A BRIEF AND WILDLY SUBJECTIVE HISTORY OF FOOTBALL
I believe in ... rough, manly sports. I do not feel any particular sympathy for the person who gets battered about a good deal so long as it is not fatal.
—President Theodore Roosevelt
Football began, more or less, as a series of controlled riots. The earliest variations were staged in the 1820s at elite Eastern colleges, often as a class rush designed to visit harm upon incoming freshman. "Boys and young men knocked each other down," the New York Evening Post observed. "Eyes were bunged, faces blacked and bloody, and shorts and coats torn to rags." The brawls grew so destructive that both Yale and Harvard banned the game in 1860.
But restless student athletes continued to assemble teams, eventually challenging other schools to contests that combined elements of soccer and rugby. Representatives met to establish common rules. The line of scrimmage replaced the scrum, a crucial adjustment that granted one team uncontested possession of the ball. A set of downs followed, then a scoring system.
The game remained astonishingly brutal. The only way to advance the ball was for players to lock arms and smash their bare heads against an equally determined and unprotected opposition. In 1904, eighteen players died, most of them prep school boys. Scores more suffered gruesome in juries: wrenched spinal cords, fractured skulls, broken ribs. Editorialists decried football as an abomination unworthy of civil society.
When word reached Theodore Roosevelt in the Oval Office that his alma mater, Harvard, was again considering outlawing the game, he vowed to "minimize the danger," though not so much that the game would be played "on too ladylike a basis." Roosevelt, whose own son had his nose broken playing for Harvard, convened a summit of football authorities. Reforms followed forthwith.
The mass formations, essentially human battering rams, were prohibited. A neutral zone between offense and defense was established, along with a more sophisticated mechanism to advance the ball: a team had to gain 10 yards in three downs. The most radical change was the legalization of the forward pass. A game heretofore restricted to one thudding plane was suddenly, miraculously, bestowed a z-axis. The ball could be sent spiraling over a helpless opponent. In 1913, Norte Dame used its superior passing game to upset a heavily favored and much larger Army team, a contest regarded as the birth of the modern game.
In a spatial sense, football shifted from a mass of heaving bodies to an ornate and calibrated set of formations—double wing, split-T, wishbone, shotgun—that required a division of labor. A clear hierarchy emerged. The quarterback led the offense. He called the plays, took the snap, then handed off to bruising running backs or threw to wiry flankers, while hulking linemen cloistered him from assault. Defenses countered by diversifying into nose tackles, linebackers, safeties.
Speed, agility, and subterfuge took their places alongside brute strength as the game's abiding virtues. For teams to be successful, players had to move in concert, which meant practice, coordination, a growing sense of interdependence. They had to react to multiple contingencies on each play. These strategic demands soon required the introduction of a managerial figure, the coach.
Walter Camp, the game's most famous early champion, regarded football as a form of "purposeful work" that evolved from the chaotic play of rugby. It is easy enough to see the parallels to industrialization here. Football may be the most striking example of incremental innovation in American history.
But something more fundamental was going on as well: the creation of beauty and meaning from controlled violence. The anarchy of a folk game had been shaped into an organized sport, carefully refined, made more coherent and complex. The excessive savagery of football's origins became the engine of its transformation and thus its saving grace.
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Much has been written about the uniquely American quality of football. It is the only major sport that proceeds as a series of marches into enemy territory. It combines ground and aerial assaults. It is the athletic equivalent of manifest destiny. And so on.
A lot of this stuff is hokum, a kind of overheated historiography meant to boil down the complicated origins and growth of this country, and its diverse population, into a single "American" mindset. But the fact remains: in the space of a century football grew from an obscure collegiate hazing ritual into the nation's most popular professional sport.
In Reading Football: How the Popular Press Created an American Spectacle, his revelatory book about the early years of the game, cultural theorist and former NFL player Michael Oriard offers a set of interlocking theories:
"With industrialization, the closing of the frontier, and the migration to the cities, the American male was cut off from the physical demands of everyday outdoor life," Oriard writes. "Thrust into a new world where traditional masculine traits were no longer meaningful, he found vigorous outdoor sports such as football a compensating validation of his manhood."
Consider the plight of a young man born in Chicago or Pittsburgh or San Francisco at the turn of the century. His parents or grandparents were pioneers. Yet he's trapped in some sooty factory or office or slaughterhouse. Toward what diversion might he turn to feel his physical yearnings expressed, to banish the feeling of urban anonymity?
