Review of NFL Football: A History of America’s New National Pastime

Crepeau, Richard C. NFL Football: A History of America’s New National Pastime. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2014. Pp. 256. Notes, bibliography, and index. $95.00 clothback, $19.95 paperback.

Reviewed by Andrew D. Linden

Throughout this weekend, football is king. On Thursday, the Patriots defeated the Steelers, with an impressive performance by embattled quarterback Tom Brady. And tomorrow, fans across the country will gather for tailgates and jubilant celebration at the return of the American national pastime: the National Football League. While off-the-field controversies continue to plague the league, or provide brilliant P.R. via “Deflategate” courtroom dramas, the NFL remains the most dominant spectator sport throughout the nation.

CrepeauIn line with this assertion, in NFL Football: A History of America’s New National Pastime, sport historian Richard C. Crepeau clearly details how the NFL overtook the “pastime” moniker from baseball. In this synthesis, Crepeau places the NFL within “American social, economic, and technological history” (p. ix). He focuses on the ways that the NFL became the standard of American professional sports leagues and how it manipulated the nation’s system of free enterprise to become the most successful and profitable sports organization in the United States and a bona fide brand. Further, he touches upon the unique relationships that Americans have had with the sport from the early twentieth century through the contemporary era. This “remarkable story” of the rise and dominance of the NFL, Crepreau claims, illustrates how a sport, born supposedly on the “fenders and running boards of Hupmobiles” (p. 7) in a downtown car shop in Canton, Ohio, “became both an obsession and the new [American] national pastime” (p. ix).

NFL Football segments the history of the league into three parts. In the “formative years,” Americans did not respect the professional game; instead they saw it as an “unmanly” profession, unlike its high-brow collegiate counterpart. By the 1930s, things began to change. One reason was, as Crepeau points out, that “better athletes were entering the league, and more married men with families were playing in the NFL.” Crepeau argues that this helped increase the league’s “respectability in mainstream America” (p. 28). The second section, “The Rozelle era,” encompasses the bulk of NFL Football. Crepeau shows how the brash, young commissioner who took over the league in 1960 effectively changed the NFL from a sports organization to “a product to be marketed” (p. 111). Finally, in the “new NFL” (which is a term borrowed from Oriard’s Brand NFL and Jon Morgan’s Glory for Sale), Crepeau looks at franchise relocation, how new commissioner Roger Goodell has routinely “defended the shield” while sometimes overlooking important social issues (such as the current brain-injury crisis), and the emergence of the Super Bowl as “a national holiday that excessively celebrates excess” (p. 207). While his conceptualization seems appropriate, by dividing the book into times of economic boom (and more boom), it sets up the book to be a study that focuses on business and branding from the top down.

However, there is great benefit to Crepeau’s synthesis of the grand American spectacle. For example, while, in general, a lack of academic work on the history of the NFL exists, a number of popular histories of individual teams and games and biographies of the game’s stars have appeared over the past three decades. Many of these works provided scholars in the field with valuable information about the sport’s historical complexities. David Harris’s The League and Michael MacCambridge’s America’s Game are two important examples. However, many popular histories are decontextualized and tend to dramatize the high and low points of the sport’s history. One of the most glaring examples of this is the idolization of the 1958 NFL Championship Game. Numerous books exist on the subject such as Frank Gifford’s The Glory Game: How the 1958 NFL Championship Changed Football Forever, Mark Bowden’s The Best Game Ever: Giants vs. Colts, 1958, and the Birth of the Modern NFL, and Lou Sahadi’s One Sunday in December: The 1958 NFL Championship Game and How it Changed Professional Football. These works tend to attribute the 1958 contest as the singular moment when football became a national obsession. “Certainly the impact of the game was great,” Crepeau astutely points out, but “the National Football League was not ‘made’ by this one game. Indeed the league had been growing in popularity over the previous three decades, and by the midfifties was a force in the sports world” (p. 49). Crepeau’s historical contextualization of this event, and others, is a much needed addition to the field’s historiography.

