Review of Richard C. Crepeau's "NFL Football: A History of America’s New National Pastime"

tags: book review, Richard C Crepe, NFL Football

Mr. Briley is faculty emeritus at Sandia Preparatory School.

As we approach the fiftieth anniversary of America’s great secular holiday, the Super Bowl, a reading of Richard Crepeau’s concise history of the National Football League (NFL) provides some insight into how American professional football came to dominate national culture across boundaries of race, class, and even gender as well as cast a giant shadow internationally.  Crepeau is a professor of history at the University of Central Florida and a past president of the North American Society for Sport History, who does an excellent job of placing the rise of professional football within the broader context of American history.  NFL Football is a work of synthesis, and Crepeau draws upon the vast popular and scholarly writing on the sport; especially the work of Michael Oriard, a former professional football player who is now a leading scholar of American sport.  Crepeau writes in a lively and direct matter that will easily be accessible to the general reader; however, fans seeking a history of the NFL’s major players and franchises may be somewhat disappointed.  Crepeau’s history concentrates more upon how the NFL has grown into a business monopoly that has succeeded in securing generous government subsidies, made masterful use of television opportunities and revenue, weathered labor disputes and challenges from rival leagues, and adjusted to the demands of a new media age in the twenty-first century.

Crepeau begins his book with an overview of how professional football, under the leadership of men such as George Halas and Curly Lambeau, began in the industrial cities of the Midwest as a working-class response to the college game.  The early years of the NFL were, indeed, difficult as the league struggled to enjoy the popularity of college football or Major League Baseball.  In the post-World War II period, nevertheless, football would replace baseball as the nation’s pastime, and the bulk of Crepeau’s study is devoted to the role played by the NFL in the transformation of American sporting culture following the Second World War.

It is common among many sport historians to date the emergence of the NFL on the national stage to the league’s 1958 championship game between the New York Giants and Baltimore Colts, which was won by Baltimore 23-17 in a sudden death overtime period.  While acknowledging the drama of the contest, Crepeau argues that the NFL was not made by one game.  The league was steadily growing in the 1940s and 1950s, and the television networks were already aware of professional football’s potential as dramatic action programming.  Crepeau also argues that football fit well with the changes in post-World War II culture as individualism gave way to the values of the outer-directed “organization man”—epitomized by the machine-like coordination of a team such as the Green Bay Packers.  “The people-oriented team players of postwar-urban America,” concludes Crepeau, “were given direction from others in their group.  They responded well to conformity, authority, and organization” (104).

Corporate values, however, were under attack in the 1960s, and Crepeau employs the figures of Jim Brown, Joe Namath, and Vince Lombardi to examine the turbulent era.  The racial integration of the NFL is an important topic in Crepeau’s book, and the author credits Brown with challenging racism within the sport exemplified by team racial quotas and stacking at particular positions.  The NFL today is a black majority league, but the position of quarterback remains predominantly reserved for white athletes—a fact which Cam Newton of the Carolina Panthers noted in the press coverage leading to Super Bowl 50.  Traditional values were defended by Lombardi whose reputation as a disciplinarian was embraced by Richard Nixon, although politically the Green Bay Packer coach was more of a Kennedy liberal.  Joe Namath symbolized the youth rebellion of the 1960s, but he was more of a cultural than political rebel.  Nevertheless, Namath was the future of the game in which players were allowed to become more expressive.

Crepeau gives considerable attention to NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle who is often praised for creating the modern NFL.  Rozelle is usually credited with maintaining competitive balance through revenue sharing, negotiating the television contracts that filled the NFL coffers, arranging for the merger of the American Football League into the NFL, negotiating lucrative stadium construction projects with municipal and state governments, mandating an orderly expansion of the league, and maintaining good relations with Congress.  Crepeau, however, is more critical of Rozelle; noting that the Commissioner was primarily a public relations man whose actions were motivated by a desire to protect the NFL brand and the cartel over which he presided.  In support of his argument, Crepeau considers Rozelle’s failure to deal with the steroids crisis in the league and the numerous labor disputes with the National Football League Players Association (NFLPA).  In addition, Al Davis, owner of the Oakland Raiders franchise, was able to successfully challenge the NFL’s monopoly in the federal courts.  Crepeau offers a more positive take on the work of Paul Tagliabue, who served as NFL Commissioner from 1989-2006.  Tagliabue is lauded for bringing labor peace to the league through negotiations with the NFLPA—although Crepeau does not elaborate upon why the unionization of Major League Baseball was able to achieve a greater degree of labor solidarity than the internal fissures which often characterized the NFLPA.  As far as the current NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell is concerned, Crepeau asserts that thus far he has “displayed a combination of great skill, woodenness of personality, and an imperious pairing of hubris and arrogance” (172). 

Crepeau concludes his history with an examination of the Super Bowl which he argues is characterized by excess.  Describing Super Sunday as a “bloated monster,” Crepeau insists, “Over the past four decades, Super Sunday illustrates the ability of a sporting event to offer a distorted and exaggerated version of social reality and social values.  The Super Bowl has done so on a grand, glorious, and obscene scale” (191).  Crepeau observes that the Super Bowl models the conspicuous consumption, leisure, and waste that Thorsten Veblen wrote about in The Theory of the Leisure Class.  And Crepeau foresees no end to this growing Super Bowl excess barring “massive economic collapse or a hysterical wave of sanity sweeping the country” (207).

Despite the hype of the Super Bowl, Crepeau does perceive major problems on the horizon for the NFL—especially the concussion issue in which the league, similar to the tobacco companies, has attempted to discredit scientific evidence.  How a popular sport based upon violent collisions will be able to continue its growth when confronted with brain research, the deteriorating physical and mental conditions of former players, and the increasing number of parents pulling their children from youth football programs is a major challenge for the NFL.

Meanwhile, we have the media circus and conspicuous consumption of another Super Bowl in which the halftime musical show and television commercials often seem to overshadow the game itself.  For those who would like to take a break from all the hype, Richard Crepeau’s history of the NFL offer some much needed perspective on how we got to this orgy of excess.     

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