Last weekend, just 24 hours after a tragic murder-suicide committed by one of its own players, the Kansas City Chiefs played their Sunday football on schedule. Back in 1963, just 48 hours after the nation-shaking assassination of President Kennedy, the NFL played its Sunday football games as usual, a decision later deeply regretted by then-commissioner Pete Rozelle. Will last Sunday’s decision be regretted as well?
President Kennedy was pronounced dead on Friday afternoon, November 22nd, 1963. Two days later, less than one hour before the early games were about to start on Sunday, Lee Harvey Oswald, the alleged assassin, was shot dead by Jack Ruby. Yet as Kennedy’s body lay in state in the Capitol and as the nation reeled with shock, the NFL played on.
Looking back almost 40 years later, the decision to play seems absolutely bizarre and almost perverse. What was Pete Rozelle thinking?
It is true that Rozelle consulted Kennedy’s press secretary, Pierre Salinger, who, in 1993, still felt it was the right to play the games. “Absolutely, it was the right decision,” he said. “I've never questioned it. This country needed some normalcy, and football, which is a very important game in our society, helped provide it.”
And it is true that, Robert Kennedy visited the Philadelphia Eagles in a pre-season game in 1964, shaking hands with the players and telling them the Kennedy family was glad they played the games.
But Rozelle ultimately thought otherwise, calling his decision the biggest mistake of his career, and many of the players, who were not happy they were required to play, agreed with that assessment. (Interestingly, the American Football League, at that point a rival league just three years old, postponed its games.)
Of course, on a national level, the events of last weekend, as tragic as they are, cannot be compared to the assassination of the president. Yet there was something bizarre about the football game going on without a hitch in the very stadium where, 24 hours earlier, Jovan Belcher had taken his own life after murdering his girlfriend, leaving their three-month-old daughter an orphan.
The Chiefs’ organization certainly tried to handle the situation with sensitivity. The CEO met with the players and coaches and ultimately left the decision to them. And rather than beginning the game with a moment of silence in honor of Belcher, they began with a moment of silence in memory of victims of domestic violence, thereby focusing on the murder victim more than the murderer.