The NFL: Critical and Cultural Perspectives. Eds. Thomas P. Oates and Zack Furness. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2014. Pp. 268. Forward, contributors list, and index. Paper: $29.95, cloth: $69.50, e-book: $29.95.
Reviewed by Andrew D. Linden
Two weeks ago, I flipped through various television channels, eventually landing on the NFL Network. While nearly two months removed from the popular NFL Draft, and ten weeks from the 2015 gridiron kickoff, the station shows that multiple opportunities for NFL entertainment exists. Over the next few hours, I had the opportunity to watch past seasons of NFL’s and HBO’s Hard Knocks, learn who current players had voted the “Top 100 Players of 2014,” or get caught up on various clubs’ organized team activities, or OTAs as NFL aficionados might refer. Over the last few weeks, other events ranging from the World Cup, the College World Series, and golf’s U.S. Open competed for TV viewers; however, the NFL nevertheless continues to play a central role in the sports media market.
Scholars have recently delved into this cultural phenomenon. In The NFL: Critical and Cultural Perspectives, sixteen sport scholars tackle the goliath that is the National Football League. This twelve-chapter anthology considers the dominant American sports league by looking beyond “simple contests staged to attract audiences and generate advertising revenue” (p. 7). Instead, as editors Thomas P. Oates and Zack Furness argue, the NFL has become an important area of study because the league “is about deeply held connections” including “friendships, family ties, connections to place, and self-esteem.” As such, the NFL “is a rich site for cultural participation and performance” that illuminates “[i]deas about manhood, race, personal responsibility, and collective achievement” (pp. 6-7).
To understand “America’s Game,” the book’s editors suggest that the NFL has become a “culture industry,” or the repetitive production of leisure or other forms of popular culture to be passively consumed by the masses. Using this famous concept coined by scholars Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, the contributors in The NFL seek to understand “both the league and the specific empirical contexts in which NFL entertainment is made both meaningful and financially lucrative” (p. 6). In short, the chapters in this volume help explain why the NFL holds such a dominant position in both corporate and social spheres.
In the first of three parts of The NFL, “Production, Promotion, and Control,” contributors consider the role of television in popularizing the game, instant replay as representational of the “truthfulness” of other media texts, how social media plays a role in the construction of NFL celebrities, and how “new media” expanded fan interaction. The second part, “Identities, Social Hierarchies, and Cultural Power,” looks beyond media, with chapters on the connections between celebrity-hood and sexuality and on the NFL’s cooption of black athletes’ bodies for white consumption. The section also includes pieces on masculinity, specifically on how former players interpret their (injured) bodies in relation to their gendered identities, and on how the movie Any Given Sunday articulates associations between white privilege, racism, and masculinism. Finally, a chapter focuses on how some fans of the Pittsburgh Steelers found community and ethnic pride in the 1970s through cheering for running back, and Italian American, Franco Harris. In the third section, “Gridirons and Battlefields,” authors interrogate the synergy of President George W. Bush’s administration policy with the NFL’s corporate plan. Authors also analyze NFL Films within the Vietnam War, and they show how the celebration of NFL player and army ranger Pat Tillman after his death suggests ongoing processes of privileging white masculinity in the twenty-first century.
One thing that the authors in The NFL do so well is analyze the larger and cultural meanings of the mundane. Dylan Mulvin’s chapter “Game Time: A History of the Managerial Authority of the Instant Replay,” for instance, astutely connects the creation of replay in pro football through a larger shift in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries of considering “broadcasting texts as pieces of evidence” (p. 41). Furthermore, Mulvin suggests that the everydayness of replay in sports affects other domains. For example, he argues that the NFL replay standards—needing “indisputable visual evidence” to change a call—trickled into the legal sphere, and that this “occurred when the system of sports judgment came to appear self-evidently valid enough to serve as a model for other institutions.” Mulvin cites an example from a 2000 legal case where the courts made an “unorthodox ruling” based—like the NFL—on “indisputable visual evidence” to overturn a lower court’s ruling (p. 52). In short, according to Mulvin, the NFL became a barometer of legitimization for new modes of technology.
Authors also comprehensively study topics related to cultural themes, particularly on masculinity in the NFL. In the current climate of the league—an environment that is dealing with head injuries, off-the-field issues, hetero-sexism, and homophobia—understanding the conflation of gender and football was and is, perhaps, the most important area of critique for scholars.
With that in mind, Katie Rodgers offers one of the most interesting chapters in The NFL. In “‘I Was a Gladiator’: Pain, Injury, and Masculinity in the NFL,” Rodgers presents her findings from twenty-eight interviews with former NFL players. She found that NFL athletes view their bodies as dispensable. This relates to gender because, to be a “real man,” and present a valorized form of masculinity, men are supposed to risk it all for the sake of the game. As Rodgers posits, however, “those who do it best [risk their bodies for football glory], lose the most” (p. 157). Understanding, or more ideally solving, the context and culture of injury in the NFL, Rodgers says, requires “changing the masculine ideals [football] represents” (p. 157).
While The NFL presents numerous examples of how hegemonic masculinity remains tethered to the sport, limited analysis exists on other forms of social identity (i.e. sexualities, femininities, and various marginalized masculinities). Besides Toby Miller’s chapter “Sport Sex,” little on women, gay athletes, or those who do not align with the hyper-masculine frame of the conventional NFL athlete appears in the pages of The NFL. This is not necessarily a critique of the book because works on these subjects are sidelined in the larger field, especially on professional American football.
Yet, readers of The NFL might desire more—especially on women. How did women contribute to the “culture industry” of the NFL? Why and how (and more importantly what does it mean?) did women become such an important aspect of the NFL’s marketing approach in the last four or five decades? What roles do women fans currently play in the league’s marketing approach, a league that includes a number of athletes charged with or accused of domestic abuse or sexual assault or rape? How have women became more involved in the ancillaries of the game (i.e. field reporters, front-office personnel, athletic trainers, or recently on-field referees)? Studying how women contributed to football—what some might refer to as one of the last bastions of overt and unapologetic hegemonic masculinity—remains imperative for scholars of the American gridiron.
The NFL describes the cultural phenomenon of the game, and sheds light on why so many Americans are enthralled with the sport. More importantly, though, it demonstrates the nexus of cultural and social politics with unarguably the most popular form of sporting entertainment in the United States. Any scholar of sport or popular culture would be remiss to not take seriously The NFL because, as the anthology clearly shows, the NFL remains “one of the most significant engines of contemporary culture” (p. 3).
Andrew D. Linden is a Ph.D. Candidate at the Pennsylvania State University, and in the fall, he will be an Assistant Professor of Sport Management at Adrian College. He is the co-editor of Sport in American History. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and can be followed on Twitter @AndrewDLinden. He maintains his own website at www.andrewdlinden.com.