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.
In 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 firstname.lastname@example.org and can be followed on Twitter @AndrewDLinden. He also maintains his own website at www.andrewdlinden.com.