Toward the end of the undervalued 1979 movie adaptation of former pro football receiver Peter Gent’s undervalued 1973 novel, North Dallas Forty, a beat, bent lineman, played by the late John Matuszak, takes out his postgame frustration on a petty-minded coaching assistant, piercing the latter’s abusive cloud of hot wind with this telling grievance: “Every time I call it a game, you call it a business. Every time I call it a business, you call it a game!”
With modest adjustments, this cri de coeur could be plaintively submitted by any corporate drone who’s ever dreamed outside his or her little gray box. But it’s also possible to apply “Tooz’s” trenchant line to the problem of writing about professional football as it is played in these United States. You try to bring romance, poetry, even drama to the table and, sooner or later, it’s overpowered by the sheer tonnage of dollars and cents involved in making the National Football League the media leviathan it has become. Every time several million dollars changes hands in buying a franchise or securing a TV network contract, the media’s eyes get big and round. As with everything else in the pop entertainment firmament, pro football’s arcane pleasures can’t be taken seriously by solemn minds except in the context of the game’s economic reach–and maybe its cultural significance, as when, say, pop singer Janet Jackson had a breast-baring “wardrobe malfunction” during last year’s Super Bowl halftime. But even that stuff somehow comes tethered to big bucks. Romance and finance are, to certain sensibilities gazing upon the NFL, one and the same.
There are so many suits and suites in America’s Game, Michael MacCambridge’s chronicle of pro football’s mid-twentieth-century ascension to 800-pound orangutan among US sports, that the reader can be forgiven for wondering just what game the book’s title refers to. Granted, there are plenty of scores and highlights woven throughout the book. (One expects nothing less from the author who edited a companion volume to ESPN’s millennium-capping SportsCentury series.) And it would be a foolish historian who fails to make clear, as MacCambridge does, that everything the NFL is today grew out of the 1958 NFL championship game between the New York Giants and the Baltimore Colts. That game made Colts quarterback Johnny Unitas one of the era’s exemplars of cool for leading his team to an overtime win and marked pro football’s arrival, in MacCambridge’s words, “as a viable alternative to baseball, not merely as the most popular sport, but the one that best defined America.” Somehow one doesn’t remember all of it happening with the immediacy that passage implies. But that “sudden death” game did galvanize many people within reach of a television set–including rich suits like Lamar Hunt, circumspect son of a reactionary Texas oilman, who was inspired by the 1958 game to get himself a pro football team and eventually form the rival American Football League, which would in the end only make the leviathan bigger.
Before Hunt, there were less restrained, more rakish suits setting the table for the bounty to come. Most prominent among these was Bert Bell, the avuncular NFL commissioner who set each season’s schedule on his dining room table in Narberth, Pennsylvania, using dominoes and matches; and Dan Reeves, who moved his Rams franchise westward from Cleveland to Los Angeles after World War II and, in so doing, cleared a trail for a modern gold rush for all manner of sports teams. Probably the most important of the suits to emerge before 1958 was Paul Brown, founder and namesake of the Cleveland Browns, who brought streamlined organization, broader racial diversity and tactical ingenuity to the roughhousing pro game.