NFL Football also valuably historicizes contemporary issues in the sport. For example, Crepeau’s analysis of the NFL’s leadership during the rise of steroid use in football in the postwar era adds depth to the current tragedy of the discovery of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) in numerous former football players. Although many were aware of the health dangers of steroids and drug use for elite athletes by the 1960s, Pete Rozelle refused to acknowledge that they were a problem in the NFL until late 1988. Likewise, it was not until 2009 that Roger Goodell and the NFL acknowledged the well-established link between the sport and brain injuries, even though, as Crepeau shows, literature in medical journals on the subject originated in 1928. This historical comparison adds to our understanding of pro football as an organization very attune to its image and brand.

Any critique of NFL Football should be taken not as a slight toward Crepeau, but as suggestions for areas where historians of this sport should focus their attention. With that in mind, NFL Football tends to make broad claims, especially on the nature of social identity. For example, in his analysis of the All-America Football Conference (AAFC) and its relationship with racial politics of the immediate postwar era, Crepeau makes the strong assertion that “[f]or Paul Brown, race was not an issue; only finding the best players to win football games mattered.” Yet, on the same page, after explaining that it took Brown over a year to invite Marion Motley and Bill Willis, both black players, to play for the Browns, Crepeau states “[w]hy this circuitous route was followed is not clearly understood” (p. 41). While Brown may indeed have had egalitarian notions about racial politics, this analysis does not provide enough evidence to make this claim. While he does this well in other areas of the book (for example, his analysis of the NFL’s recurring struggle or maintaining an appropriate “image”), his analysis of racism in professional football seems segmented to particular eras. Certainly, as Crepeau mentions later in the book, racism remained in the National Football League through the contemporary era.

Further, NFL Football does not offer much on the ways football perpetuates normative ideologies of power, gender, sex, sexuality, race, ethnicity, nativism, and ethnocentrism, among other identities and thematic issues. Women’s ancillary roles in the NFL garners little attention (as it does in the broader historiography) and, the most glaring absence of NFL Football may be the lack of description of former NFL players who have come out as gay following retirement from the league. Analysis of players such as David Kopay from the 1970s or Esera Tualo in the 1990s may provide historical context to the more recent career arc of defensive end Michael Sam.

These critiques notwithstanding, Crepeau has done a service for scholars of American professional football. In a bibliographical essay at the end of the book, Crepeau states, “[t]he literature on the National Football League is growing rapidly with each passing year.” Certainly, as he continues, “more scholars are working in the field of sport history and more journalists are writing biography and history” (p. 237). Scholarly work on the history of professional football remains scant. With historians such as Charles K. Ross, John Carroll (1992; 1999), Craig Coenen (2005), Marc Maltby (1997), and Oriard (2007) the exceptions—along with Travis Vogan’s (2014) new book on NFL Films and Thomas P. Oates and Zack Furness’s edited collection The NFL (2014)—few have provided full-length manuscripts on the history of the the league, while even less have critically analyzed the cultural history of the professional gridiron game. NFL Football therefore provides the field with a necessary springboard to broaden and strengthen this area of research.

Andrew D. Linden is an Assistant Professor of Sport Management at Adrian College. He is the co-editor of Sport in American History. He can be reached at alinden@adrian.edu and can be followed on Twitter @AndrewDLinden. He also maintains his own website at www.andrewdlinden.com.

24 thoughts on “Review of NFL Football: A History of America’s New National Pastime

  1. The NFL is one of the most barbaric sports, but it also shows strength, speed, endurance, and skill. Football today, is one of the highest paying professional sports but I believe this is due more towards the risk of injuries and all of the media surrounded by this sport instead of the skills of the players behind it. Baseball used to be the Nations pastime sport but it has faded due to steroid abuse and retirement of “great” players. One thing football was always on one of the televisions in the house. We didn’t watch any other sports. All the kids in the neighborhood played football. It my be a regional thing too. Just glad that this sport is finally getting the recognition it deserves.

