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Pigskin Nation: How the NFL Remade American Politics

Pigskin Nation: How the NFL Remade American Politics

by Jesse Berrett


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Cast as the ultimate hardhats, football players of the 1960s seemed to personify a crewcut traditional manhood that channeled the Puritan work ethic. Yet, despite a social upheaval against such virtues, the National Football League won over all of America—and became a cultural force that recast politics in its own smashmouth image. Jesse Berrett explores pro football's new place in the zeitgeist of the 1960s and 1970s. The NFL's brilliant harnessing of the sports-media complex, combined with a nimble curation of its official line, brought different visions of the same game to both Main Street and the ivory tower. Politicians, meanwhile, spouted gridiron jargon as their handlers co-opted the NFL's gift for spectacle and mythmaking to shape a potent new politics that in essence became pro football. Governing, entertainment, news, elections, celebrity—all put aside old loyalties to pursue the mass audience captured by the NFL's alchemy of presentation, television, and high-stepping style. An invigorating appraisal of a dynamic era, Pigskin Nation reveals how pro football created the template for a future that became our present.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780252083327
Publisher: University of Illinois Press
Publication date: 04/11/2018
Series: Sport and Society
Pages: 304
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Jesse Berrett earned a PhD in History at the University of California, Berkeley. He has worked as a rock critic, television columnist, and book reviewer. He teaches history at University High School in San Francisco.

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No Football Fans, Just Football Intellectuals

Football is unique among American sports ... and as played by professionals in the past decade, it has replaced baseball as our national sport. We may be trying to tell ourselves something.

— Thomas Morgan, "The American War Game"

In the 1950s, serious people didn't pay attention to professional football. Only four of the more than 150 articles in the New York Times' massive collection of sports pieces from its first century, published in 1951, concerned the NFL, and Allison Danzig's 1956 History of American Football described only the college variety. The nonfan majority dismissed it as little more than barely regulated mayhem. What Steelers' coach Chuck Noll labeled a "criminal element" in the 1970s, a charge that landed him in court on charges of slander and libel, ruled the field. Forty-niners linebacker Hardy Brown, a notorious "black hat," knocked out twenty-one opponents in twelve games in 1951. Life depicted "Savagery on Sunday" in 1955 — so insultingly that two members of the Eagles won libel suits against the magazine. The trial offered this inspiring example of self-defense from Bucko Kilroy, who had been ejected from a game in 1948 for kneeing the opposing center in the groin: "It is all according to what you mean by kicking." Fans did their part to live up to this reputation: a riot in San Francisco after a 1958 Colts–49ers tilt required eighteen radio cars, twenty motorcycle policemen, and eight patrol wagons to put down. Forty-niners' owner Vic Morabito, alarmed by rumors that fans intended to "get him," summoned a police escort to get home safely.

Within fifteen years, these terms changed drastically. By 1970, to a surprising number of intellectual admirers, professional football served as a resonant image of precise, disciplined application of force. What one magazine admiringly termed "complex violence" made pro football worth thinking about, and worth thinking with. Formerly eminent college-football writers suddenly found themselves "having to apologize for their existence," wrote one observer. The sport's literature exploded in the 1960s, general-interest magazines giving it heavy coverage and specialty magazines catering to the devoted fan. Books poured from the presses, and prestigious cultural critics turned their eyes to the pro game, even if they often did not like what they saw. This vigorous and highly varied production posed significant challenges for the NFL's promotional apparatus.

David Boss, an idiosyncratic visionary who imprinted his personal stamp on what could well have been mere boilerplate, oversaw the league's publishing arm, the Creative Services Division. His products aimed for a hip, plugged-in readership. Without intending anything as complex as Pop Art's simultaneous critique and embodiment of mass-mediated fabrications, his productions aspired to and gestured in that direction. Boss's work was corporate propaganda — a Coke can rather than Warhol's paintings of Coke cans — but corporate propaganda that often boasted unexpected intellectual heft.

