Crawford, Russ. Le Football: A History of American Football in France. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2016. Pp. 366. 25 illustrations, 18 tables, endnotes, bibliography, index. $39.50 hardcover.
Reviewed by John E. Price
That football is a quintessentially American game is axiomatic, even tautological, to many. Sports reporters and commentators have opined for decades on how and why football has never caught on across the globe like the other two-thirds of America’s sports trinity, basketball and baseball. Football’s symbolic attachment to frontier life, industrialization, and strict militarism are common explanations for why the sport has remained a predominantly American enterprise. Others have seen football as the crucible for American masculine identity and a necessary rite of passage for American men, young and old. In these cases, though, the assumption remains: football is American. As if to reinforce the point, the NFL’s endeavors to export professional football, especially to Europe via the World League of American Football, later simply NFL Europe, has been a mixed bag. After a rocky two decades, NFL Europe ultimately shut down with only a handful of teams, most of which called Germany home. The notion that France, of all places, would have a vibrant football history would be a shocking disruption into the accepted narrative of the game’s history and the role of football on American identity. And that’s precisely what Russ Crawford’s Le Football does.
Tracing the chronological history of football in France, Crawford creates a forked argument for the game’s popularity: football games were primarily limited to Americans living in France, particularly servicemen, and yet when football did eventually take root in French culture, it was only when the game was (re-)introduced by another Frenchman, and not after any of the official American efforts to increase the sport’s popularity. As to be expected, the fundamentals of the game remained; however, certain cultural modifications took place. Crawford noted his own amazement in seeing a rejection of the American “win-at-all-costs mentality,” replaced by an emphasis on “camaraderie” and “sportsmanship” that manifested itself in players as a strict adherence to a kind of gentleman’s understanding more common on the golf course than the “grim struggle for victory that is football” (p. x).
Despite these differences, an interesting implication is drawn throughout the narrative. Although much emphasis is made on how the French adopt and adapt the game in the 1980s, it is still very much an outsider sport in a country dominated by soccer and rugby. Crawford highlights that the French football players became the rogues of the French sporting world, pushing the frontier of sports culture and creating more of a subcultural community, complete with folkloric boundaries and rules. With his access into this community, Crawford is able to breach the boundary and record what amounts to an almost-secret history. Contrasted with the historical narrative of the previous seven decades, football in France can be seen as a fascinating subversion of common notions of American cultural hegemony and its influence in global settings.
The first half (or more) of the book takes the subtitle “A History of American Football in France” literally. From the sailors of the Great White Fleet of 1909 to the military leagues of Cold War NATO, Crawford chronicles the first seventy-plus years of football games in France as almost entirely Americans playing Americans. Compared to the British, who were repulsed by the brutality of the game, the French were either apathetic or amusingly entertained spectators, but it did not translate into local involvement; the small number of civilian teams were often limited to the children of soldiers and airmen. The whole story Crawford tells is that of Americans bringing American culture with them to a foreign land, no different than any other staple of life “back home.” In this history, the classic football tropes can all be found as personal rivalries develop and coaches scheme to find the best roads to victory. Intertwined into the early history were official Congressional mandates to promote sports among the troops, buoyed by the involvement and support of sporting organizations like the YMCA. In an echo of the religious virtuosity of the “muscular Christianity” that created organizations like the YMCA, the U.S. Army promoted competition among its own as a way to “gird them physically for the rigors of war” in addition to the more mundane role of “preventing vice and corruption.” The YMCA concurred and noted that sports like football “stimulated the fighting spirit, promoted teamwork, furnished recreation, and promoted morality” (p. 6). As Crawford tells it, competitive athletics, especially football, became integral to military life abroad as a distraction, reminder, and motivation.
Through the 1950s and 1960s, football and France had a bit of a falling out, mirroring the relations between France and America. By the 1970s, the cultural divide still existed and the NFL’s efforts to expand into Europe were rebuffed repeatedly. Crawford highlights the comparison in the French press between football and rugby, with one commentary declaring “Rugby can sleep soundly in France, there’s no risk that American football takes its place” (p. 149). Reactions from famous French athletes echoed the sentiment, albeit more directly. Crawford quotes rugby star Andre Boniface with a reaction that could be made of American culture, at-large: “They think too much about their size and look like big machines dressed up in uniforms” (p. 149). Through various American promoters, the majority of the decade was peppered with futile attempts to make France care about football, despite successful single events. The sheer persistence of the effort drove attendance up, and in Germany football began to actually take hold. Determined by their limited gains, football organizers kept up the pressure through exhibition tours and semipro leagues. But, as Crawford accounts in Chapter 8, it was Laurent Plegelatte, “a Frenchman acting without American help” who would finally break through and create lasting interest.