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  2. I agree with the fact that NFL is the most dominant spectator sport throughout the nation today. It is the biggest drama on the media. It is also such a dangerous sport. Many Americans today enjoy watching a sport with danger and intensity. Football is the biggest sport in the media that is analyzed. Throughout my lifetime we have always watched NFL football on Sunday and Monday nights. It is a conversation that each person can have with each other. The sport of the past time used to be baseball until many of the great players left the game. I believe football became the game of the past time because of its intensity.

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  3. Like Sarah said, football is a barbaric sport. It is most like modern day gladiators where men beat up each other and harm their bodies to overwhelming extents while the crowd cheers and hollers whenever the biggest hits happen. They are paid to do this. Why? Some say because they love the game, others started playing because it was a way out of trouble and a secure environment with other players and coaches who had their best interest in mind. Because of these incredible, gladiator like athletes, football has become the most watched sport in America. Not only the NFL, but now all levels of football are being televised and publicized. The NFL used to have games on Sunday. Now there is Sunday, Sunday Night Primetime, Monday Night Primetime, double headers, Thursday Night, Thanksgiving Day games, and even Saturday night games every once in awhile. People are getting football four out of the 7 days of the week, not to mention the college football games that are played weekdays and saturdays. Along with that comes the recent obsession with high school football and the glorified recruitment of these 17 and 18 year old kids. High school games are being televised and players are being worshipped just like NFL players are. I think all of this has contributed to football taking over as the Nation’s past time because young ment are being bred to play this game. Much like the gladiators, these kids are training from very young ages and being put through camps and combines that prepare them for high school and college recruiters. They wait for someone to “draft” them and create a wrecking machine out of them and hopefully one day earn their freedom by earning a lot of money in the NFL. Because this worshipping of players has now began to hit middle schoolers and high schoolers, The obsession and the interest has and had grown at ridiculous rates. Players are bigger, stronger, and faster these days while also being younger. There are 13 year old, 8th graders that look like seniors in high school and defy all of the genetic beliefs that we thought were upheld. This is not new because in every era of football there were players that had skill that had never been seen before. There were players that were once in a lifetime talents, until the next year when the newest, biggest, and baddest youngster came onto the seen. Because of the rapid growth of players, and interest in the game, football has dominated all over sports in the US and has taken over as the Nation’s past time.

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  4. Also, as more players realize how dangerous it is to play the game at such a high level, and as more players retire prematurely, do you think football will maintain its popularity over the next 10-20 years?

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  5. Being both a football and baseball fan, I have always thought of baseball as America’s favorite national pastime. What do you think was the reason that football overtook this title? Could it be the strength and skill that is needed to participate in this sport? However I do believe that baseball would require some of the same characteristics to participate. What is your belief on this subject? You also mention that the NFL is growing each year; do you think that this sport could ever grow to the size where every state has at least one professional team present in it? What would have to happen to make this possible? Could all of this success for the NFL be impacted on by college football in its early years? Would it be such a popular sport if college football had never grown to the size it today?

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  6. Football can easily be argued as being labeled the most popular sport in America. Football not only grew in popularity due to the quick pace and excitement of the sport, but also the way it was marketed. The NFL practically owns a day out of the week, NFL football Sunday. In the Eastern Time Zone, there is football on from one o’clock in the afternoon, all the way up till the end of the Sunday night game. The NFL also schedules a game on Thursday and Monday nights. These games have increasingly grown in popularity over the years.
    Football has surpassed baseball as America’s pastime. I think baseball fell to football in popularity because football is much more exciting to watch. Baseball can be hard to watch because it is played at a much slower pace. Also, baseball teams play a lot more games and the seasons last longer. Where in the NFL, the regular season only has sixteen games. That makes each game more significant to making playoffs. Even though football is America’s most popular sport at the moment, do you personally think that will last? Recently there has been a lot of controversy and regulation in the NFL. Do you think that football will eventually see dramatic changes to the rules or even banned completely?

