CANTON, Ohio — With a half-century’s worth of time spent in the NFL, there are stories. Oh, are there stories Joe Browne can tell you.
Like one of his favorites from 1986, when he stood just a few feet away from Donald Trump as the verdict was read in the USFL’s antitrust case against the NFL.
“Donald was standing in the back of the courtroom, 10 feet away from me, when a woman came [to announce the verdict],” said Browne, a long-time advisor and confidant for NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle.
The long-awaited announcement to a 2 1/2-month trial that was deliberated 31 hours over five days might have led to sweeping financial repercussions for the NFL. The league faced the possibility of paying billions in damages to owners of the USFL, which included Trump, owner of the New Jersey Generals and now the Republican presidential nominee.
As the verdict was read, it became clear Trump and his fellow USFL owners would not cash in. The jury ruled that the NFL did, in fact, constitute a monopoly, and violated antitrust laws to unfairly conspire against the USFL from securing a lucrative national television contract. But the announcement of the jury’s award to the USFL was stunning: $1. Because damages in antitrust cases are tripled, the final amount: $3.
“When she said that [dollar figure], boom, Trump was out of there,” Browne said.
Trump even referenced Browne in his book, “The Art of the Deal.”
“I’ve got to give this to Rozelle: he’s always been great at promoting his league,” Trump wrote. “His chief spokesman is a guy named Joe Brown, and Rozelle deserves credit for using him well. After each day’s testimony, Brown would go to the halls and lobby the press masterfully, telling them what a great day it had been for the NFL. It drove me crazy. I’d say to Harry Usher, our commissioner: ‘Why aren’t you out lobbying the press?’ And he’d say, ‘It isn’t important. It’s the jury we’ve got to convince.’ Unfortunately, that’s not the way it works.”
Browne laughs at the memory, especially the part about Trump leaving off the “e” in Browne’s last name in the book.
“Trump was from Queens like I was,” he said. “After the book came out, I told my mother, ‘Mom, when I write my book, I’ll make sure to spell Donald’s name correctly.”
There is no book from Browne — at least not yet — but there are enough stories to fill the pages of many books. He started working as a part-timer in college in 1965, cutting out box scores from newspapers for the league’s public relations department, and became a trusted advisor, first for Rozelle during the halcyon time of the league’s boom years and then for Paul Tagliabue and Roger Goodell.
Browne was one of the league’s most important behind-the-scenes executives, serving as the head of public relations for many years and then as a liaison for governmental affairs. But it was his role as confidant and friend to the three commissioners that gave him an invaluable place in the league’s inner circle and earned high praise from all three, as well as dozens of high-ranking executives with whom he came into contact over the decades.
Browne’s contributions to the spectacular growth of the NFL, which during his tenure surpassed baseball as the country’s No. 1 sport, have been honored with a place in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Browne was given the Ralph Hay Pioneer Award in Saturday’s Hall of Fame enshrinement ceremony. The award is presented periodically to an individual who has made significant and innovative contributions to pro football. The award is named after the former owner of the Canton Bulldogs, who organized and chaired the NFL’s founding meeting in his downtown Canton Hupmobile showroom on Sept. 17, 1920.
“Joe Browne did a remarkable job representing the NFL during his extraordinary 50-year career with the league office,” Goodell said. “I was fortunate to break in as an NFL intern under Joe. It was a terrific education. Joe was always a fierce protector of the shield, a demanding innovator, and he set the standard for effective sports PR. He was a mentor. He is a friend.”
Browne, 69, couldn’t have imagined the league’s growth during his tenure, although he jokingly wonders how the course of history may have been altered had things gone a little differently — at least for his own career — on the morning of June 8, 1966. NFL executive Jim Kensil dispatched Browne to go to the United Press International office and Peter Hadhazy to the Associated Press to bring the news release announcing the historic AFL-NFL merger.
“I don’t think my role in the merger can be overstated,” joked Browne, who lives in Sands Point with his wife, Karyn, and has two grown children. “I was told to bring the press announcement of the merger to UPI, while one of my colleagues brought it to the AP. We didn’t take it quite as seriously as Rozelle. We talked about stopping for lunch, although if that had happened, I might have been doing something else in my life. What would have happened if I had called in sick that day?”
He kids, he kids. But Browne had no idea what was about to happen to the league’s popularity as a result of the merger and subsequent interest in the game.
“I was with Pete Rozelle from 1965 until he died [in 1996], and we spoke quite a bit, especially after he retired [in 1989],” Browne said. “Pete was a great visionary, and even he couldn’t imagine it would get so big. I couldn’t imagine it either. When I joined part-time when I was a freshman at St. Francis in Brooklyn, there were 11 full-time employees in the league office, including Rozelle and the receptionist. Now, there are 1,100 around the globe, from New York, to London, to Tokyo. I attribute that to great leadership in our office. In my 50 years, I had only three commissioners. That stability at the top is very important.”
It is a testament to Browne’s standing among league owners and executives that 12 owners, as well as Tagliabue, Goodell and several other high-ranking league executives attended a recent retirement dinner at Manhattan’s 21 Club. Among the speakers was Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, and he revisited a moment from one of the Cowboys’ Super Bowl victories. Quarterback Troy Aikman had his back to the end zone on one play, and spun around to find tight end Jay Novacek for a touchdown. Jones asked Aikman later how he made the play, even though he didn’t initially see his target.
“Aikman said, ‘Novacek is always there,’ ” Jones said. “That’s the way I always feel about Joe, even in difficult times. He’s always there.”
And now he’s in Canton, a place where he’s a permanent part of NFL history.
“To have my name in the Pro Football Hall of Fame is not something I dreamed of growing up in Queens,” said Browne, who serves on the advisory board for the Pat Tillman Foundation, the public relations firm FleishmanHillard and assists with the NFL Alumni Association. “It’s been a heck of a ride.”