Oriard argues further that football's rich narrative structure allowed sportswriters to convey the thrill of the game, its suspense and artistry, to a mass audience. One such scribe, Heywood Broun, compared football to the stories of O. Henry. "First come the signals of the quarterback. This is the preliminary exposition," he explained. "Then the plot thickens, action becomes intense and a climax is reached whereby the mood of tragedy or comedy is established."
Fans found in football an irresistible duality. It was at once mythic and visceral, liberating and lethal, Eros and Thanatos rolled into one compact drama.
The size of live crowds swelled. By the 1890s, big games drew up to 40,000 fans. This being America, before long fans of means recognized that there was money to be made. Oriard puts it like this: "Football succeeded as spectacle because the games' own structure made narrative drama possible, but also because these narrative possibilities were exploited by football's promoters."
Football historians have a tendency to cite certain games as watersheds. The 1958 championship, in which the upstart Baltimore Colts, led by Johnny Unitas, beat the New York Giants in overtime, is known as "The Greatest Game Ever Played." Or Broadway Joe Namath steering the New York Jets past the insurmountable Colts a decade later, in Super Bowl III. But a far more pivotal contest took place in 1925, when the Pottsville Maroons, champions of the fledgling NFL, upset a squad of Notre Dame all-stars and thus established the league's legitimacy against the dominant college game. This was the crucial first step in transforming an extra curricular activity into a popular for-profit enterprise.
People tend to overlook the fact that pro football entered the twentieth century as a heavy underdog to baseball and boxing, which dominated the sporting landscape. The NFL managed to survive these lean years for three key reasons.
First, the owners, many of them former players, were intensely loyal to the game. Second, they were shrewd and (if necessary) pitiless businessmen. Third, and most surprising, they viewed the league as a collective endeavor that would require shared sacrifice, an attitude generally rare amongst men of privilege.
Owners of less prosperous teams routinely lost tens of thousands of dollars each year. Despite these setbacks, most stuck with the league. They understood that the popularity of the college game had created a market for the pros, along with a built-in labor pool that included national stars such as Red Grange. And they accepted that the NFL would survive only if all of its teams remained competitive and solvent. They worked together to outflank and eventually absorb rival startups, and approved a number of egalitarian innovations.
League schedules, for instance, pitted the weak against the weak and the strong against the strong early in the season—a scheme designed to keep teams in contention for as long as possible. Owners would later jigger with the college draft to achieve the same end, allowing the worst clubs to select first.
Finally, the NFL, following the example of its erstwhile rivals in the AFL, eventually decided to structure its television deals so that all teams received an equal share.
To be clear: the owners who agreed to these measures were, as a rule, extraordinarily rich men intent on becoming more so. But they also knew that unleashing the hounds of capitalism would create a pigskin version of the New York Yankees, which would lead to poorer teams going under, which, in turn, would doom the whole endeavor.
Football enjoyed other crucial advantages in the emergent marketplace of American fandom. The pace and the temperament of the game resonated with a rapidly industrializing culture. Baseball, measured against its younger rival, felt meandering, pastoral, restrained.
It was football that managed to pluck at the American tension between violence and self-control, brains and brawn, ferocity and grace, individual stardom and communal achievement, between painstaking preparation and the instant of primal release. The action was simple enough to appeal to a child, the strategy dense enough to engage men of learning.
And, of course, television changed everything.
To say that TV has been good for football would be like saying that roads have been good for cars. Most Americans had never seen a football game until television showed them one. Games were rare, geographically isolated events (particularly in contrast to baseball, with its 162-game season and countless minor leagues).
Television proved the ideal medium for revealing the pleasures of football to a mass audience. Cameras framed and magnified the action. The complex mayhem of the game, the jarring collisions, all became simultaneously more intimate and abstract. Commentators helped make sense of what viewers were seeing. Intense bursts were followed by reflective lulls. Drives lent a dramatic structure to the game. But because a team could lose possession on any given play, there was a fluid quality to the action. Fans were subjected to what behavioral psychologists would recognize as a variable reinforcement schedule. There was always the chance that a play would break big, that a runner would slash into the open field, or that a receiver would nab a pass and head for daylight. Or, best of all, that some unforeseeable calamity—a blocked punt, an interception returned for a touchdown— would swing the momentum.
Football also managed to hit the Goldilocks zone when it came to scoring: there was enough to keep fans engaged, but not so much as to make it seem routine. The winding down of the clock served to ratchet up suspense in close games. There were even timeouts for snacks and bathroom breaks.
