How Halas used media to build NFL: ‘I learned editors like superlatives’

A few weeks back in a column on Marshawn Lynch, I mentioned how George Halas used the media to help build the NFL.

In the piece, I had this line: My old colleague Don Pierson said, “The Tribune saved the NFL, maybe even made it.”

Well, Pierson told the rest of the story about Halas and the media in Sunday’s Chicago Tribune. You also can access the story via my Twitter feed at @Sherman_Report.

Lynch and other media-leery NFL players might want to read the piece to get an appreciation of how the media played a role in making them millionaires. They also could learn a thing or two from Pierson’s insights. Don was a true mentor for me, and one of the most respected NFL writers of all time. There’s a reason why his name is in Canton.

From Pierson’s story:

In the beginning, pro football begged for media attention to help it rise. Almost 100 years later, pro football begs off. In the end, whenever that comes, media attention may hasten pro football’s demise.

Bears founder George Halas, who practically invented play for pay, was his own press agent, writing articles in the 1920s for newspapers that thought the college game was the only pure and true football worth covering.

Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch isn’t the first NFL player to get fined for refusing to cooperate with the media. His teammate, Richard Sherman, isn’t the first to make fun of NFL rules requiring cooperation, even though the astute Sherman is quite adept at using the many media outlets now available for self-promotion.

Halas would have loved Twitter, provided he could have mastered the profanity codes.

Halas wrote in his autobiography, “Halas By Halas” (McGraw-Hill, 1979), referring to the mid-1920s: “At last the newspapers discovered the Bears. I kept writing articles about upcoming games, and by reading the papers I learned editors like superlatives. I blush when I think how many times I wrote that the next game was going to be the most difficult of the season, or how a new player was the fastest man in the West. I would write how fearless they were on the field, but what fine gentlemen they were at all other times.

“One glorious Monday I awoke to find the Chicago Tribune had made our game its top sports story. I went to the Tribune and thanked the young sports editor, Don Maxwell.”

Leave it to Halas, of course, to point out the symbiotic relationship between his enterprise and newspapers: “Maxwell said, ‘The Tribune and I should thank you. Sunday in autumn is a dull sports day. We need something exciting for our Monday pages.’ “

Pete Rozelle also knew the media’s role in growing the league:

Rozelle took media cooperation to another level. If a player failed to call back a writer seeking an interview through his team, league rules dictated the player’s home phone number be given to the writer. Players like Archie Manning, father of Peyton and Eli, gladly shared home numbers anyway.

And a final warning from Pierson:

Rolling in money, the NFL still appreciates attention but recognizes only positive and negative coverage as opposed to true or false coverage. Truth is not always a convenient ally. Truth gives way to spin.

But truth always prevails, eventually. Ubiquitous media, including many players themselves as “journalists” via their own websites, reveal cracks in pro football’s golden egg, exposing an ominous core.

There is plenty to report. For every provincial story extolling Sunday’s heroes or congratulating sincere efforts by many players to make positive differences in society, there are headlines such as “Ex-player sues over concussions.” Or: “Arbitrator overturns Ray Rice suspension.” Or: “Is football the next tobacco?”

No amount of talk or silence from coaches, players, commissioners or public relations specialists, no amount of “favorable” or “unfavorable” publicity, and no amount of regret or reaction from adoring or skeptical fans will be able to change or suppress the truth. Stay tuned.


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