This landmark work explores the vibrant world of football from the 1920s through the 1950s, a period in which the game became deeply embedded in American life. Though millions experienced the thrills of college and professional football firsthand during these years, many more encountered the game through their daily newspapers or the weekly Saturday Evening Post, on radio broadcasts, and in the newsreels and feature films shown at their local movie theaters. Asking what football meant to these millions who followed it either casually or passionately, Michael Oriard reconstructs a media-created world of football and explores its deep entanglements with a modernizing American society.Football, claims Oriard, served as an agent of "Americanization" for immigrant groups but resisted attempts at true integration and racial equality, while anxieties over the domestication and affluence of middle-class American life helped pave the way for the sport's rise in popularity during the Cold War. Underlying these threads is the story of how the print and broadcast media, in ways specific to each medium, were powerful forces in constructing the football culture we know today."[Oriard] captures the self-aggrandizing illogic of the game's cultural role in his absorbing study of early 20th-century culture.New York Times"This excellent book should be required reading on any American Studies course worth the name. . . . Oriard's detailed and well-written work shows us how the game has been constructed through notions of national, gendered and ethnicand, as he insists, also classidentities.Journal of American StudiesIn this landmark work exploring the vibrant world of football from the 1920s through the 1950s, Michael Oriard explores how the mass media shaped and were shaped by the exploding popularity of football. King Football is at once a sweeping cultural history of football, a provocative study of the power of print and broadcast media, and a compelling investigation of American attitudes about race, class, and gender and their relationship to sport.>
|Publisher:||The University of North Carolina Press|
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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
In 1932, a book titled King Football indicted the big-time intercollegiate sport for commercialism, anti-intellectualism, distorted priorities, fraud, hypocrisythe full range of charges currently in the air. The author was Reed Harris, who had been the editor of Columbia University's campus newspaper until March of that year, when the administration expelled him for his attacks on various university practices including its sponsorship of a big-time football team. Harris was reinstated on appeal (after a student strike and intervention by the Civil Liberties Union) but declined the privilege and wrote King Football instead.
A few years later, another radical critic, James Wechsler, appropriated Harris's title for discussing the sport in his own book about student militancy and administrative repression. Wechsler was sympathetic to football players, who toiled for little pay, but he despised the institutionalized game as a reactionary force on campus. For Harris and Wechsler, "King Football" was a vulgar, bloated, mead-swilling pretender.
For the editors of the pulp magazine Sport Story, welcoming the 1932 season with a hearty "Hail, King Football!" His Majesty was a jolly and benign ruler, presiding over three months of festivity. This was the majority viewpoint. An article in 1933 in the Literary Digest by the New York Sun's George Trevor worried about how "King Football" was faring in the Depression. The following season, a six-column cartoon in the Portland Oregonian captured the merry monarch in all his gaiety"Here Comes King Football, the Popular Old Rascal, to Demand the Attention That Is His Due This Time of Year"as did the program for the Ohio State-NYU game in 1936.
By 1938, "King Football" was among the clich‚s of the sport satirized by a writer in the Atlantic Monthly, but the sportive monarch easily survived such mockery. An editorial in the 1939 inaugural issue of Football News joyfully proclaimed, "At this time of year we look to King Football to wear the crown in his royal manner." A history of the sport in a magazine published by the Dow Chemical Company in 1947 had the title "King Football." His Highness still ruled as late as 1963, when a history of the high school sport celebrated the rise of "King Football in Texas."
The Reign of "King Football"
My book is a study of "King Football" from the 1920s through the 1950s, a period mostly marked by the enthusiasm of the editors of Sport Story and the Football News, but rarely without the censure of a Reed Harris or James Wechsler. My underlying question will be a simple one: what did football mean to the actual millions who followed it, whether casually or passionately, during this period? The book continues an investigation I began several years ago in Reading Football: How the Popular Press Created an American Spectacle. Football was born on college campuses in the Northeast in the 1870s and reached its first maturity, its acceptance as a spectator sport, by the 1890s. Popularity by no means meant unambivalent embrace, however; football's early decades were marked by hyperbolic condemnation as well as praise. Controversies over "professionalism," "overemphasis," and, above all, brutality provoked periodic efforts at reform, culminating in major revisions of playing rules and institutional practices in 1906, 1910, and 1912. Having begun as a version of rugby, American football developed in the 1880s and 1890s along the lines of infantry warfare, as the first generation of coaches devised various strategies for massing the offensive attack on a vulnerable point in the defensive line. What pleased coaches appalled critics of the resulting mayhem and, more pragmatically important for football's future, risked boring its newly won fans. Those fans were drawn to the game, in large part, by the sensationalized coverage in their daily newspapers, inaugurated by Joseph Pulitzer and his rivals in New York who created the modern newspaper. With the game uneasily established as both an extracurricular activity and a great public spectacle, the rule makers opened up play, most significantly by legalizing the forward pass, and largely completed the transformation of American football from its rugby beginnings to the game we know today.
