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How the Saints Allowed the AFL-NFL Merger to Happen

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Without this new franchise, the merger may never have become a reality.

Atlanta Falcons v New Orleans Saints Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

The City of New Orleans had several opportunities to acquire a pro football team, and each one failed.

In 1961, the Oakland Raiders of the American Football League (AFL) were about to be sold and moved to New Orleans until the mayor of Oakland stepped in and stopped the proceedings. After the 1962 AFL season, the owner of the Dallas Texans sought out the possibility of moving his franchise to the Crescent City. When he found out that Tulane Stadium (the only facility large enough) was still segregated, he passed and relocated to Kansas City to which the Chiefs were born. As early as 1965, the National Football League (NFL) had eyes on putting a team in Louisiana. Numerous AFL and NFL pre-season games had been played here also.

1967 Saints Media Guide

Finally in 1967, the NFL granted New Orleans an expansion team and called their team the Saints. But the manner in which this club became an actual pro football team has a story on its own. They were a direct result of the AFL-NFL merger.

During the year of 1966, the AFL and the NFL had agreed in secrecy to begin merger proceedings. Both leagues had had enough of the escalating salaries, among other items. On June 8, 1966, it was announced that the leagues would merge completely beginning with the 1970 season. All franchises in both leagues would remain in their present location with a common draft and common preseason schedule beginning in 1967.

Even though months and months of negotiations had gone back and forth between representatives of both leagues and numerous obstacles were ironed-out, there was one piece of business that needed to be addressed; and with this singular morsel, nobody within the NFL nor the AFL had an avenue to accomplish it on their own.

There was an impasse. A major problem stood in the way of the merger. In fact, the merger just may not happen at all.

FB Ernie Green (#48) gains yardage off blocks by T Monte Clark (#73) and G John Wooten (#60) for the Browns in front of 77,045 fans at Tulane Stadium (New Orleans) in 1967, a 42-7 Cleveland victory

Even though representatives of both leagues had mutually agreed to the unification, the House Judiciary Committee (HJC) in Washington, D. C. had to exempt and approve the merger from antitrust law sanctions. Antitrust laws are set up in the United States as a method to keep competition going, thus giving consumers the advantage of competitive pricing. Without these laws, the result would become higher prices charged for commodities and possibly inferior products, goods or services.

Therefore, when the AFL was in competition with the NFL, everyone had the benefit of choices - players had choices, advertisers had choices and the public had choices.

Now that the two leagues – the only two leagues by the way – were about to be formed into one entity, this meant suddenly there would be a monopoly on the business of pro football. And this – was a problem.

At the time, the chairman of the HJC was Emanuel Celler from New York. By the early fall of 1966, he refused to let the bill out of committee. It was Celler who was the lead House sponsor of the legislation which toughened the “Clayton Antitrust Act of 1914.” This key bill (revised in 1950) closed regulatory loopholes which had once allowed companies to form vertical mergers and also conglomerate mergers - which allowed limits on competition. Having closed up all the gaps in antitrust laws was certainly his specialty, and Celler wasn’t going to budge for some millionaires involved in a children’s game.

The NFL commissioner at the time was Pete Rozelle. Upon brainstorming of what the two leagues were to do next, he spoke with a longtime friend of his from Louisiana named David Dixon. Dixon had been involved with pro football for years and almost owned the Raiders, set up NFL pre-season games in New Orleans and was the driving force for the construction of the Louisiana Superdome. Dixon was also involved in politics.

Rozelle inquired if Dixon knew of anyone who could speak to Cellar and try to change his mind on the bill. Dixon had another idea. His old college buddy was House Majority Leader Hale Boggs from Louisiana. Boggs had a need to regain some public trust after he voted in support of the civil rights bill and was suddenly not the popular politician in a heavily-segregated Deep South. Dixon, along with his political advisor, impressed upon the congressman that he could push the bill through.

In return, the city of New Orleans would be granted the next expansion team - and Boggs would get the credit for doing so. He covertly attached the exemption to a budget bill that was a certainty to pass in both the House and the Senate thus detouring Celler altogether. The bill passed on October 21.

The NFL and AFL got their merger and New Orleans got an immediate franchise.

Barry Shuck is a pro football historical writer and a member of the Professional Football Researcher’s Association.