NFL Creative did not just produce but actively solicited interpretations; it was in the business of getting outsiders to think seriously about NFL football. This created a challenge: intellectuals and journalists uninvested in the league's bottom line often ascribed enormously different, and often unflattering, meanings to the same events. All of these perspectives abstracted from players' experiences of the game, approaching the game as spectacle or drama far more often than as lived experience. The league had no problem with this — it just wanted to limit what those abstractions were. In an intermittently successful attempt to wrest control of the narrative, the NFL spent the '60s working out how to assert its historical importance and cultural value with enough clarity to blunt intellectuals' worst criticisms, yet retain enough vagueness to avoid tying itself to any particular political persuasion.

By the early 1970s, its print productions aggressively defined the relation between NFL football and American culture by gathering up frequently diametrically opposed football was vigorous, heroic, fair, painful, but necessary — the essential expression of a complex and multifarious America. The NFL attracted serious consideration of its product, but its lack of control over the means of intellectual production meant that quite a few of those considering the significance of professional football came to conclusions that the league would have preferred they not reach.

Savagery to Science

Michael Oriard, who has read more journalistic coverage of the sport than anyone, notices "a dramatic shift" in visions of the NFL late in the 1950s. In part this came about because pro football actually was less violent, for PR and practical reasons: the reign of the "Black Hats" ended, spurred by increased public awareness of their brutality (especially the Life pictorial) and by the precision of Vince Lombardi's offenses, which remorselessly punished head-hunters who failed to fill their assigned lanes on defense. College football did its part by enduring its most trying days yet. "Is college football destroying itself?" Readers Digest wondered in 1959. The scandals pocking the decade provoked broad recognition of the gaping disparities between the ideal of amateurism and the reality of multiple student-athletes' cheating, boosters' amassing slush funds to pay players, and coaches' eviscerating their schools' academic requirements nationwide — a repeated, and repeatedly transient, theme since the 1880s. The breadth of such wrongdoing impelled mainstream media outlets to discover a renewed appetite for critical coverage. "Too Much Football" might induce a "Football Headache," prompting exasperated onlookers to contemplate "The Hypocrisy of College Football." Hugh McElhenny, whom the University of Washington had enriched to the tune of $30,000 and three cars, admitted, "Hell, I can't afford to graduate." His 49ers teammates joked that he took a pay cut to join them — a one-liner that painted professional players as, ironically, both more upstanding and less well-compensated than their collegiate counterparts.

That avalanche of hypocrisy impelled journalists to suddenly discern redemptive qualities in the pro game's "flowering of violence and exactitude," as Life put it. And not a moment too soon. Judging from books like The Decline of the American Male (1958) and films like Rebel Without a Cause (1955), the average American man was a pathetic shrimp dominated by women and frightened of even the meekest assertion of autonomy. But professional was here to save the day. The New York Times wrote that "the magnificence of the spectacle, the artistry of the performances and the savagery of the play" in the championship game "could not help but make converts of any who had not previously seen the light." Modern celebrity professionals date to this period: Johnny Unitas was the first pro football player to be more famous than any college player. Time's November 1959 cover story, "A Man's Game," featured the granite face of Giants middle linebacker Sam Huff, only the second NFL player to appear there, and exclaimed over the exotic mammals on the field: "mountains of muscle" manning the defensive line; linebackers, "agile as jungle cats"; "lean, whippet-fast" defensive backs; "magnificently muscled" Jim Brown. Pro football, argued the magazine, was "a game of precise and powerful virtuosity." Huff passed on less virtuosic counsel to the young people of America: "Play as hard and vicious as you can" to avoid injury. Though the "unspoken code" is that "there is no deliberate intent to maim," noted Time, "even at its cleanest, pro football is a game of awesome violence."

