Since Kennedy was killed on a Friday, there was a decision to be made regarding National Football League and American Football League games scheduled two days later. While the AFL decided to postpone its contests scheduled for November 24, 1963, NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle determined that his league's games should go on. But years later, when Rozelle retired as NFL commissioner in 1989, he admitted that the biggest mistake of his tenure was allowing those Sunday games to go on as scheduled.
Players who were active at that time recall how they were still enduring raw emotions, even to the point of shedding tears prior to kickoff. But how did some of the fans react in those circumstances? I decided to ask for the perspective of former QB Fran Tarkenton, whose Minnesota Vikings were hosting the Detroit Lions that fateful Sunday in front of a relatively paltry crowd of 29,000.
@Brad_Carlson It was eerie. There was no cheering. We played because that's what we were trained to do. #RememberJFK
— Fran Tarkenton (@Fran_Tarkenton) November 22, 2013
Tarkenton's perspective seems to be in line with what many of his peers have said. In the early 60s, there was still an attitude of conformity. If one was told to do something by a superior, it was done. No questions asked.
If there is a silver lining that has emerged out of Rozelle's error in judgment, it would be that subsequent commissioners in pro sports leagues can use it as a cautionary tale. That is they can point out the fact the many NFL players really weren't in a proper emotional state to play the Sunday after the Kennedy assassination. As such, they needed to join their fellow Americans in taking time to mourn and reflect. That's why when the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 took place, NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue wasted little time in announcing that games scheduled five days later would be postponed. Baseball commissioner Bud Selig decided to delay games in his sport for an entire week. But once the NFL & MLB resumed play, fans seemed eager for a sense of normalcy since they had ample time to mourn as well as reflect upon the horrific attacks on American soil. In fact, some of the more high profile heart-warming moments occurred when pro athletes, along with the fans attending the games, took the time to honor some of the heroes (i.e first responders to the scene of the attacks in NYC and Washington, DC) of 9/11.
If sports does anything for the American people, it can provide a necessary diversion from some of the angst of real life, but only in due time. As we've learned over the years, sports can never be a substitute for an ample mourning period.
UPDATE: Tarkenton remembers.