Perhaps most important, the sly handiwork of multiple cameramen and skilled editors intensified the visual impact of each contest, bringing into focus intricacies and eliciting emotional valences that might otherwise have been lost. Don DeLillo put it like this: "In slow motion the game's violence became almost tender, a series of lovely and sensual assaults. The camera held on fallen men, on men about to be hit, on those who did the hitting. It was a loving relationship with just a trace of mockery; the camera lingered a bit too long, making poetic sport of the wounded."
By the sixties, pro football had surpassed baseball as the nation's top spectator sport. Not only did it flourish on television, but with the print media as well. "I'm developing a strong hunch that pro football is our sport," noted André Laguerre, the managing editor of Sports Illustrated, in 1962. "We have grown with it, and each of us is a phenomenon of the times." Laguerre deemed the college game "too diffuse and regionalized" and baseball "old-fashioned."
Under the guidance of its young, media-savvy commissioner, Pete Rozelle, the league made several prescient decisions. It created a division called NFL Properties, which brought interests such as merchandising and promotions in-house. The league recognized, long before its competition, that America had become an information economy, and it flooded media outlets with stats and player profiles.
Rozelle was essentially a PR man, and he understood the American lust for the mythic, the manner in which his fellow citizens yearned to feel part of some heroic past. In 1965, he convinced the owners to create NFL Films, which amounted to a ministry of propaganda. The highlight reels produced by this outfit were wildly ambitious cinematic productions that featured bloody linemen, frozen breath, and floating spirals, all set to a rousing score, and narrated by a voice actor whose flair for gravitas fell somewhere between Captain Kirk and Darth Vader. It is virtually impossible to watch one of these films without feeling engorged by delirious notions of valor. They are football porn.
Given the game's appeal to traditional masculine values, it's hardly surprising that men of power gravitated to the game, nor that the ad executives of the world understood its lucrative associations. What remains shocking is the vast reach of the game, the manner in which it united low and high culture, the egghead and the meathead, the radical and the reactionary, the proletariat and the President.
Eisenhower played the game, as did Jack and Bobby Kennedy, rather famously. But it was Richard Nixon whose fanaticism was most blatant. In 1969, Nixon telephoned quarterback Len Dawson minutes after he led the Kansas City Chiefs to a startling win in Super Bowl IV. (Informed that he had a call from the President, Dawson responded, "The president of what?") Nixon spiked his campaign speeches with football jargon. He used gridiron nomenclature to nickname military operations. He didn't just go to games. He visited the practices of his favorite team, the Washington Redskins.
The scene I can't get out of my head is of Nixon milling around outside the broadcast booth at a 1971 pre-season game, waiting to do a brief televised chat with Frank Gifford, the former Giants star turned broadcaster. Nixon can't stop talking about how he used to watch Gifford play, how he attended the Giff 's post-game cocktail parties. This is the most powerful man on earth, still three years from his appointed disgrace, and he is unable to settle his nerves. "I know Frank Gifford," he says. "I'm sure he'll remember me."
The NFL marketed football as a traditional game, shaped by Establishment values. The league was both a friend to big business and a crucial partner. It had survived its precarious infancy largely by adopting the tactics of the emerging corporate culture.
But it wasn't just Nixon and the rest of the squares who loved football. Here's what Abbie Hoffman, the most famous dissident of the sixties, had to say about football haters: "They're a bunch of peacenik creeps. Watching a football game on television, in color, is fantastic." This is to say nothing of the Black Panthers, who gathered on Sunday afternoons to watch at a bar owned by hall of famer Gene Upshaw, or George Plimpton, who devoted two books to the game.
"Football is not only the most popular sport, it is the most intellectual one. It is in fact the intellectuals' secret vice," the critic William Phillips observed in 1969. "Much of its popularity is due to the fact that it makes respectable the most primitive feelings about violence, patriotism, manhood."
A more generous way of saying this is that football provided a lingua franca by which men of vastly different beliefs and standing could speak to one another in an increasingly fragmented culture. It cut right through the moral ambiguities and antagonisms of the era.
Consider the one and only meeting between President Nixon and his counter-cultural bane, Hunter S. Thompson. The two spent most of the hour swapping game stories, after which Thompson noted, with reluctant admiration, "Whatever else might be said about Nixon—and there is still serious doubt in my mind that he could pass for human—he is a goddamn stone fanatic on every facet of pro football."
The British writer James Lawton puts it this way: "If all sport is magnificent triviality, American football seems least tolerant of its limitations."