Why Joe Namath is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame

Today, we take for granted that the NFL is – in the sports brand life cycle – in its maturity.  The period beginning in 1958 after the “the Greatest Game Ever Played” that spiked in the mid-to-late 1960s and smoothly blended into the 1980s and 90s marked the league’s developmental stage (otherwise known in sports marketing as the “growth” stage).  The 1980s and 1990s saw the league enter the maturity stage: though the NFL continues to grow and new records are set nearly every year as more people around the world watch the Super Bowl, the NFL is peaking and we are not seeing the dramatic changes today that we saw in the 1960s.  That decade defined the sport forever and the man most responsible for the sport’s growing appeal and supplanting baseball as the national pastime is none other than Joe Namath.  Arguably, from the administrative side, one can say that Pete Rozelle is the greatest catalyst in the league’s growth in the time period I referred to above.  However, Namath brought the sport and the league into the modern era and cemented its place in American popular culture; in fact, it was for this very reason that “Broadway” Joe was inducted and consequently immortalized in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.  His success in Super Bowl III proved that the AFL could compete with the NFL and led to the merger in 1970.

What Good is a Stage Without the Actors?

As you read in last week’s article on Mark McCormack and Roone Arledge, the former practically invented sports marketing and the latter revolutionized sports media.  In fact, it was during the 1960s that McCormack grew IMG and Arledge created Monday Night Football.  So, by 1969, sports marketing had become much more sophisticated and sports media evolved and entered “prime time.”  In the 1960s, Arledge built the stage and most of the interesting and attractive angles from which fans could watch “the show” and McCormack’s type of sports marketing sold it.  This may be so, but the marquee belonged to Mr. Joe Namath – he was the principal actor, the protagonist, and star attraction.

The 1950s belonged to the Baltimore Colts and Johnny Unitas.  The quarterback from the University of Louisville captured the imaginations and the hearts of fans all over the country.  Boys and their fathers, brothers, and friends would gather around the radio and TV to witness Unitas’ greatness; relatively few women in America followed football at that time.  His golden arm, black cleats, buzz cut, leadership in the closing moments of a close-run game, toughness, and measured disdain for public attention and recognition were but a few of the qualities that fans appreciated the most.  By the time the whistle blew to initiate the opening kickoff of Super Bowl III in 1969, though, the Colts were much older and Unitas was injured.  Nearly 11 years had past since Unitas led the Colts to victory over the New York Giants in 1958 and after Namath and the Jets defeated Unitas’ Colts that fateful Sunday afternoon, the era of white cleats, long hair and fu manchu mustaches, brash guarantees, flashiness, and publicity and glamour had begun.  Football evolved that year as the underdog Jets won in one of the greatest upsets in the history of sports; in fact, now it did not only inspire and captivate… it entertained.

Roone Arledge put Monday Night Football on the air the year after Namath’s Super Bowl victory.  So, who do you think was the star of the first installment of Monday Night Football in 1970?  None other than “Broadway” Joe.  That’s who.

Pro football was ready for the evolution of sports marketing.  Namath’s charisma, personality, and good looks attracted women who otherwise would not have cared much about the sport.  The Pennsylvania native’s transition from his hometown of Beaver Falls, PA to Tuscaloosa, Alabama and ultimately New York is an allegory for the birth and development of pro football: from small town teams of players hailing from their home’s environs to college football players becoming professionals and honing their skills on Saturday afternoons and their ultimate success on the world’s greatest stage on Sunday evenings.  Namath was the sport’s first modern celebrity and prima donna.  He helped the NFL take its next big step.  He is stylish, educated, charming, talented, and always convinced those around him that they could win as long as he was there.

We can surely qualify his exploits, but it proves to be a bit more difficult to quantify them.

It is Not Just a “Numbers Game”

This brings me to my point.  Football is not just a “numbers game” and there are a multitude of intangibles that can propel a man, a team, and a league to succeed that cannot be represented by numbers.  Well, in this case, the record amounts of revenue that properties like the NFL, ABC, and sponsors generated in the years that Namath played (1965-1977) and thereafter would be of prime interest here, since their success depended largely on Namath’s exploits on the field and screen.  Detailed research would surely help my claim, but its inclusion in this article would be a bit superfluous.

When we look at Namath’s career statistics, however, the numbers are not as impressive as those posted by other Hall of Fame quarterbacks.  Other modern-era quarterbacks like Dave Krieg and Randall Cunningham, who posted more passing yards over a career (38,147 and 29,979 respectively), a better completion percentage (58.5 and 56.6 respectively) and touchdowns (261 and 207 respectively) compared to Namath, who passed for 27,663 yards, completed 50.1% of his passes and threw 173 touchdowns (vs. 220 interceptions), most likely will not be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame any time soon.  Namath won a Super Bowl as did Trent Dilfer, though fellow Hall of Famers Fran Tarkenton and Jim Kelly did not.  Other modern-era Hall of Fame quarterbacks posted much better numbers, but there is no one on that list who contributed more to the NFL’s success as a property since the 1960s or helped make it a prime time sport more than “Broadway” Joe.  Career statistics do not necessarily matter on their own.  Besides, the rules of the game have been changed countless times since the days of Broadway Joe.  The NFL “protects” quarterbacks and promotes scoring with some of the new rules that allow quarterbacks to think less about survival and more about “managing the game.”  This was certainly not the case in Namath’s days.  For example, pass interference is a completely different call today than it was 40 years ago.

At the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s website (http://www.profootballhof.com/hall/missionstatement.aspx), one could find the Hall’s mission statement and easily conclude that against popular belief, football really is not just a “numbers game.”  The site clearly states that players “who have made outstanding contributions to professional football” are enshrined in Canton, Ohio and it simply cannot be argued with strong logic nor empirical evidence that Joe Namath did not make outstanding contributions to the sport.  No one who ever played the game was more important to its survival and success.  No one.

Thank You, Joe Namath

The picture headlining this week’s article is a still image from footage of Super Bowl III.  Joe Namath delivered on his promise and the one finger he held high could signify that the New York Jets are “number one.”  Instead, after learning about Broadway Joe and the history of the NFL throughout my life, it is my firmest contention that, with that very gesture, he was telling the world, “I told you so.”

So, thank you, Joe Namath, for everything you did to move the game forward.  It probably was not your primary goal, but because you committed to yours and your teams’ success and shared your talents and personality with the world, an entire sport grew at a record rate and, consequently, inspired and changed the lives of a great many people.  Your success in Super Bowl III made more than one young man or young woman believe that success is always attainable when you have faith, confidence, and fun no matter what the odds or challenge at hand.  The concept of the modern athlete, in general, exists because of you and those who emulate you.  While you inspired viewers with your tenacity and confidence when facing any opponent in spite of injury or distraction, more than anyone else, you made it fun.  You not only guaranteed victory in Super Bowl III… you guaranteed the sport’s place in popular culture forever.

Cam Suarez-Bitar.

Thank you for reading.  If you have questions or comments, please add them all here and we’ll discuss them a bit.

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