Chapter 8 is the heart of Crawford’s book, and if there is any immediate criticism of Le Football, it’s that the “French playing football” story doesn’t appear until then. Of course, that’s almost an unfair criticism; Crawford is merely reciting the history, not making it. It is Plegelatte, a self-described Trotskyite, who adds compelling color and historical irony to the story. As is appropriate to the ensuing subcultural community, French football’s founding is couched in legend. Crawford recounts that Plegelatte was on vacation in Colorado in 1980 and first saw football, loving it immediately. He met with a local high school coach who, upon finding out that he was French, “broke out laughing” (p. 190). The rest of the story reads almost like a plot synopsis of a movie: the Frenchman buys football equipment for 25 players from a local supplier, returns to the coach and outfits his team in exchange for being taught the game. Upon his return to France, he immediately began fielding full squads of players, drawing from his local connections as a Communist organizer and judo instructor. The ironies are astounding. Football, the game of American imperialism, commercialism, capitalism, and celebrity culture, was rejected by France for the better part of a century. And then a Communist activist, in an effort to “toughen up” his fellow revolutionaries, is almost single-handedly responsible for successfully introducing the sport into the country. While the Americans of World War I highlighted the Napoleonic tactics on display, Plegelatte wrote the rules with a Marxist flair, making his players see the history of the game as an evolution in the history of warfare, open to all and distinctly non-professional (p. 195). Crawford also highlights an important reason for Plegelatte’s success: “Instead of building a league, he built teams” (p. 192). This foundation of community building is evident in the present Crawford described, that of a subculture. Crawford spells out in detail how the first wave of players had to learn the game from second-hand knowledge and through friends of friends. The football of America is a dominant form that permeates all aspects of American popular culture; the football of France is the game of a small, dedicated community of teams, bonded through history and action.
Interestingly, in these chronologies, the thematic symbolism of football is actually further entrenched. After all, until the 1980s, the game remains almost exclusively played by Americans, and not just any Americans, but servicemen fighting wars. The strict militarism of the game was on full display for French audiences, an almost ur-performance that no doubt influenced their perception of the game as well as the trajectory of adoption. Plegelatte highlighted the militaristic history, and the early teams adopted military formations until they developed more sophisticated plays. And although the French did change some of the more intangible parts of the game, like the aforementioned “sportsmanship” between competitors, the sport’s identity remained mainly intact. One of Crawford’s first observations seeing live French football was that they were hitting each other full-force. In a reflexive aside, he noted that perhaps he was subconsciously conditioned to seeing European athletes as soccer players “who flop at the first sign of contact” (p. ix). If the French had modified football too much, infused it with too much of their own cultural history and symbolism, it could be argued the game is malleable and not necessarily uniquely American. However, through the reproduction of frontier imagery (e.g., the team name “Kiowas”) and mirroring its emphasis as a test for masculinity (albeit a French conceptions of masculinity, not American), those explanations for football’s distinctly “American” identity are reinforced. But Crawford’s focus is on the history of the game, and in that respect he does a monumental job, beginning with doughboys in World War I, following the ebbs and flows through to the 21st century.
One of the more notable aspects of Crawford’s work is its use of sources. Too often, historical narratives are drawn from a limited scope of sources – newspapers, diaries, official documents, etc. In order to succeed at telling this story, though, Crawford needed to think outside the box and use whatever resources available to him, including blogs, and social media like Facebook. As he explained in the introduction, this was personal for him, having lived in France and having French friends who played football, and that passion is evident from the start. In a broader sense, Crawford has done the hard part and laid the groundwork for anyone interested in this topic. The initial appeal of the book may be its thematic novelty, but the enduring appeal is that of a scholar utilizing modern research methods to uncover a whole new avenue of historical inquiry.
Le Football succeeds at everything it sets out to do: it is a comprehensive history of football in France; it does show how American efforts to import the game failed and how football finally took hold through the drive of a scorned Frenchman. Crawford’s is a compelling story that takes more than a few twists and turns and gets bogged down in its own details at times, but remains a comprehensive chronology of a virtually unknown aspect of America’s most popular sport. For that alone Le Football is noteworthy, but more importantly, Crawford has crafted a work that will help open up the field to new possibilities of what stories should and can be told – an impressive accomplishment.
John E. Price is a doctoral candidate and instructor in American Studies and Communications at Penn State Harrisburg. He also serves as Editor of New Directions in Folklore. Price can be reached at email@example.com or find him on twitter @thejohnprice.