Friday, December 18, 2015

Are You Ready for Some Football?

Oriard, Michael. Brand NFL: Making and Selling America's Favorite Sport. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007.

Hard to believe, it's but true. In years gone by, playing professional football was a job men did, not for as long as they could, but for as long as they had to. There were lots of better-paying jobs. But some men just couldn't get them. So they had to play football instead. Over the last fifty years, the Super Bowl has gone from being a televised championship game to being the centerpiece of an unofficial national holiday in the United States, a day on which Americans eat more than on any other day besides Thanksgiving. In Brand NFL: Making and Selling America's Favorite Sport, scholar Michael Oriard tells about the people who were a part of that remarkable transition: the players, coaches, commissioners, and team owners of the National Football League.

Oriard reveals, among other things, that professional football's great triumph in recent times was not inevitable. There were a number of unpredictable factors that combined to make the NFL what it is today. Most of all, he describes and attempts to wrap his mind around the incredible profitability of the NFL. He seems most interested in the sums of money that, as he puts it, "overwhelm comprehension," and the ways all those billions of dollars have changed the game (5).

Given his topic it comes as no surprise that Oriard's sources include major newspapers published in cities with an NFL franchise, the New York Times and the San Francisco Examiner, for example. He also cites magazines like Sports Illustrated and Esquire. But because he is interested in how mountains of money have impacted professional football, Oriard also consults periodicals like ForbesFinancial World, and Street & Smith's Sports-Business Journal. In addition to these sources, he sometimes cites his own personal experience as a standout college football player who went on to play a few seasons in the NFL, and who has followed the on- and off-field drama of the game ever since he hung up his cleats. 

For me, Oriard's observations based on his personal experience were some of the most interesting parts of the book. For example, he describes the early 1970s, when the Super Bowl "was still just a championship game with a huge television audience" but was far from what it has since become. To that, he adds this footnote: "As a Chief, I was entitled to buy two tickets to the game but did it only once, when a former teammate from Notre Dame called to ask if I could get him seats. The idea that I should buy my allotment every year, because they would be worth a fortune to someone somewhere, never crossed my mind" (55). Could anyone do a better job of illustrating the difference between then and now?

Oriard does more than report a mountain of information about the modern NFL. He uses his facts in order to piece together big puzzles that render some impressive portraits, maps of the past that are certainly interesting, and maybe even instructive. For example, the author relates the stories of the labor tension and players' strikes of the 1970s and 80s. He describes them in a way that underscores how these events were all part of the same great struggle, one that lasted from 1974 to 1993. He also paints portraits of two great NFL commissioners, Pete Rozelle and Paul Tagliabue. Oriard suggests that although significantly different from one another, each one was the right man at the right time, and that the lengthy tenures of Rozelle and Tagliabue marked distinct periods of solid growth for professional football.

Highlights in this book for me include a section that tells the unlikely story of the origins and rise of NFL Films. Father and son Ed and Steve Sabol both loved football and movies. Combining their efforts and starting with next to nothing, they made some of the best football films ever produced. Oriard reveals that Steve understood both art and film-making, and that he incorporated his knowledge into the careful crafting of NFL Films. The point here is that these films, first produced in the 1960s, generated a tremendous amount of publicity for professional football. Many kids who grew up during that era remember the films when they were first aired on television, turning the sport into a national obsession.

I also appreciated how, in Chapter 6, "Football in Black and White," Oriard drives home the point that because the genetic make up of individuals is so very diverse and mixed, the social construct we call "race" is nowhere close to being a pure biological category. More than once he also points out that the supposedly-natural superiority of the black athlete can be a two-edged sword. Why? Because someone who asserts that the black person is more likely to be a physically-superior athlete might also suggest that that same black person is more likely to be intellectually inferior.

Overall, I learned a lot from this book and enjoyed reading it most of the time. There were points where the sheer volume of facts and figures was a bit too much. On the other hand, no one can accuse Oriard of playing loose with the facts. He likely has as good a handle on the details of professional football as anyone.

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