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An anniversary note

Bell the man behind first NFL draft — 75 years ago

By Greg A. Bedard
Globe Staff / April 24, 2011

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Despite the lockout, it will be business as usual at Radio City Music Hall on Thursday night for the NFL draft.

Sure, there will be some awkward moments with the Players Association hosting events in New York. And commissioner Roger Goodell is sure to get booed when he takes the podium — perhaps every time he does — but otherwise it will be the same.

Lots of glitz. Lots of gab from the talking heads. And Jets fans being Jets fans, though probably a lot happier than at drafts past.

It will be a shame, however, if neither the NFL, nor ESPN, nor NFL Network will take time out to do what is right during the draft’s 75th anniversary — pay tribute to the man responsible for it (along with the drafts for every sport), Bert Bell, the former Eagles owner and NFL commissioner from 1946-59.

The idea came to Bell when he went to the University of Minnesota in 1933 to sign Gophers fullback and linebacker Stanley Kostka. Before the draft, that’s how it was done. Team officials would descend upon college campuses to negotiate with the top talent. Imagine if that went on these days (more on that below).

Kostka ended up signing with the NFL’s Brooklyn Dodgers.

“I made up my mind that this league would never survive unless we had some system whereby each team had an even chance to bid for talent against each other,’’ Bell told the Associated Press.

Until that point, the league was dominated by four teams: Bears, Packers, Giants, and Redskins. “They were the only teams that drew any fans or made any type of money,’’ said Upton Bell, Bert’s son and a former general manager of the Patriots.

Two years later, as described in Bell’s biography, “On Any Given Sunday: A Life of Bert Bell,’’ he made his pitch at the league meeting in Pittsburgh.

“I’ve always had a theory that pro football is like a chain,’’ Bell told the other owners, according to the book. “The league is no stronger than its weakest link and I’ve been a weak link for so long that I should know. Every year, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. Four teams control the championships . . . Because they are successful, they keep attracting the best college players in the open market, which makes them more successful.’’

George Halas of the Bears and Tim Mara of the Giants initially balked at the suggestion but eventually came around.

The first NFL draft was held Feb. 8-9, 1936, at the Ritz Carlton in Philadelphia, owned by Bell’s father.

“Franchise owners crowded into Bert Bell’s hotel room, shucked their jackets, and cleared sitting room on beds and bureaus,’’ wrote Robert Lipsyte in the New York Times. “Bottles circulated, solemn oaths of league solidarity were taken, and the college stars were distributed.’’

University of Chicago halfback Jay Berwanger was the first pick of Bell’s Eagles after he became the first winner of the Heisman Trophy. But Berwanger refused to play for the Eagles and his rights were traded to the Bears for needed cash and players.

The rest is history.

“Certainly, I’m proud because to me he’s really the forerunner that saved all of sports because everybody adopted [the draft] afterwards,’’ Upton Bell said. “I can remember commissioners of other sports calling him over a period of time saying, ‘Tell me how you do it, how it works.’ But on the other hand, and I see two of the greatest self-promoting groups around — ESPN and the NFL — and you would never know Bert Bell existed. I have never seen or heard a word about him.’’

But those who helped found the NFL have. When Halas testified in an antitrust hearing in Washington, D.C. in 1976 — some 18 years after Bell died of a heart attack during an Eagles game at Franklin Field — he sung the praises of Bell’s invention of the draft and its effects on the league.

“The National Football League college draft has been the backbone of the sport and is the primary reason it has developed to the game it is today,’’ Halas said.

It is with great irony that the 75th anniversary of the draft is happening during a lockout and while an antitrust suit is pending against the league.

Bell was the first commissioner to recognize the NFLPA and institute a pension plan — at the risk of being fired.

More than 50 years later, the NFLPA and lead counsel Jeffrey Kessler are asking the courts to abolish the draft and every other mechanism (free agency) that prevents a free capitalist market for player services.

“An NFL world in which there is no collective bargaining agreement and every player is for himself and every team is for themselves is a world without a draft; a world without free agency rules; there is no salary cap and no salary floor; player benefits are negotiated or not depending on what the team and the player decide to do,’’ said NFL executive vice president Eric Grubman. “It’s a world where the rules related to drug testing, roster size, when you practice — you can’t have those if you go to the final conclusion suggested by [the NFLPA attorneys]. That’s the objective of the litigation in the Brady case. In that world, the underlying competitive model of the NFL falls apart.’’

While Kessler seems to be serious about his want of a free-market system, it’s likely just a ploy to gain leverage at the conclusion of the court case.

But if not, a lot of team personnel would be back in Bell’s shoes at the University of Minnesota if there was no CBA.

“You go back to a system pre-1936 where the NFL is recruiting on college campuses,’’ Grubman said. “Every team is going to be after Cam Newton. I’m not sure that college football is ready for the NFL to begin recruiting its players.’’

Teams could get underclassmen to leave early. Or even target players out of high school. That’s a system Bell fought against — because it was in the best interest of the league, which is now at a crossroads.

Somebody probably should mention that this week.

“The draft is Bert’s monument and . . . the key to the continuous success of the NFL,’’ New York Times columnist Arthur Daley wrote shortly before Bell’s death. “That’s why none should ever forget the far-seeing man responsible for it.’’

Especially not now.

“I don’t think he’d like it,’’ Upton Bell said of the current labor woes. “I think he would find it disturbing. Understanding that times have changed and the money involved, I don’t think he would ever be for the lockout of the players and I don’t think he would have let it get to this point.’’

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