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.
But of all the starry suits in MacCambridge’s constellation, none can match the wattage of Alvin Ray “Pete” Rozelle, Bell’s successor as NFL commissioner, a Zen master of public relations who made all the right marketing moves to broaden the game’s public profile. Rozelle was also a velvet-fisted negotiator who convinced even the most intractable team owners to share television revenues, which, in keeping less-well-heeled franchises from being poor, made all of them rich. (Some have called this socialism with a corporate face; others have labeled it monopoly at its most insidious. They all have a point, though MacCambridge is content to label the whole thing “equality of opportunity for all.”) Rozelle also helped broker the pivotal 1960s merger between the NFL and the AFL. Thus, instead of a bidding war for talent that, some argue, could have capsized both leagues, the suits concocted in its place (cue fireworks!) the Super Bowl, an annual secular holiday during which commercials are treated like competitors at a high-stakes film festival, pop stars jump-start fading personas and–though it’s sometimes easy to forget–a football game is played.
Though there’s a lot of gee-whiz in MacCambridge’s dogged, strenuously thorough account, America’s Game isn’t so awe-struck with its subject that it neglects the bigger smudges: Much (at this late date, maybe too much) is made of Rozelle’s decision to let the NFL play its regular games the Sunday after JFK’s assassination, while the 1980s are dominated by strikes, players getting into trouble with all kinds of drugs, franchises moving out of their home cities, leaving their longtime fans embittered–at least, that is, until another franchise that abandons its own fan base comes along to replace it. Do I hear witnesses from Baltimore and Cleveland? Amen, brothers and sisters! Say it with me: It’s a business. So much so that, judging from the last quadrant of America’s Game, it becomes harder each year to see past the marketing razzle-dazzle, broad-shouldered deal-making and off-field distractions and find the essence of what attracted so many people to pro-football-as-sport in the first place. To his credit, MacCambridge avoids wading too deep into speculation more cosmic than, say, “Pro football is our biggest civic tent, our last genuinely mass entertainment…the perfect symbol for the country’s bustling, modernistic urgency.” Somehow, it still comes across like a stockholder’s report. America’s Game? A better title might have been America’s Product.
Even the league renegades and iconoclasts celebrated in books like North Dallas Forty seem slicker and more prefabricated these days. Seen one narcissistic end-zone victory dance by a receiver and you’ve seen them all. The outrage generated by something as crass as the almost-obscene gesture in January by Minnesota’s gifted pass catcher Randy Moss now comes across as part of the show–and very much beside the point of playing the game. With hindsight, the amplification of pro football’s showbiz veneer, heralded by the noisy mid-1960s arrival of Joe Namath to the New York Jets, seems less like audacity and more like a product feature awaiting its inevitable standardization.
And yet, one of the many pleasures offered by Mark Kriegel’s biography, Namath, is the way it recalls how fresh and exciting it was to suddenly find pro football’s rapidly heating core of energy and hype occupied by a prodigious passer with a rock-star’s hauteur and a high roller’s ring-a-ding swagger. Kriegel’s prose, jazzy in the best sense, swaggers along with its subject as it follows the kid who would be “Broadway Joe” out of the steel-mining town of Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania, to the University of Alabama, where he excelled for legendary coach Paul “Bear” Bryant during the flash-point years of the civil rights era–and where he first injured the knee whose subsequent vicissitudes would make Namath supplant Mickey Mantle as the Achilles of New York City’s sports wonderland. The roller-coaster ride runs through a series of all-nighters at Manhattan nightclubs, hissy fits with sportswriters, a close brush with the military draft in which, for once, as Kriegel writes, “his bad knee was finally good for something.” (If you want to know why so many kids found Namath such an icon in those days, check out what he said after he’d been disqualified for service. “How can I win, man? If I say I’m glad, I’m a traitor and if I say I’m sorry, I’m a fool.” Tell me pop king Phil Spector wouldn’t have put one of his Brill Building song scribes to work writing music to those words!)
All of which is prelude to Broadway Joe’s Achilles moment of apotheosis: the third “World Championship Game” on January 12, 1969, when Namath brashly guaranteed that his underdog Jets, representing the purportedly inferior AFL, would beat the NFL champion Baltimore Colts, who were favored to win the game by 18 to 20 points. Both “the Guarantee” and the Jets’ 16-7 upset victory gave Namath a niche in sports history that his professional career, pockmarked with injuries and post-season disappointment, couldn’t have justified on its own. Rozelle may have helped create the Super Bowl. Lamar Hunt may have named it. But Namath’s cocky candor–viewed now by Kriegel as key to the quarterback’s pool hustler’s strategy to slither inside his opponents’ heads days before kickoff and rattle their nerves by game time–is what gave the Super Bowl its klieg-light unavoidability in the American empire. Putting it in another, less salutary way: No Namath, no “wardrobe malfunction.”
The Jets’ triumph was viewed immediately and for many years afterward as an epochal triumph of the hip, countercultural AFL over the square, plodding NFL. Yet Allen Barra, in his essay on the game reprinted in his collection Big Play: Barra on Football, contends that the following year’s Super Bowl, when the AFL’s Kansas City Chiefs thrashed the NFL’s Minnesota Vikings 23-7, was a far more decisive validation of the merger–and that after the merger took effect in the 1970-71 season, pro football became, if anything, more square and plodding than it had been before the Guarantee.
Barra has made what the film critic Manny Farber once characterized as “termite art” out of puncturing hype balloons and deflating the puffed-up presumptions that pass for conventional wisdom in the sports marketplace. He is among the principal avatars of a brand of sportswriting that bypasses the playing fields and locker rooms to challenge myths reinforced by suits, jocks, coaches, even other sports journalists whose minds have grown flabby with obstinate certainty. If you’ve ever wondered if it’s really true that no pro football team can win without a great running back or questioned the legitimacy of the Heisman Trophy or agonized over whether it’s cool to dig the great quarterback Joe Montana even after he crossed the picket line during the 1987 NFL players’ strike, Barra is your man. He even has the temerity to claim that Green Bay’s Bart Starr was a better quarterback than Johnny Unitas during the 1960s! And he has the added gall to prove it, too.
Barra’s work on football constitutes an unruly hypertext to the sometimes intractable narratives America’s Product concocts about itself. He frequently and cheekily approaches the game’s businesslike patina with his own flow charts and graphs. Yet even with his game face fixed on the “curmudgeon” dial, Barra’s enough of a romantic to wax nostalgic about the New York Giants of the early 1960s or gently revive the dormant reputations of underrated (Herschel Walker) or forgotten (Bronko Nagurski) superstars. His go-for-broke contrarianism offers one approach to writing about pro football, while Kriegel’s accounts of Namath-led Alabama’s glorious defeat in the 1965 Orange Bowl and the spine-tingling 1968 AFL championship battle between Namath’s Jets and the Oakland Raiders suggest that it’s possible to bring an allusive, hard-boiled stylishness to covering football comparable to the elegiac, plummy tone of baseball prose-poetry. Pro football may never let us forget that its principal business is business. But that doesn’t mean we can’t get into its head the way Namath did with the Colts thirty-six years ago and play games with its imperial presumptions.