Review of The Art of Football

Oriard, Michael. The Art of Football: The Early Game in the Golden Age of Illustration. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2017. Pp. 243.  Notes, References, Index.  $39.95 cloth.

Reviewed by Rich Loosbrock

Michael Oriard continues his exploration of the intersection between American football and the popular imagination with this sumptuously illustrated examination of early football through the lens of media representation.  It is hard to imagine anyone better positioned to offer such a fresh look at the early game. Oriard manned the trenches at Notre Dame as an offensive lineman for legendary coach Ara Parseghian during one of the Fighting Irish’s heydays. He then carved out a four-year career with the Kansas City Chiefs in the NFL.  During that time, he started his graduate studies in American Literature before completing a Ph.D. at Stanford in 1976. 

Having previously written about football in popular literature and the industry that is the modern NFL, Oriard shifts his interpretive gaze to portrayals of football by illustrators in the game’s formative years.  He explains how football was elevated to its unique role in American culture, while also providing readers with an understanding of popular graphic art in that age.  He identifies four genres of football art: early football art as seen primarily in Harper’s Weekly; football cartoons; football poster art; and the illustrated football story.

University of Nebraska Press, 2017.

Oriard insists that Harper’s Weekly launched football art and, in doing so, gave a huge boost to nascent sport.  Some early illustrators included icons Winslow Homer and Frederick Remington.  In the crisp reproductions selected for inclusion, a couple of themes emerge.  First, that football was a physical sport.  Many of the illustrations capture contact and hitting. One shocking plate by W. A. Rogers, entitled “Out of the Game,” even features a player summoning help for an unconscious teammate while the field action continues in the background. The second theme is that of the spectator experience.  In many of the examples, the crowd is either the main subject of the print or is clearly visible.  From the start, football was rough and played in front of large crowds.

Oriard then turns to cartoons that appeared in the magazines Puck, Judge, and Life. Three themes – “violence, distorted educational priorities, and extreme gender roles” – characterized the cartoons (57). They demonstrated the seeming oddity of collegiate football, namely that elite schools, placing an emphasis on having a winning program, were cheapening themselves by recruiting players for their skills rather than scholarly potential. Football became popular enough that political cartoons sometimes used the sport in their satire. The game often was featured in cartoons featuring two of the era’s most famous characters – the Gibson Girl and the Yellow Kid, who appeared in Joseph Pulizter’s New York World in 1895, and for whom the term “yellow journalism” was named.

Football poster art, the third form, exploded on the scene in the 1890s, just as the sport was taking hold of the public imagination. The works of J.C. Leyendecker became best known, appearing on the cover of such periodicals as Collier’s Magazine and Saturday Evening Post. Oriard characterizes Leyendecker’s work as marked by excess, emphasizing the brutality of the game and often featuring players as warriors or gladiators.

These themes of physicality carry over to Oriard’s last form, the illustrated football story that appeared, often serialized, in many publications in the early twentieth century.  Here, Oriard reveals an unknown facet to the much-studied George Bellows, famous for his portrayal of boxing.  Oriard notes that the crowd plays a key role in Bellows’s works, and suggest that the distance between the playing field and stands may have led Bellows to neglect football and baseball in his art. Oriard uncovers several of Bellows’s paintings on football that were used to illustrate stories, including the stunningly dark and violent Football Game from 1910.

Oriard concludes by suggesting the importance of this early art.  By characterizing the excesses of the game, these illustrators created a pattern for future coverage of the sport by entities such as NFL Films and ESPN. This is a handsome and imaginative book that will satisfy both readers of football and observers of popular art, and it further cements Oriard’s reputation as a most thoughtful and creative interpreter of American football.

Rich Loosbrock is a professor of history at Adams State University.

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