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  7. Andrew D. Linden, I would agree that Football has become America’s new National Pastime. Fans are enriched with the hard hitting, high scoring, and big plays. As a fan of football, you are constantly on the edge of your seat when you are at the games but with baseball it is very slow paced. Although the two sports last about the same amount of time, football has fans on the edge of their seats. They are excited about each and every play from the first snap of the ball until the very last snap of the game. Why do you think football has over taken baseball as America’s Pastime? I feel the NFL has players that fans can relate to, as with baseball there are so many players that are from different parts of the world and it’s very hard for anyone to relate to them. Do feel that the NFL has more athletes to look up to, rather than baseball? You stated that in 1988 Pete Rozelle refused to acknowledge that there was a problem with players using steroids. Now flash-forward to 2009, Roger Goodel is dealing with brain injuries and the prognosis of lasting effects of head trauma. High school athletes have lost their lives in the last two months from traumatic head injuries, and that has athletic directors at even some school discontinuing the sport entirely. With that said, do you feel that with all the concerns about concussions will this affect the NFL’s popularity, and could we see less and less fans allowing their kids to play football?

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  8. Mr. Linden,
    It appears that NFL Football: A History of America’s New National Pastime is very focused on looking at how the commercialization and use of mass media along with American acceptance of professionalization in sports has propelled the NFL to its role as “America’s National Pastime”. Since the advent of the television, the NFL has steadily overtaken other sports, especially baseball, as the foremost sport in America. In the same way that sports such as baseball and boxing seized upon print sources in order to promote themselves beginning in 1870. The progression that Crepeau states of the evolution of the NFL from a sports organization to “a product to be marketed” is part of a change of commercialization that has been changing sports since their advent as a commercial enterprise rather than simply a leisure activity. When looked at from the perspective of commercialization and professionalization, sports can be seen morphing from pre-1870 leisure activities and means of constructing social status into forms such as “the shield” of the NFL today. The advent of the television meant that people would be more engaged with a game from start to finish, and simply put baseball was not fast paced enough to keep up with the demands of a culture that increasingly favored things being more fast paced, from the advent of faster cars, to the production and popularity of fast food, to the use of faster equipment in industry. A question I have for you therefore is whether Crepeau takes into account the outside effects of culture and society concerning the usage of media and changing notions of commercialization in America in regards to the ascent of the NFL as the most popular sport in America, or whether he focuses on the NFL in an insular way. Modernization and industrialization and their growth from the Reconstuction era all the way up until today has coincided with the rise of professional sports such as baseball and football on a national scale, and then the ascent of the NFL which coincided with the rise of an increasingly commercialized society post WWI. It seems that in context the “American social, economic, and technological history” that Crepeau refers to would be intertwined with this concept of the role of industrialization, modernization, and commercialization in the advent of sports as a national pastime and the changing of America itself as a culture, a society, and a nation.

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  9. Mr. Linden,

    I would first like to commend you on a great review and add that I am elated to see that there are those in agreeance with me that football is America’s new National pastime. I say football because I don’t believe that the NFL itself put baseball on the back-burner. I feel that college football has as much to do with the overtaking as the NFL does and would add to that the fact that there are many more football programs in schools at all levels across the country than there are baseball programs. Would you agree that over saturation, pretty much the same thing that made baseball so popular, is mostly to credit for football’s rise? Do you feel that there will ever be a decline in football’s popularity due to the increase in popularity of another sport? Either way I am glad there are some that will finally agree that baseball is no longer America’s pastime. Now if we can only lose that notion that the Dallas Cowboys are America’s team we can call this whole thing a win.

