working as outside NFL counsel in the late ’60s. He was more than prepared to succeed Pete in ’89 and led the league through 17 years of labor peace, expansion, stadium development and national crises. Although a small group of media voters who decide inductees to the Pro Football Hall of Fame underestimate Paul’s immense impact on the league, the football people understand his contributions. Ask Bill Polian, Tom Coughlin or Tony Dungy. Paul has been rightfully honored by several national minority organizations for the role he played as commissioner in providing African-Americans opportunity as NFL head coaches and general managers.

My former protégé Roger Goodell has said several times that we were fortunate to have worked for the best two sports commissioners ever. Roger’s right, and he now too has shown great business acumen and wisdom in already his 10th season in charge. He is a strong leader and business negotiator who from day one has been totally dedicated to the league, and has shown relentless commitment to improving our sport, making it more enjoyable for the fans and safer for our players. He has an ability to deal with complex issues, break them down, analyze them and then put them back together better than ever.

There are many reasons for NFL success but having only three commissioner/CEOs in 55 years has given us great stability at the top to lead along with the owners who understand the unique partnership they share.

Both the 50th Super Bowl and 50th anniversary of the AFL-NFL merger occur next year. My role in the merger cannot be overstated since I was the messenger who on June 8, 1966, hand-delivered the press release announcing the merger to United Press International. If I had taken off that day, who knows how the history of the league might have played out.

My feelings toward Super Bowl 50 are bittersweet since this will be only the 49th consecutive Super Bowl that I attend in person.

I was working for the league when the first game was played in Los Angeles, but I watched it from home. However, I played an integral role in the days leading up to kickoff by proofreading rosters and delivering to the post office in New York cartons of supplies that were bound for the West Coast. I am sure it is just coincidence but the only Super Bowl I did not work remains the only one that did not sell out.

Ironically, I did work the NFL championship game in Dallas two weeks earlier that season when the Packers defeated the Cowboys in a New Year’s Day thriller. That for serious football fans was the biggest game of the season, one played between two real NFL teams. No one, including me, thought that the upstart AFL Chiefs would beat Vince Lombardi’s Packers in Los Angeles. They didn’t.

I asked Roger a year ago if I could stay on until the golden Super Bowl 50 is played and he agreed. Not even Pete Rozelle would have imagined the popularity, size and status in this country that Super Bowls currently enjoy. We will have a great time in the Bay Area early next year.

Looking back, I have been fortunate to have been in league meetings when Coach Lombardi commanded the microphone. I had coffee with George Halas in Washington before he testified before Congress regarding the unique structure of the league. I ran horse bets for Wellington Mara and Art (The Chief) Rooney in Saratoga on occasion.

I’ve had a drink with Ronald Reagan in New Orleans after he left the White House, and have been at separate times in the Oval Office with Bush 43 and President Clinton (Bill, that is).

I have traveled to Tokyo for the Japan Bowl, Green Bay for the Ice Bowl and Dusseldorf for the World Bowl.

I spent more time in courtrooms than many lawyers … thanks in part to Al Davis, Donald Trump and the NFLPA. My fondest memory in court was standing 10 feet away from my fellow Queens native, “The Donald,” when the USFL jury returned just a $1 verdict in 1986.

I have lobbied Tip O’Neill and Bernie Sanders on one set of issues in Congress and Newt Gingrich and Orrin Hatch on others. I thought some of my most rewarding work was done when I was executive vice president for government relations and responsible for our D.C. office in the ’90s and 2000s.

We inherited the well-deserved reputation of having the best and hardest-working public relations staff in sports. That started with Pete and his right-hand man Jim Kensil in the early ’60s. I was determined when I became vice president of communications in the early ’90s that it was not going to change on my watch. I believe their legacy continues to this day. Greg Aiello, Pete Abitante, Jim Heffernan and Alexia Gallagher were valuable members of our PR team through the years. We as communications professionals had many accomplishments but also some real challenges dealing with the media on labor strikes, courtroom battles and franchise moves. Our daily work would never be compared to a civil service job. We dealt with issues that so many people care about.

I have been asked which owners I have enjoyed working for, and I remind people that I get paid by all 32. However, Jerry Richardson, Alex Spanos and the late Mara are three for whom I have extraordinary respect, but that doesn’t mean they were reluctant to express their opinions. Mara told me after one league meeting, “If you were the one pushing Rozelle to implement that new policy, I strongly recommend you start looking for other employment, and I will you call you each week to see if you have been successful at that.” He didn’t and, fortunately, I didn’t have to either.

I currently am working as senior adviser to the commissioner in support of our 20,000-plus retired players. While some guys are struggling, so many of them are doing well in their post-NFL careers as businessmen, judges, lawyers, high school and college teachers, coaches, and doctors. Joe Namath, Mel Blount and Fred Biletnikoff are not only Pro Football Hall of Famers but greats guys whom I consider friends.

I already am excited by some of the new challenges awaiting after Super Bowl 50. I am glad it will be an election year because it means a new storyline every day.

However, I still have six months of opportunities ahead of me while assisting my league office colleagues during this 50th Super Bowl season.

I just keep wondering how things might have been different for the NFL if I had called in sick on June 8, 1966.

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