Football thus reached its second maturity on the eve of the Great War in Europe. A handful of schools had dropped the sport for its brutality, and Cal, Stanford, and some other West Coast universities had briefly abandoned American football for the less-brutal rugby version, but otherwise intercollegiate football was now played throughout the country, and high schools everywhere were adopting the collegians' game. Professional football had as yet no formal organization or even social acceptance, but former college stars had played for pay as "ringers" on athletic club teams since 1892, and by the early 1900s professional teams were forming in many midwestern towns.
The outbreak of war interrupted football's development, only to spur it to greater growth afterward. Football's "Big Three," Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, were among the colleges that suspended their football programs as the United States was drawn into the conflict, while others scaled back and the game's promotional engines were geared down. Walter Camp named no All-America team for 1917, and the Rose Bowl in 1918 and 1919 featured service teams instead of collegians. But the war also turned out to be an impetus to the tremendous growth of football in the 1920s. Walter Camp helped organize a service-football program that introduced the game to thousands of young men. An editorial in the New York Times in 1919 declared that "football owes more to the war in the way of the spread of the spirit of the game than it does to ten or twenty years of development in the period before the war." Equally significant, one of the greatest shocks war brought to educational leaders was the discovery that as a nation we were physically deficient. During the war, patriotic articles in such magazines as American Boy declared that the American system of school athletics trained young men in discipline, courage, teamwork, endurance, and other qualities necessary to soldiers. Following the armistice, however, General Leonard Wood reported that half the American men drafted had been unfit for service. An avalanche of calls followed for mandatory physical education and for intramural and interscholastic athletic programs. Historians point to this "preparedness crisis" as an important context for the renewed emphasis on rugged sports as Americans returned to peacetime pursuits. Concern over the country's physical health, at the same time the economy was booming, leisure time was expanding, and the marketing of a new consumption ethic went into high gear, helped generate the sporting explosion of the 1920s.
Table of ContentsPreface
Part I. In the Kingdom of Football
Chapter 1. Reading, Watching, and Listening to Football
Chapter 2. Local Football
Chapter 3. Who Cares about Reform?
Chapter 4. Players' or Coaches'Whose Game Is It?
Chapter 5. Gridiron, U.S.A.
Chapter 6. Sanctioning Savagery
Part II. What We Think About When We Think about Football
Chapter 7. Class?
Chapter 8. Ethnicity
Chapter 9. Race
Chapter 10. Masculinity
Epilogue. Into the Age of Television
Appendix A. Football Films, 1920-1960
Appendix B. Football Covers on the Saturday Evening Post and Collier's, 1920-1960
Appendix C. Football Fiction in the Saturday Evening Post and Collier's, 1920-1960
What People are Saying About This
This excellent book should be required reading on any American Studies course worth the name. . . . Oriard's detailed and well-written work shows us how the game has been constructed through notions of national, gendered and ethnicand, as he insists, also classidentities.Journal of American Studies
When it comes to explaining why footballin partnership with complacent and compliant mediahas become such a dominant cultural force in American society, Michael Oriard is unsurpassed. King Football only adds to his achievements as a historian, sociologist and writer.Sandy Padwe, Graduate School of Journalism, Columbia University
This excellent book should be requried reading on any American Studies course worth the name.Andrew Blake, Journal of American Studies
Brilliantly and exhaustively researched, clear and well-written, Michael Oriard's King Football both continues his previous work on the role of college sports in American culture and takes it to a new level. Among other accomplishments, he explains where all those images of coaches and players in our heads come from and, in so doing, demystifies them. King Football is a wonderful book, essential reading for anyone interested in this uniquely American phenomenon.Murray Sperber, author of Beer and Circus: How Big-Time College Sports Is Crippling Undergraduate Education
[Oriard] captures the self-aggrandizing illogic of the game's cultural role in his absorbing study of early 20th-century culture.New York Times
For the fan with a scholarly bent.USA Today
In this unique, detailed book Oriard describes and analyzes the game of football from the 1920s through the 1950s. . . . Documentation of sources is exceptionally well done and painstakingly detailed. This book is highly recommended for general readership.Choice
Oriard shows that the media were a powerful force in constructing the football culture we know today. He also shows how football culture reflects broader changes in U.S. society. . . . A book football enthusiasts will enjoy, this is recommended for all libraries.Library Journal
Oriard offers a rich and comprehensive survey. . . . King Football is an important successor [to Reading Football], tracing the sport's evolution in the media right up to 1960, at the doorstep of the television age. In a country where sports continue to be deeply ingrained in the national identity, this is a topic worth examining.ForeWord