In 1969 the NFL demanded Joe Namath sell his bar, so he retired

This offseason, Shutdown Corner will travel down memory lane with a series of stories presenting some interesting and sometimes forgotten stories from the NFL's past. Join us as we relive some of the greatest and craziest moments in the sport's history.

Joe Namath, less than five months removed from being named MVP of Super Bowl III, gave a teary-eyed press conference to announce he was retiring from the NFL. He was quitting football rather than sell his share of an infamous nightclub he owned, which NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle demanded he do.

And you thought the 2016 Denver Broncos were having a wild offseason.

There’s so much about Namath’s NFL career and life off the field that would never play out the same way today. He freely told famous writer Jimmy Breslin he would drink during the football season “just about all the time,” and bragged to Playboy about how many women he had been with. The Breslin story, in New York Magazine in 1969, would never have been written in 2016. No athlete would be that open about off-the-field endeavors like how he "stayed in bed all night with the girl and the bottle" the night before the 1968 AFL championship game. Back then, it was just part of the legend of Broadway Joe.

Pete Rozelle and Joe Namath at a press conference announcing Namath had sold Bachelors III (Getty Images)
Pete Rozelle and Joe Namath at a press conference announcing Namath had sold Bachelors III (Getty Images)

Another part of Broadway Joe's legend was the Manhattan nightclub he owned, Bachelors III, which the NFL believed was a hangout for mobsters.

Life magazine said that investigators tapped the phone lines at Bachelors III and found “a full squad of hoods … was operating in Joe Namath’s nightclub.” There were 13 of them, Life said, including 11 operating in gambling rackets, one a bank robber and another “a bigtime jewel thief.” The bar’s phones were reportedly used for bookmaking purposes. Namath said he knew nothing about any of it, but Rozelle demanded Namath sell his interest because of the “unsavory Mafia types who frequented the place,” Sports Illustrated said then. He was given a choice to sell or be suspended.

Instead Namath created his own option: He quit.

That news surprised Rozelle, who was under the impression Namath would sell. But Namath decided he wouldn’t sell out of principle. He hadn’t done anything wrong, he said. More than 200 media members, including Frank Gifford and Howard Cosell, were on hand at Bachelors III on June 6, 1969 as Namath cried and said he was retiring against his wishes.

Joe Namath's image behind the bar at Bachelors III in 1969 (AP)
Joe Namath's image behind the bar at Bachelors III in 1969 (AP)

Of course, Namath didn't retire for good. Namath sold his stake in the club, after long meetings with Rozelle in late June and July. By the end of July he was back with the Jets. He didn't want to sell, but Rozelle wasn't going to back down.

“For the first time in my life, I realized that life isn't fair,” Namath said, according to The New York Times.

Namath also agreed to “become more selective of the company he keeps,” Sports Illustrated wrote in 1969, although Namath remained publicly combative about the whole ordeal. He said all of the things alleged about Bachelors III were not true. He said Rozelle couldn’t provide him any evidence of his wrongdoing or prove that anything bad was happening at his nightclub.

“There wasn't a single shred of fact in any of the charges made about Bachelors III,” Namath said in a Playboy interview in December of 1969 (h/t to Deadspin). “The reasons I sold had nothing to do with the bar itself—and everything to do with not disappointing a hell of a lot of people I know and the fact that I happen to love playing football.”

Later in the Playboy interview, which is stunningly honest especially given the modern context of athletes rarely saying anything controversial, Namath more bluntly stated why he retired rather than sell.

"When I retired, I did it because I felt one way about the whole thing: (Expletive) the money and everything else," Namath said. "I was right, man; there was nothing wrong with Bachelors III."

So we have a commissioner invoking “integrity of the sport” when handing out a punishment to a star player (that’s interesting) colliding with stories of a player whose off-the-field escapades seemed to be a part of the daily sports conversation (also sounds familiar).

Namath’s brief retirement seems like a ploy well after the fact, because it looks like one of those situations with an inevitable conclusion, but Namath didn’t feel that way.

Joe Namath's infamous nightclub, Bachelors III (AP)
Joe Namath's infamous nightclub, Bachelors III (AP)

“Well, up until the day I did it, I really didn't think I would ever play again,” Namath told Playboy months after he sold Bachelors III.

Rozelle worked hard with Namath and with Namath’s lawyers to come to a resolution. This wasn’t some replaceable player for the NFL. Namath was the sport’s most recognizable star in 1969, months after his team pulled off what still ranks as the biggest upset in NFL history in perhaps the most famous game in the sport's history. Namath didn’t want to retire (“The last thing I want to do is quit football,” Namath said at his retirement press conference) and the NFL surely didn’t want him to walk away either.

Rozelle was great for the NFL in many ways, though one has to wonder if he'd have been viewed the same way had Namath not given in. What if Namath, at 26 years old and the game’s biggest superstar in the country’s biggest media market, really had retired for good over Rozelle’s ultimatum? It’s interesting to think about.

Namath ended up playing nine more seasons, and made the Pro Bowl in 1969 after his brief retirement. He ended up going into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1985 in the same class as, you guessed it, Rozelle. Namath never held a grudge with Rozelle over the Bachelors III controversy and told The New York Times just before he was inducted into the Hall of Fame that “we still kid when we run into each other” over the standoff. But Namath was passed over twice for the Hall of Fame before he was voted in, and The New York Times wrote that caused “observers to speculate that there was lingering resentment over Namath's image and Bachelors III.”

Imagine the story happening today: The NFL's biggest star retires for almost two months as he protests the league's mandate that he sell his nightclub because of suspected mob activity in it. It's hard to believe it really happened even 47 years ago, but it all became a part of the legend of Broadway Joe.

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Frank Schwab is the editor of Shutdown Corner on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at or follow him on Twitter!