Popular-magazine editors felt a particular fondness for the notion of pro football as a manly yet highly technical profession ("a school of violence," the New York Times had it), repeatedly publishing more or less the same article over the next decade and usually teasing the story on the cover. The same month that Time profiled Huff, the Saturday Evening Post ran a piece in which hard-bitten Steeler quarterback Bobby Layne warned, "This is no game for kids. You have to be a man and be treated like one." Life ran five minimally different stories between 1960 and 1972, with topics as similar as "Battle Cry: Get the Quarterback!" (1961) and "Suicide Squad: Pro Football's Most Violent Men" (1971), illustrating the latter feature with a photo spread showing players getting walloped in gruesome detail. The October 1966 cover story in Life extolled linemen's "delicate violence, using skills as precise as they are brutal and blunt." Perian Conerly even joked in 1963 that she should title her journal of life as the wife of the Giants quarterback Massacre on Sunday: A Searing Indictment of Pro Football. The bad old days were now fodder for winking nostalgia.

Suddenly, professional football was popular. (Mary McGrory called it a cult.) But why? The quantity of arguments for its exploding appeal was surpassed only by explanations of that appeal. In the late '60s, coverage changed again: now football was not just violent and technical but also interesting. "There are no football fans anymore," one journalist wrote in 1971, just "football intellectuals." While that was obviously not the case, a wave of thinkers began to wax sociological about the game's appeal, pointing to the consolations of the 14 No Football Fans, Just Football Intellectuals lonely crowd, the need for clarity, the development of a new consciousness, or some atavistic desire for pleasures the modern world denied.

This marked a significant change. College football, with its national profile, array of scandals, and cultural cachet, had attracted serious attention from social critics, muckrakers, celebrity correspondents, and activists since the 1880s. Professional football had drawn sporadic interest, most notably from the communist and African American journalists who forced the newly relocated Los Angeles Rams, and eventually the entire NFL, to reintegrate from the late 1940s onward. But in general it was a newspaper backwater, the toy department's toy department. Frank Gifford ruefully recalled that when he joined the Giants, not a single one of New York's eight dailies bothered to assign a reporter to the team, relegating coverage to a collection of "second-stringers moonlighting between baseball seasons." Don Weiss, the NFL's head of Super Bowl promotion, noted that when Rozelle took over, many papers simply ran league press releases verbatim, a phenomenon journalist Leonard Shecter found easy to explain: "Sports editors were content to put their weakest men on pro football ... [and] suddenly found themselves with out-of-fashion writers covering an in-fashion sport." Lest this read as Shecter's habitual cynicism, Weiss himself agreed that at the time the "least experienced, least talented" writers walked the NFL beat. In Peter Gent's satirical North Dallas Forty, the local paper's pro football reporter "usually stumble[d] into the press box about midway through the third quarter, pick[ed] up the play-by-play sheet, and beg[a]n to write his story. That year he won three national awards for outstanding sports journalism."

The resulting critical awakening produced a broad and diverse range of writing. Sports Illustrated was the first to upgrade its coverage to match the NFL's improved output. The magazine devoted extensive space after 1960 to what its editor had "a strong hunch ... is our sport. We have grown with it, and each of us is a phenomenon of the times." Pro football books of the '60s capitalized on the phenomenon with lush technocratic productions, even coffee-table volumes like Joe Namath's A Matter of Style bursting with page upon page of detailed play diagrams that it was assumed would make sense to the reader. A number of think pieces by intellectuals pondered what exactly the game meant for a changing America. Adversarial journalists took heed of pro football's exploding popularity and warned darkly of its dangerous consequences.

It remained unclear exactly who read these pieces. The football audience was presumed to be the best and the brightest: sophisticated, powerful, in 15 the know, comfortable with intricacy. At the same time, political analysts were calling sport the preferred pastime of the middle American, catharsis for lumpen, violent masses whose appreciation demanded no deeper reflection than did, say, demolition derby. (This proved a particularly tricky paradox for player/politicians like Sam Huff and Jack Kemp to negotiate.) "Lower middle-class virtues" undoubtedly "play a part in whatever orderliness there is in daily American life," one social critic wrote. "They help make football a high-salience issue and foreign affairs a low-salience issue." Defending the rights and pride of "unmeltable ethnics" against a wave of WASP condescension, Michael Novak found the sport "a metaphor for the gap between intellectuals and ethnic peoples." Could it serve the classes and the masses? These perspectives most clearly conflicted after Super Bowl V, which experts uniformly mocked for its inept play and ardent fans loved for its exciting last-second finish. "What do you want: good drama or good form?" one journalist asked. Most of the time, these two groups talked past one another.

