Gems, Gerald and Pfister, Gertrude, eds. Touchdown: An American Obsession. Great Barrington, Ma: Berkshire Publishing Group LLC, 2019. Pp. 364. Appendices, notes, glossary, index. $49.95 paperback. $125 hardcover.
Reviewed by Russ Crawford
Gridiron football is the most popular team sport in the United States, and the history of the sport has been explored by a number of authors who have written for both popular and academic audiences. Touchdown: An American Obsession, edited by Gerald Gems and Gertrude Pfister is one of the more recent additions to an already large library of books and articles that discuss that history. What sets Touchdown apart from other works on the subject is that many of the essays contained in the compilation expand the scope of football history to include the game outside of North America, as well as an essay on women football players.
This work contains nineteen essays, and is written largely by academics for an academic audience. Gems and Pfister managed to secure the efforts of several leading football historians to write about their specialties. The first essay on “American Football” was from Ronald A. Smith, the author of several books on football and sport. The essay on “Playing Football” was written by Michael Oriard, the author of several monographs on the game, and who played at every competitive level, from youth football to the National Football League. Sarah K. Fields, who has published several books on gender, sport, and the law, combined with Dawn Comstock, who has published on sport injuries contributed “Concussions: Medical and Legal Controversies in Football. Brian M. Ingrassia, who wrote The Rise of Gridiron University: Higher Education’s Uneasy Alliance with Big-Time Football (2014) provided the essay on “College Football.” Robert Pruter contributed “High School and Youth Football,” and is the author of The Rise of American High School Sports and the Search for Control: 1880-1930 (2013). Lars Dzikus, who wrote the essay on “American Football in Europe,” actually played the game in Germany, and has since published on the sport there. Gems, who has published several works on American sports and their international spread introduced the work, and wrote “Football and Social Change.” Pfister has published extensively on women and sport and contributed “Challenging the Gender Order Women on the Gridiron.”
Those are only the contributors that I am most familiar with. The other authors might well be as expert in their subjects as those mentioned above, and my failure to mention them in that context is merely a function of my ignorance.
Touchdown approaches the study of the game from numerous angles, including conventional histories, the economics of the game, fandom, and how football was imagined in early film. If the editors left any stones unturned, I am at a loss to name what they could have or should have included, but did not. There are a few minor points that could have been added, but nothing major. With so many essays, it will be difficult to provide any comprehensive summary of the various subjects. Therefore, this review will focus on the areas that piqued my interest most.
The primary value of this work to football scholars will be the essays on the growth of American football outside of the United States. Chapters 14-18 deal with the history of football in Canada, Latin America, Europe, China, and Japan, so they cover most of the world. Pfister’s essay on women playing football also includes Europe and Joel S. Frank’s concluding essay on “American Football’s Pacific Connections” deals mainly with football played in American states or territories, but still adds to our understanding of who plays the game. One quibble would be that Australia was left out of the locales where football has caught on, though they have leagues there for both men and women.
“American Football in China: A Story of Resurgence” by Huo Chuansong and Linda Borish, along with Kohei Kawashima’s “American Football in Japan” are two of the more interesting chapters, in that they tell lesser-known histories. One of the most fascinating stories in the chapter on China is the inclusion of a photo from a 31 January 1934 game at Kezar Stadium in San Francisco between a Chinese team and one from Japan (301). There is no other mention that I could find in the text, but how this game came about, not long after the Japanese had annexed Manchuria and a few years before the official outbreak of the Second Sino-Japanese War, would be a fascinating story in itself.
Being from Nebraska, Sarah Eikleberry’s “Imagining Football Fandom in the United States: Home of the Free or the Branded Pursuit of Belonging,” which considered the fan experience at Husker games was particularly interesting. Eikleberry quotes Roger C. Aden and Scott Titsworth, who wrote that Husker fans view their support for the team “as an embrace of a place and its culture, and enact their football fandom to stay connected to their homes, even when they physically reside elsewhere.” (135) As a Husker expatriate living in enemy territory in Ohio, that was likely my favorite passage in the book.
With so many essays that contain overlapping subjects, there is considerable overlap among the essays. We read about concussions in several, along with Teddy Roosevelt and the beginning of the National Collegiate Athletic Association. That does not seriously detract from the overall reading experience, however. Indeed, for an introductory sport history course, that repetition might well reinforce the important moments in football history.
“The Economics of American College and Professional Football” by Robert A. Baade and Victor A. Matheson was the most difficult chapter for me to follow. They did a credible job of making the economics understandable for those not in the field, but perhaps they needed to use smaller words and maybe pictures to penetrate my ignorance there. It also would have been useful had David Chapman’s “Football Warriors: The Archaeology of Football Movies” been paired with another chapter on the game’s depiction on film since the 1930s. Discussing football and film without mention of The Longest Yard (1974) seemed incomplete.
There were opportunities for more inclusion of girls and women playing football. Pruter’s chapter discussed the declining participation by boys, just reinforced by new statistics from the National Federation of State High School Associations released during the week of 28 August 2019. Even when this was written, he could have noted that while participation by boys was down, more girls were playing the game, a trend that has been going on for the past few years. Likewise, Craig Greenham’s “Canadian Football” did not mention that women began playing there as early as 1969. There are currently two leagues for women, and two more for middle and high school girls.
Those are relatively minor complaints about an otherwise enjoyable read. The essays throughout, though written for an academic audience, should be accessible for casual readers who want to know more about the history of the game. The overall tone of the work is informational, and unlike many academic treatments of the gridiron, there was not the sort of hyper criticism of the game seemingly designed to make one feel guilty for being a football fan that can be found in many academic treatments. The controversies and negatives surrounding the sport are not dismissed or glossed over, but the narrative is explanatory, rather than accusatory. The editors furthered their pedagogical aim by including a glossary of terms for those who are not familiar with the game.
As with the best football histories, the various authors that contributed to Touchdown were careful to keep the “story” in history. For instance, Pop Warner youth football grew out of a Philadelphia factory owner’s complaint that teenage vandals were breaking his factory windows. He contacted former athlete Joseph Tomlin, who suggested a youth football league. Tomlin thought of football, not because of any inherent value in the game, but because it happened to be fall at the time. The league added the famous football coach’s name after Warner, then the head coach at Temple University, spoke at a spring football clinic the league held in 1934 (44).
Gems’ and Pfister’s Touchdown: An American Obsession would be a useful work to use in a sport history classroom. Unfortunately, I read it too late for inclusion in the required reading for my Football in America class, but I will definitely add it for next time.
Russ Crawford is a Professor of History at Ohio Northern University in Ada, Ohio. His area of specialty is sport history, and he is currently writing a history of women playing football. Along with several chapters on sport history, he has published two books. Le Football: The History of American Football in France was published by the University of Nebraska Press in August of 2016. His first book, The Use of Sport to Promote the American Way of Life During the Cold War: Cultural Propaganda, 1946-1963, was published by the Edwin Mellen Press in 2008.