The 1925 National Football League Championship, claimed by the Chicago Cardinals, has long been the subject of controversy. The controversy centers on the suspension of the Pottsville Maroons by NFL commissioner Joseph Carr, which prevented them from taking the title.
The Maroons were one of the dominant teams of the 1925 season, and after defeating the Chicago Cardinals on December 6, came away with the best record in the league. However, Carr suspended and removed the team from the NFL after they played an unauthorized exhibition game in Philadelphia, on the grounds that they had violated the territorial rights of the Frankford Yellow Jackets. Chicago played and won two more games against weak NFL opponents, but were sanctioned because a Chicago player, Art Folz, hired four Chicago high school football players to play for the Milwaukee Badgers under assumed names to ensure a Cardinals victory.
Pottsville supporters argue that the suspension was illegitimate because the League did not then grant exclusive territory rights and that- in any event- they had verbal League approval to play the game in Philadelphia. Further, they argue that the Maroons, who were reinstated the next year, would have had the best record had they not been suspended. Others claim that Chicago were the legitimate champions based on the rules of the time. In 1963, the NFL investigated and rejected Pottsville's case, and in 2003 refused to reopen the case. Both the NFL and the Pro Football Hall of Fame continue to list the Cardinals as the 1925 NFL champion.
Under the league rules during that time, the NFL title was automatically given to the team with the best record at the end of the season instead of having the winner be determined by a playoff tournament. There was an open-ended schedule during that season; although the final listed league games ended on December 6, teams could still schedule contests against each other through December 20 to make more money.
On December 6, Pottsville defeated Chicago, 21–7, to establish the best record in the league and seemed to all but officially clinch the NFL championship. Before they were awarded the championship, however, they were suspended by NFL commissioner Joseph Carr for playing a team called the "University of Notre Dame All-Stars" in Philadelphia (winning 9–7), on the grounds that the game violated the territorial franchise rights of the Frankford Yellow Jackets.
The game against the Notre Dame All-Stars had been originally devised by Frankford. It was planned as non-league exhibition game between former Notre Dame stars and the top NFL team in the east; after defeating the Maroons 20–0, Frankford had believed they would indeed be the NFL's top eastern team. However, when they were later defeated by the Maroons in a second contest, they lost the right to play the game. Instead, Pottsville would host the All-Stars at Minersville Park, while Frankford scheduled another league game against the Cleveland Bulldogs. Pottsville was excited to host Notre Dame, hoping it would be a huge financial windfall for the team. However, they felt that Minersville Park, a high school field with a low capacity, was too small for such a big event. Instead, they scheduled the game in Philadelphia, in the Yellow Jackets' territory. Frankford protested to commissioner Carr, who warned the Maroons in writing that they faced suspension if they played in Philadelphia. However, the Maroons claimed that the league office verbally approved the game during a telephone call.
As a result of the suspension, Pottsville was prohibited from playing a scheduled game against the Providence Steam Roller or from completing its season. Ironically, Frankford was hurriedly substituted for the game at Providence. Meanwhile, Chicago scheduled and won two hastily arranged games against teams that had already disbanded for the season. This was within the NFL's rules at the time; teams were required to play eight league games, after which point they could either wrap up for the season, or schedule additional games to make more money. Hoping for some more cash, the Cardinals arranged to play the Milwaukee Badgers and the Hammond Pros, both of whom had already dispersed. Indeed, the Badgers were unable to bring back their full roster and resorted to substitute four high school players, which was in violation of NFL rules. The NFL heavily sanctioned both Chicago and Milwaukee following their game, going so far as to force the Badgers owner to sell the team. Carr said they would consider the game for removal from the standings; however, this never happened.
Cardinals owner Chris O'Brien was later offered- but refused to accept- the Championship title for his team. At the owners' meeting after the end of the season, he argued that his team did not deserve to take the title over a team which had beaten them fairly. It appears that his reasons for scheduling the Milwaukee and Hammond games had been not to take the title, but rather to convince the Chicago Bears to play his team again – the Bears, with Red Grange in their roster, were a very lucrative draw. The NFL said it would revisit the issue later, but never did. It was only after the Bidwill family purchased the team in 1933 that the Cardinals began claiming the championship title.
It is sometimes stated that Pottsville played a fairly easy schedule prior to their suspension, often facing teams that were less than full strength from playing the day before in Frankford, making Pottsville's case less sympathetic. However, the Maroons' final three games were against the Green Bay Packers, who finished the year at 8–5–1, the Yellow Jackets, who had beaten them earlier in the year and finished 13–8, and the Cardinals. Furthermore, Pottsville had beaten Chicago, proving they were definitely a premier team.
By 1963, the NFL appointed a special commission to examine the case, but voted 12–2 in favor of continuing to recognize the Cardinals as champions. The lone dissenters were Art Rooney and George Halas, the then-owners of the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Chicago Bears, respectively. In 2003, the issue was brought up again during the league's October owners meeting. However, the NFL voted 30–2 not to reopen the case, with the lone supporters being the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Philadelphia Eagles, the league's two Pennsylvania teams. Ironically, Philadelphia's franchise is the direct successor to and is the same franchise (although, in league records, not the same team) as the Frankford Yellow Jackets, the very team that filed the protest that resulted in the ruling in the first place; the Eagles replaced the Yellow Jackets after the latter went bankrupt and ceased operations.
One of the strongest opponents of a reversal has been the family of Charles Bidwill and his son Bill Bidwill, who have controlled the Cardinals since 1933, and began to claim the 1925 title as their own. Because the now-Arizona Cardinals franchise currently holds the NFL record for the longest championship drought and also the longest championship drought within the four major professional sports leagues, having won only one title since 1925 (in 1947) and only five playoff games (three of those in one postseason) in sixty years, this futility has been attributed to a sports-related curse placed on the team by Pottsville.
The controversy involving territorial rights also led to the founding of the first American Football League after New York Giants owner Tim Mara objected to the leasing of Yankee Stadium and the application of an NFL franchise by C. C. Pyle. When the NFL rejected Pyle's overture, he formed a competing league to showcase the talents of Red Grange and University of Washington All-American George "Wildcat" Wilson. The rival league folded after the 1926 season, and Mara relented, allowing Pyle to operate his team in the NFL and in Yankee Stadium.