The NFL had to figure out whom its products should address — intellectuals? Middle Americans? Both, somehow? But first it had to construct the apparatus that would turn out that product. NFL Enterprises, the first modern promotional organization, was incorporated in October 1959 at the behest of someone outside the organization, an executive for Roy Rogers. The ascension to power of Pete Rozelle, the first commissioner who had neither played football nor owned a team, set the league on course toward mainstream popularity. "He is a child czar," John Lardner wrote, but "he thinks quickly and moves smoothly."

Coming from the world of public relations, Rozelle saw the league's primary challenge as one of managing perception — an insight so revolutionary in this context that journalist Jerry Izenberg compares him "as a visionary" to P. T. Barnum, "but he always sold reality, not illusion." Rozelle's vision fundamentally held that "anything that caused people to connect with pro football, and created positive associations with the sport, could only help in the long run." One media and communications scholar calls him "instrumental in defining the current sports brand" for the NFL. (A few years later, consultants and image managers began to bring the same modes of thinking to the political sphere.) An intuitive promoter, Rozelle modeled his efforts in each area on those of Walt Disney, who had expanded a single product into a multimedia empire. But Izenberg got it slightly wrong: Rozelle adroitly created a particular vision of the league that, while hardly illusory, strategically advanced not reality but rather the story the NFL wanted to be told. He also, as Travis Vogan points out, fundamentally changed the notion of who the NFL commissioner was and what he should do.

He instituted immediate changes, both symbolic and practical, to start producing those stories. On the night in 1960 that he was chosen after an exhausting twenty-three ballots, Rozelle's first official move was a vow to relocate the league office and its staff of seven from the back room of a bank in Bala Cynwyd, a Philadelphia suburb chosen for no better reason than that it was a six-minute drive from previous commissioner Bert Bell's house, to Rockefeller Center in New York, close by networks and advertising agencies. The rival AFL made the same move in 1963. The endgame was to supplant baseball as the national pastime. Rozelle "very consciously and privately" uncorked a bottle of champagne at the end of every baseball season and had a single promotional goal in mind for the first Super Bowl: "for people to wind up believing how much better this game experience was than the World Series." Within a decade, he had achieved his goal.

He began by controlling impressions. In the spring of 1961, Rozelle convinced Jim Kensil of the Associated Press to cross over and become the NFL's first PR director. By the start of the season, Kensil ("the most underrated, most forgotten sports executive in the history of this country," according to Ernie Accorsi, who spent three decades in and around NFL front offices) was tutoring the print media in how to tell stories the NFL way. Rozelle's ulterior motive, a longtime associate explained, was less to control coverage than to induce favorable reporting through good will: helping writers do their jobs would make them fans who were "less inclined to go out of their way to criticize us." Replacing the modest mimeographed weekly summaries Bell's office had sent to papers in NFL cities, which one journalist dismissed as "about an exciting as an evening watching a fly crawl up a drape," Kensil steered the reporters' narrative of the game's significance by using Teletype to issue centralized pregame reports to outlets across the nation that contained up-to-date statistics, notable stories about the teams involved, records of their previous meetings, and keys to the game.


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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix

Introduction: Football's Taking Over 1

Part I Making Football Important

1 No Football Fans, Just Football Intellectuals 11

2 Search and Destroy 30

3 The NFL's Role in American History (Somebody's Gotta Be Kidding) 53

Part II Making Football Political

4 The Kennedy/Lombardi School 85

5 A Real Coup with the Sports Fans 108

6 I Really Believed in the Man 133

7 Out of Their League 159

8 Right Coach, Wrong Game 181

Epilogue: Hollywood Ending 205

Notes 215

Bibliography 257

Index 277

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