Reading Football: How the Popular Press Created an American Spectacle

Reading Football: How the Popular Press Created an American Spectacle

by Michael Oriard
     
 

Is football an athletic contest or a social event? Is it a game of skill, a test of manhood, or merely an organized brawl? Michael Oriard, a former professional player, asks these and other intriguing questions in Reading Football, the first contemporary book about football's formative years.

American football began in the 1870s as a game to be played,

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Overview

Is football an athletic contest or a social event? Is it a game of skill, a test of manhood, or merely an organized brawl? Michael Oriard, a former professional player, asks these and other intriguing questions in Reading Football, the first contemporary book about football's formative years.

American football began in the 1870s as a game to be played, not watched. Within a brief ten years, it had become a great public spectacle with an immense following, a phenomenon caused primarily by the voluminous commentary about the game conducted in popular newspapers and magazines.

Oriard shows how this constant narrative in football's early years developed many different stories about what the game meant: football as pastime, as the sport of gentlemen, as a science, as a game of rules and their infringements. He shows how football became a series of cultural stories about power, luck, strategy, and deception. These different interpretations have been magnified by football's current omnipresence on television. According to Oriard, televised football now plays a cultural role of enormous importance for men, yet within the field of cultural studies the influence of football has been ignored until now.

From the book:
"A receiver sprints down the sideline, fast and graceful, then breaks toward the middle of the field where a safety waits for him. From forty yards upfield the quarterback releases the ball; it spirals in an elegant arc toward the goalposts as the receiver now for the first time looks back to pick up its flight. The pass is a little high; the receiver leaps, stretches, grasps the ball—barely, fingers clutching—at the very moment that the safety drives a helmet into his unprotected ribs. The force of the collision flings the receiver backward, slamming him to the turf. . . . This familiar tableau, this exemplary moment in a football game, epitomizes the appeal of the sport: the dramatic confrontation of artistry with violence, both equally necessary."

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
A former player in the National Football League and now a professor of English at Oregon State, Oriard advances the thesis that football is a cultural text, complete with metaphoric content and social context, read differently by people whose interpretations vary over time. He considers the formative years of the sport from the 1870s to the early years of this century, arguing that a reading of the popular press of that era helps us understand how actual audiences ``read'' the sport, based on the narrative structure established first by Walter Camp, who at the turn of the century was the Yale football team's ``unofficial, unpaid, unquestioned chief mentor and arbiter,'' and subsequently expanded by other interpreters. An added attraction of this book is the three dozen-plus excellent illustrations, most from magazines like Frank Leslie's Illustrated Weekly . Because it is about football as a cultural and even a literary phenomenon, this study is unlikely to appeal to a general sports audience. (Sept.)
Library Journal
The hype surrounding modern football is not new. The sport and popular newspapers and magazines grew up together in the late 19th century. Football, with its play-by-play format, was seemingly made for journalism. In this account by a former player, the game's early era (1876-1914) is reconstructed with original narratives and illustrations from the popular press. Oriard shows football's early evolution as a sport, pastime, science, and ``definition of male identity.'' His is a scholarly book on a topic often ignored by the scholarly press. It can be recommended for libraries with collections in sports history and popular culture.-- Donald W. Maxwell, Stone Hills Lib. Network, Bloomington, Ind.
Booknews
Oriard (English, Oregon State U.) played professional football for the Kansas City Chiefs from 1970 to 1973. His study traces football from its beginnings in the 1870s as a game to be played, not watched, and its evolution within a brief ten years into a public spectacle. He shows as significant that the same decade also saw a substantially increased audience for newspapers and periodicals; and he details some of the heated issues played out in the media concerning football--its "manly" virtues and its violence. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)
From the Publisher
Oriard's thesis is refreshingly original.

Nation

A well-researched, fascinating ride through football history that will be enjoyed by scholars and fans alike.

Philadelphia Inquirer

Michael Oriard's important book is a welcome, extremely insightful cultural history of football's early decades.

American Historical Review

[A] careful, fascinating study of football's emerging importance at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth.

Journal of Southern History

Reading Football is a playbook to understanding America.

Robert Lipsyte, sports columnist for The New York Times

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780807820834
Publisher:
The University of North Carolina Press
Publication date:
09/01/1993
Series:
Cultural Studies of the United States Series
Edition description:
1
Pages:
352
Product dimensions:
6.12(w) x 9.25(h) x 1.19(d)

What People are saying about this

From the Publisher
Michael Oriard's important book is a welcome, extremely insightful cultural history of football's early decades.—American Historical Review

The starting point of this careful, fascinating study of football's emerging importance at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century is Michael Oriard's contention that football or more particularly the vast body of writing about football offers the scholar a rich and unique cultural text of the times.—Journal of Southern History

[An] admirable book. . . . Oriard's thesis is refreshingly original.—Nation

A well-researched, fascinating ride through football history that will be enjoyed by scholars and fans alike.—Philadelphia Inquirer

An important contribution.—New England Quarterly

No wonder we struggle against the distorted values of football and television. As Oriard brilliantly shows, those signals were called a hundred years ago when football and the popular press first ganged up to create the cultural text that helped define manliness, violence, and sexuality. Reading Football is a playbook to understanding America.—Robert Lipsyte, sports columnist for The New York Times

Fascinating.—Frank Deford

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Meet the Author

Michael Oriard, who played professional football for the Kansas City Chiefs from 1970 to 1973, is Distinguished Professor of American Literature and Culture at Oregon State University. He is author of Dreaming of Heroes: American Sports Fiction, 1868-1980, The End of Autumn: Reflections on My Life in Football, and Sporting with the Gods: The Rhetoric of Play and Game in American Culture.

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