Making a Case for Pro Football

It was with good reason that newspapers covered the National Football League (NFL) lockout this year in both the sports and finance pages. Professional football is very big business. In 2010, NFL revenues exceeded $9 billion. (In contrast, the revenues for Major League Baseball were $7.2 billion and $4.1 billion for the National Basketball Association.)

Success on this scale would have been unthinkable when the NFL was founded 91 years ago this week. Back then, pro football was struggling for acceptance. Americans loved the game, but only when played by college teams. For years, the NFL struggled to build a following for the professional sport, which was considered inferior to the college version. This misconception led one of its star players to write in its defense for a 1932 issue of the Post.

“Do you believe a great college team could beat one of the good teams in the National Professional league?”

That’s a question people ask me frequently. My reply is that I believe the college eleven would have little, if any, chance of winning. I add that the professionals’ margin of victory should be more than one touchdown. So saying, I bare my reddish locks to the storms of criticisms that will fall on my head.

Those reddish locks belonged to Harold “Red” Grange, formerly the star halfback at the University of Illinois. At the time of writing, the “Galloping Ghost”played for the Chicago Bears, helping to lure fans of his college performance to the pro games.

My belief in pro superiority … is grounded on the experience of three years of comparative skylarking on college gridirons and six bruising years in professional football.

Professional footballers, Grange says, play a longer season. They don’t have many of the advantages college players enjoy, like some of the best coaches in the game. And they are powered by—

The gentleman very much in action is Tennessee's Bad News Cafego.
The gentleman very much in action is Tennessee’s Bad News Cafego.

a pregame emotional frenzy created by publicity, campus tension, the bands, and the fire-eating alumni.

In my own university days, I was convinced that the fate of the nation hinged on whether we defeated Michigan. I believed that my dad … might have a stroke if we lost.

But a fanatical desire to win and the inspiration of a coach won’t take a halfback over, around, or through a hard, fast line which averages 220 pounds from end to end. That’s what you face when you line up against the Green Bay Packers, for example.

Professional ball players must face tough, hardened veterans who know all the tricks and feints, which are so effective among college players.

The pros work out five days each week; they play on the sixth, and have their day off on Monday, instead of on Sunday, as is the case in college. The three hours of practice are largely devoted to football fundamentals, even though most of the men have played for years.

The professional footballer, Grange adds in those innocent days, had to really like the game to stick with it.

The pay isn’t large and there are easier ways to make a living. The average pay for a professional squad is about $125 per player, per game [$1,900 in current dollars]; a team plays from fourteen to eighteen games each season. The highest salary any player in the league receives, I believe, is about $10,000 a season. [$160,000 in today’s money.]

[Just as revenues have grown since 1932, so have salaries. The median income for NFL players is over $750,000 a year. The highest annual salary is $18 million.]

In conclusion, there is one thing in which I take plenty of pride. It is not in the fact that I gained more than two miles of ground in my twenty games at Illinois—thanks to superb blocking by the Illini.

I do take pride in the fact that during 1931 I led the Chicago Bears, for the season, in average gains from scrimmage, carrying the ball 605 yards in 114 attempts, an average of 5.3 yards on each try. On many of those yards I carried a 225-pound lineman on my back for company. If ball carrying in pro football gets any harder, I’ll simply have to take up bridge.

This action photograph taken during a professional game in Chicago would seem to indicate that the pros leave little, if any, of their boyish enthusiasm behind them when they leave college. Grange is shown carrying the ball. On the left side of the page Grange is shown in a game between the Chicago Bears and Brooklyn.