Following the protests of systemic racism and police brutality by Colin Kaepernick and dozens of other NFL players during the 2016 and 2017 season, the relationship between sports and politics has reemerged as a hot topic. Journalists and scholars have offered commentary exploring the myriad of ways that sports and politics intersect. Joining these conversations is Jesse Berrett’s much anticipated and timely book Pigskin Nation: How the NFL Remake American Politics, published this month by the University of Illinois Press.
To celebrate the book’s release, we conducted a Q&A with Berrett to learn more about him and his experience researching and writing the book. We also asked about the book’s connections with contemporary events and his future in sport history.
Sport in American History (SAH): Your new book explores the intersection of politics and professional football. You’re a trained historian with a Ph.D. from the University of California, but this is your first project focusing on sport history. How did you come to the topic and what inspired you to write it?
I’ve always been the kind of fan who wanted to watch sports while also understanding them as a part of the culture rather than in isolation. So, secretly, this isn’t my first project in this area. My undergrad thesis covered baseball during the depression, and I published an article from it in Baseball History. I later wrote a TV column for a while and did at least two columns about professional wrestling, which I’d been a fan of since high school. One of my favorite college memories is going to WrestleMania III in Detroit.
My dad got into grad school at Michigan, so our family moved to Ann Arbor when I was one and left when I was seven. I vowed then and there to go to football games, and incidentally to college, at UM. Which I did. But going to a school where football was so central to the culture made it abundantly clear how different players’ lives were from other students’. They weren’t in any of my classes, and though I lived in South Quad, the dorm that housed football players, as a freshman, we got to eat in their dining room once, at the end of the year, as a treat. Being one of 105,000 people and roaring with dismay when the alums failed to continue The Wave around the stadium made me understand why fascism works—humans love crowds.
Michigan football also got me started on this project more directly. I was reading Michael Rosenberg’s War As They Knew It, on the ten extraordinarily turbulent years that Bo Schembechler and Woody Hayes coached against each other. An anecdote about Michigan’s kicker being late to practice because he was at a protest stuck with me, and I started fumbling around to see if there was a story there. My training is in cultural history, and I’m always interested in things that fit together in unexpected ways, so the juxtaposition of football and radicalism seemed promising. In 2009, I sent Michael Oriard, who pretty much invented the practice of studying football as a cultural and historical institution, an extremely vague email based on 10 hours of research asking him if he thought there was a story there, and he very generously a) wrote back and b) did not crush my dreams. Then I sat on it for about 3 years, repeatedly writing and rewriting two enormous chapters, on Dave Meggyesy and 60s sportswriting, about 30% of which ended up in the book. Finally, in the spring of 2015 I went on sabbatical and was able to research and write full-time. I think that, like most football fans these days, it’s hard to watch a game without worrying about what the aftermath is going to be for the players, and that definitely energized me as I worked.
SAH: What were some of the challenges of writing about sports and politics?
The biggest challenge was trying to find real connections between these two worlds—what bugged me when reading books on this topic was how often “historical context” in a sports book meant a canned paragraph or two about kids marching in the streets and Vietnam, and then it was back to Super Bowl IV. Or there would be a lot of what at the time seemed like very persuasive rhetorical and stylistic links between football and militarism—Nixon’s Operation Linebacker, George Carlin’s “football and baseball” monologue, and so on—that reveal that yes, football lingo is often militaristic. I wanted to see if I could show that there were solid, direct connections between these things: that political figures used football to push their agendas, and football people played politics. Obviously, not everybody is going to want this—my first review on Goodreads complained that there was a lot of history and politics and not very much football in my book, which I can’t dispute.
SAH: In 2016-2017, politics and the NFL seemed to overlap more specifically than in the past. How does your work shed light on the contemporary moment?
Part of me kept wishing that I had finished earlier or later, so either the book would be out in the fall or I could add a new epilogue. That said, as more and more comes out about the owners’ handling of the protests, it emphasizes for me how much of the NFL’s rise came from and was attuned to this late-60s crucible—the league quite adeptly promoted itself as patriotic, but also in terms that might resonate with people on the left. NFL Films’ productions and NFL Creative’s books, which are way better and smarter than they need to be, admitted that football might say something troubling about America and even extolled the game as a bearer of the kind of authenticity that people on the left often called for. It seems clear to me that that period has left an imprint, that the league has continually strived to strike a balance culturally and politically—one that was easier when players had less agency and a weaker public voice. I think it’s very much an open question whether or not it can continue to maintain a public profile that was less crafted than felt out at a time of seismic cultural change.