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  10. In reference to the book “NFL Football: America’s New National Pastime” I am wondering, as I have been for quite some time, is there a plot to destroy the NFL (as we know it)? I watch the news, I read opinion-editorials and repeatedly I find myself wondering this very same question I have just posed to you. It appears to me that this “concern” for a player’s health is disingenuous. Being an NFL player certainly has its risks, but it also has huge rewards. Is it more dangerous to be an NFL player or a Navy SEAL? How about an Army Ranger? These men that put their lives on the line every day, make a fraction of what even the lowest paid NFL player makes, and don’t you think a SEAL wishes his worst day at work resulted in a concussion or a broken leg? So really, what is with all the fuss? Perhaps there is a hidden political agenda to cause the NFL to lose popularity because of the NFL culture. There are those that despise the NFL because there are no openly gay players, no women on teams (and one female assistant coach and one female referee). It is essentially a “macho-men only club”.
    So I have a very real question for you. Do you think that there is a possibility that all of this “concern” over player safety is just an angle to make the average NFL game so bland (via safety and rules changes) that it will eventually lose its popularity and thus cease making the billions of dollars the NFL rakes in every year, not because a handful of guys get hurt, but because the NFL has not become a full blown experiment in political correctness?

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  11. Hello Mr. Linden,

    I would like to tell you first GREAT work on this review. You wrote a knowledgeable review on a topic I think pertains to a lot of people and that people like to read. I completely agree that in today’s world that football is America’s past time sport now. In the history class I am in now (Sports History in America) it speaks heavily in the text that baseball became very popular in the 1800’s and that made Americans want to know more and more about his sport which rose to it’s popularity. I agree with the post made by Darvell Connel in which he stated about how college football has given such a rise to football being popular because of all the schools, and colleges that have football now. I have two questions for you. Do you think that with regards to football is college football more popular these days or professional football? It seems that with college football things are more relaxed and are able to play hardcore football, whereas the NFL is more strict and has a lot more to it in regards of the game as a whole and the referees. One another question I have is, do you think any sports now could replace football? I know soccer has risen over the last couple years, but I’m curious to hear what you have to say. Again, great review!

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  12. Even if you don’t like football you can’t deny that it’s the most dominated pastime and most popular sport in America. It’s very interesting to know that when the NFL began it wasn’t only not popular but also laughed at. “Unmanly”? Football is a pretty rough sport and especially when the sport began the padding was very minimal. I think the problem with the NFL not exactly welcoming the gay community wasn’t necessarily just about playing football. Perhaps it made it harder but the main reason was just how far society has come in the past century. Lastly the NFL only touches on the issue of reoccurring concussions. At least for post-career options, do you think the NFL will develop an organization to help retired NFL players with concussion problems?

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  13. Football as a sport originated as an amateur sport at the university level in the late nineteenth century. In 1898 Harvard and Yale Universities formally established football as one of the rivalry sports in which they would compete. Upon the establishment in popularity for amateur football began the quest for the formation of the game of football as a professional sport. What then does professional football owe it’s popularization to?
    The book “Review of NFL Football: A History of America’s New National Pastime” presents an analysis in chronological format on the popularization of professional football. Through visionary efforts as well as marketing expertise, the National Football League has become an American Pastime on Sunday’s. Media coverage of football games has masterfully helped to develop professional football into its own marketing brand. Television and radio provide media coverage for the football games each week. A question to ask is this; how will internet coverage of football games in the future affect the popularity of professional football?

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  14. First of all, I just wanted to commend you on such a great review. Football has come a long ways from the late nineteenth century until now. You talk about how there are different eras in football history which has built up into to dominating the sports world and taking over America’s favorite pastime sport (baseball). The game is known for its violence and “barbaric” ways when players abuse their pads with the other players faces. Players that play the game get stronger and stronger every year this game is played and it is getting more and more violent than ever. It is getting to the point where safety issues are being pressed and a lot of rules are being made up to protect players. I guess a question that could be asked is, how long do you think this sport will last before authorities decide to shut the game down or turn it in to flag football?

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  15. Andrew Linden,
    Firstly, I would like to say great topic and review. It provided a lot of useful knowledge for me as a scholar but a student athlete as well. As years past we begin to see the growth football increase exponentially becoming one of the most popular sports in the US. Your review really showed me how far sports have come. The steroid issue and the dangerous effects information was really interesting to me. The fact that the dangers were swept under the rug was also mind blowing as well. It helped me understand why there are random drug test for performance enhancing drugs and how it’s not only to keep the game fair but also to protect athletes from having harmful effects such as CTE. If you don’t mind I have a question for you regarding the information in the review. Do you think that the heath concerns of steroid use were swept under the rug in order by the owners for the NFL to grow to what it is now today?

