Why the NFL Can't Play on Friday and Saturday (and Other Times Congress Interfered with Football)

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This season, the NFL added a weekly Thursday night game, which puts professional football on TV three nights a week. Later on, after the bulk of the college football season is over, Saturday will also be in the mix—but for now, the league has to stay away from Friday and Saturday. Why? Because Congress said so.

After two attempts to sell the NFL's broadcasting rights were declared illegal because of antitrust concerns, NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle headed to the Hill to whip up support. In 1961, Congress passed the Sports Broadcasting Act, which exempted broadcasting rights by major sports leagues from antitrust decisions and cleared the way for the NFL to sell a broadcasting package to CBS, where all teams share the rights equally.

However, the law is more famous for helping to set the NFL broadcasting schedule. To protect fans of college and high school football, Congress also approved language that barred professional games on Fridays and Saturdays during the schools' seasons. The NFL still stays away from those days outside of rare exceptions, like when Christmas falls on a Friday. The Act also led to the blackout policy, which lets the league block games from a home market broadcast area if they have not sold out.

Sports and Antitrust Legislation

That's not the only time Congress has helped oversee the NFL's business. Sports are defined as interstate commerce, which means Congress has the Constitutional power to regulate them (hence the baseball steroid hearings and antitrust legislation inspired by and named after St. Louis Cardinals centerfielder Curt Flood). Most of the Congressional sports oversight has dealt with antitrust issues, including a high-profile piece of legislation in 1966 that exempted the merger of the NFL with the American Football League from antitrust laws.

In order to secure that bill, Rozelle had to make a few promises, notably that no franchise would move from its current city (that went out the window 16 years later, when the Raiders left Oakland for Los Angeles in 1982) and football would be played only in stadiums with more than 50,000 seats. That meant no more Wrigley Field for the Chicago Bears; the New England Patriots, Buffalo Bills and Minnesota Vikings had to move as well.

The bill's most significant secondary result, however, came from a bit of politicking. Rozelle leaned on Louisiana's Sen. Russell Long, the Democratic whip, and Rep. Hale Boggs, the acting majority leader, to help move the bill through, and they obliged by even redirecting it out of a committee with a potentially unfriendly chairman. Less than a month after the bill passed, Rozelle announced that New Orleans would be getting an NFL team: the Saints (read more about the tale here).

Steroids and Beyond

Congress has also weighed in on everything from HGH testing (members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee have pressed the NFL on why it hasn't started testing) to concussions (the House Judiciary Committee held a hearing on the topic in 2010). The Senate Judiciary Committee was even set to hold a hearing on the Saints bounty scandal last summer until NFL commissioner Roger Goodell met with committee chairman Dick Durbin and convinced him that the NFL was taking enough action.

And that's not to mention the four NFL alums who have been elected to Congress, including current Reps. Heath Shuler (D-N.C.) and Jon Runyan (R-N.J.) and former Reps. Steve Largent (R-Okla.) and Jack Kemp (R-N.Y.). When asked by the New York Times about why he had gone into politics after football, Kemp joked that playing the game had given him "a good sense of perspective."

"I'd already been booed, cheered, cut, sold, traded and hung in effigy," he said.