SAH: Can you talk about the process of researching (and being critical of) a topic that is so popular in the current moment?
To be honest, it didn’t really feel all that popular for most of the process. I submitted the final draft in April 2017. When Colin Kaepernick started kneeling in August of 2016, he wasn’t drawing national and international attention, the president wasn’t attacking him, and he wasn’t winning humanitarian awards. When I explained to most people what I was doing, they replied, “huh,” in a tone of voice that said, “I guess you see some connection there that I don’t. Good luck with that.” I told my godson, who was graduating college, what I was doing and he said, “why?” So, last fall, it was quite surprising to suddenly discover that the thing I’d been working on was of immediate relevance. After Mike Pence walked out of the 49ers-Colts game, I queried Politico about writing an article, and to my shock they responded. And things kept happening that spoke to what I’d written.
SAH: Was there an “ah ha!” moment in your research? I.e. an unexpected piece of material that you found? A surprising quote/letter from someone? Data that was unexpected?
So many. One was reading their campaign papers and finding out how much time every candidate spent on athletic outreach in 1968 and 1972 (Hubert Humphrey was positively obsessed with the topic and went on the road with three-quarters of the Vikings’ Purple People Eaters defensive line as escorts), and then discovering a way to talk to Ray Schoenke, the Redskins lineman who organized Athletes for McGovern in 1972. I finally wrangled a contact email through the Polynesian Football Hall of Fame (he’s half-Hawaiian). We talked a couple of times, and every time more great stories would emerge. He told me he literally walked over to McGovern’s office in the summer of 1971 and knocked on the door, then was chatting with McGovern five minutes later.
Organizationally, it had to be reading a book by Victor Gold. Gold was an old-line conservative who had been energized by Barry Goldwater’s campaign, moved from PR into politics, and served as Spiro Agnew’s combative press secretary. Then he retired and wrote a book on the 1976 election. In it he compared himself to Don Meredith in the booth on Monday Night Football—he ran down a list of the ways in which football resembled politics as presently practiced. I connected the rise of this whole new style of politics (all the books and articles literally called it “the new politics”) run by armies of consultants, lots of and lots of whom kept track of their wins and losses (the Washington Post ran a literal box score in the fall of 1970 comparing the consultants’ records) and likened what they did to football. Once I played around with it a while, it gave me a viable framework for the book, which right then consisted of a bunch of things about football and politics in the 60s and 70s. Now the first half explores how the NFL made itself popular, and the second how political figures strove to exploit that popularity.
One of my favorite finds was Nixon’s Kansas State speech to kick off the off-year campaign in 1970. I read the administration’s internal debate over whether or not to go in the Nixon papers, which started more than a year before—Bob Dole had been pushing a Kansas trip for a while, and finally they decided that K. State would be entirely friendly and let them show Nixon alongside students who didn’t despise him—and then his speech was absolutely perfect. As critics pointed out, he set up a dichotomy between football teams (good) and protestors (bad) as part of his strategy to rally “silent majority” voters (who, according to a Time article, loved football most of all) against the left. It convinced me that there was a real cultural pattern here, not just something I was making up.
SAH: What are your plans for future research? Do you think you will continue writing sport history?
Yes! Way back when, I did my dissertation and had a book contract, then decided that the world would carry on just fine whether or not my study of masculinity in the 50s ever got published. This, on the other hand, was really fun—writing about something that people care about on a daily basis and that kept turning up in all sorts of unexpected spots let me draw all sorts of connections, and that I hope people out there will read it and find it interesting. I’m playing around with an idea about the ’69 Mets, assuming that I can figure out a way to get to NYC for research for a solid week or two and that there’s enough archival material out there.
Jesse Berrett teaches history at University High School in San Francisco. He is the author of Pigskin Nation: How the NFL Remade American Politics out this month from the University of Illinois Press. You can reach him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @JesseBerrett.