A Brief History of the NFL

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A Brief History

On September 17, 2020, the National Football League (NFL) celebrated its 100th birthday!

Digging Deeper

Ivy League Roots

The NFL has not so humble beginnings as the first official football game as we know it took place in 1869 between Princeton and Rutgers. The rules were forged as a hybrid of soccer and rugby but it was not until a tremendous rugby player from Yale, Walter Camp, came along in the 1880s who crafted the early rules that we recognize today as American football.

The first paid player came in the form of William “Pudge” Heffelfinger of the Allegheny Athletic Association based out of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, who was paid $500 to play in a game that occurred on November 12, 1892. Thus, the play-for-pay concept was born and so too was the evolution of the professional athlete.

American Professional Football Association (APFA)

The year was 1920 and football needed structure if it was going to endure as a viable addition to the sports landscape in the United States. And if you ever wondered why the Pro Football Hall of Fame is located in Canton, Ohio then we have got the answer for you. The first meeting of the loosely aligned teams occurred at the Jordan and Hupmobile showroom in – you guessed it – Canton, Ohio.

This meeting resulted in the creation of the American Professional Football Conference (APFC) but a month later on September 17, 1920, the nascent league underwent a subtle name change to the American Professional Football Association (APFA). According to the Canton Evening Repository, the thrust of the meetings was to “raise the standard of professional football in every way possible, to eliminate bidding for players between rival clubs and to secure cooperation in the formation of schedules”

On June 24, 1922, the APFA changed its name to the one we know today as the National Football League or the NFL. Although several regional leagues would spring up around the country, the NFL had no real threat to its national dominance. The Canadian Football League was established in 1958 but it catered to a niche market north of the border with different rules and was never deemed a serious competitor for U.S. audiences.


The Merger

Throughout the 30’s,40’s, and 50’s there were a minimum of three iterations of the American Football League (AFL) and another known as the All-America Football Conference (AAFC) that tried to challenge the NFL for professional football supremacy but none of which took hold.

It was not until the fourth incarnation of the American Football League began their league in 1960 that things started to change. This incarnation was a more aggressive version of the previous AFL attempts, and before long, the fledgling league was attracting attention and competing for players with their more established competitor.

On June 8, 1966, the leagues agreed to merge but would operate separately until the merger was complete in the 1970 season. The leagues would hold a common draft and bid for free agents under rules common to both.

The NFL would win the first two Super Bowls while the AFL won Super Bowls III and IV. Once the leagues officially merged, the NFL would remain as the official name, but divided the league into two conferences with the AFL teams in the American Football Conference (AFC) while the NFL teams would be slotted into the National Football Conference (NFC).

Betting on the NFL

The NFL is the most widely bet sport in North America and nothing even comes close. Despite the league garnering soaring television ratings largely because of the audience having a vested financial interest in the outcomes of the games, the league was publicly in vehement opposition to its legalization. The argument was that legalized betting could impeach the integrity of the league and an honest game was paramount above all else.

Nevertheless, illegal gambling was rampant and the NFL was becoming increasingly popular because of it. It was good for business and the cherry on top was that they could pontificate about the evils of sports betting while deriving all of the benefits. And the NFL lines on each and every game would be available in every major metropolitan newspaper despite it only being legal to wager in officially licensed Las Vegas sportsbooks.

With the advent of sports betting going mainstream after the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act of 1992 (PASPA) was overturned, the league’s stance has thawed considerably. The NFL has now hopped in bed with DraftKings, a daily fantasy football concern that essentially paved the way for its older and more infamous cousin, sports betting, to be legitimized.

Draftkings has branched out into the bookmaking business and is not it a bit ironic that the NFL has struck a corporate sponsorship deal with a purveyor of the cash cow they pretended they wanted to slaughter for so many decades. The jig is finally up and the czars of the National Football League can no longer posture that they hate what fills their coffers.

Question for students (and subscribers): What was your favorite moment in NFL history?  Please let us know in the comments section below this article.

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

Horrigan, Joe.  NFL Century: The One-Hundred-Year Rise of America’s Greatest Sports League.  Crown, 2019.

National Football League.  NFL 100.  Harry N. Abrams, 2019.

The featured image in this article, a photograph of Rip King, Al Nesser, Charlie Copley, a woman identified only as Miss Thomas, Elgie Tobin, and Russ Bailey celebrating the Akron Pros’ 1920 championship season, is in the public domain in the United States. This applies to U.S. works where the copyright has expired, often because its first publication occurred prior to January 1, 1926, and if not then due to lack of notice or renewal. See this page for further explanation.

This article is sponsored by Sportsbook Review.

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