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NFL said no to Nixon blackout proposal

February 12, 2012

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— The NFL, which is trying to maintain its TV blackout of home games that don’t sell out, missed an opportunity 40 years ago to preserve an even more restrictive policy when it rebuffed an effort by President Richard Nixon to lift the hometown blackout just for playoff games.

On a previously unreported tape recording, now in the National Archives, Nixon told his attorney general to offer the league a deal: Allow playoff games to be televised in the hometown city, and the president would block any legislation requiring regular-season home games to be televised as well. At the time, the NFL blacked out all home games, whether they were sellouts or not.

The president was a serious fan and in the early 1970s, he shared the anger of Washington residents who couldn’t watch Redskins games on TV, former aides recalled. The Redskins routinely sold out and the NFL blackout policy left no way for Washington fans without tickets to watch home games. In October 1972, Nixon’s Justice Department had even told Congress it was time for some modification of the blackout policy “in the public interest.”

By December it was clear the NFL would black out that season’s playoff games, including the first-round Redskins-Green Bay Packers game in Washington.

In a Dec. 19, 1972, telephone call just days before that game, Nixon told Attorney General Richard G. Kleindienst to relay this message to NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle: “If you make the move, for these playoff games, we will block any — any — legislation to stop anything else. I will fight it personally and veto any — any — legislation. You can tell him that I will veto it. And we’ll sustain the veto. ... Go all out on it and tell him he’s got the president’s personal commitment.”

Nixon told his attorney general that the NFL “should have absolute protection on all regular-season games” and that “if we can get the playoff games, believe me, it would be the greatest achievement we’ve ever done.”

As Kleindienst began to outline what he would tell Rozelle, Nixon interrupted him.

“But let me say, that I want us to get some publicity out of this,” the president said. “I just don’t want to do this to accomplish it.”

“I understand that,” Kleindienst responded. “And that’s what I’m going to tell him. That without putting your neck on the line ...”

“Oh, I don’t mind my neck on the line at all,” Nixon said.

“Now see if you can work that out and tell him this would be the greatest move he could ever make,” Nixon said at the end of the call. “He’d be a hero to the nation.”

Incredibly, the next day Rozelle rebuffed the attorney general.

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