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  16. Andrew,

    It is interesting to know that the history of the NFL can be broken down to three “eras” or time periods. I want to list some things i think could be possible factors in each time period. I think that a possible reason that the NFL wasn’t as big in its early stages was due to the fact that Baseball was the original All-American pastime. It stated that the NFL was looked at as an “unmanly” sport when compared to its collegiate counterpart. Moving forward to the changing of the NFL’s popularity, it was mentioned that one of the main reasons was better athletes joining the league. This is a huge factor in any sport. During the beginning stages of baseball, its popularity grew tremendously when talent began to increase and become exposed. I was surprised that when steroid use became a big problem, it wasn’t seriously exploited as a major problem until a lot later. I think that the increase in CTE was an effect of steroid use because people were hit a lot harder. I really enjoyed reading this and gaining insight as well as really connecting pieces of the history. I would like to know what you think was the most major factor in the NFL passing up baseball as the American pastime. Overall, great read. Thank you for the insight on this book.

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  17. Andrew,

    First off, this is just a great review off this book and I give you major kudos on a lot of points that you make through out this review. What really stood out to me was the part that you broke down the history of the NFL into three separate time periods. I just found it very interesting on how you were able to describe the NFL’s growth from when it first started to how big of an organization it is today. Obviously the sport has made huge strides today and the athletes are becoming bigger, faster and stronger. Based off of this the intensity of the game is at a higher level and that means hits are gonna be more gruesome. Every weekend you see people get hit and knocked out or with concussion symptoms. In the past five years the game of football has regulated several rules just to prevent these injuries. What my real question is for you is how long will it be until football will be stripped down to a point where any type of lethal contact is illegal, thus taking away the physicality of the game?

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  18. I feel that this is a very interesting book that talks about how football grew to become one of America’s pastimes and a very high paying sport that is extremely marketable and able to grow over time. The author talks about how in the 1930s there began to be better players playing football and football was able to be more mainstream in America and be more respectable. I also like how the author talks about how Roger Goodell overlooks the importance of making sure that brain injuries do not happen because of concussions. I enjoyed how the author talks about how a woman’s role in football does not have much attention.

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  19. Every Sunday millions of Americans around the country gather together to watch their teams take the field and go to battle. Football has risen over the years and surpassed baseball as the national past time due to the amount of publicity and money that the league brings in. Although concussions continue to cast a dark cloud over the league, the league is safer than it has ever been with the new padding the players are equipped with. Back 60 years ago the men played without helmets but nobody took notice of the real cost benefits of playing the game. The game of football is a game of men where there is a lot of contact involved making the game more enjoyable to watch unlike baseball where there is no contact involved. Eventually however, with too much contact and injuries plaguing the league, do you think that there will ever be a time where there is no longer an NFL?

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  20. The NFL is the most dominant sport in terms of media attraction and overall popularity within the United States. I think this is largely due to the fact that people love to watch others get physically beaten up. Although it is seriously dangerous, it is entertaining to see people go out on the field and put their bodies out on the line to win. I think this is part of the reason that the NFL has surpassed the MLB in terms of pastime because baseball can become very boring. With that being said, like mentioned in the article and the book itself, if Roger Goodell doesn’t handle the more serious issues at hand with the head injuries and how it is effecting more and more people, then we could see a serious turn around, people may not want to watch/support something if it means people keep getting seriously injured just so they can get a couple hours of entertainment.

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  21. Is football now America’s past time in todays day and age? The answer is yes and the reason for that is because people know about and watch football and talk about it. The sport is very interesting to many people and now it has turned into more than just a sport to watch. It’s a gathering point, this sport allows people to come together and express them selves through their team.

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