King Football

Sport and Spectacle in the Golden Age of Radio and Newsreels, Movies and Magazines, the Weekly and the Daily Press

By Michael Oriard

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King Football

512 pp., 6.125 x 9.25, 50 illus., notes, bibl., index

  • Paperback ISBN: 978-0-8078-5545-4
    Published: February 2004
  • eBook ISBN: 978-0-8078-6403-6
    Published: February 2004

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Author Q&A

Copyright (c) 2007 by the University of North Carolina Press. All rights reserved.

A Conversation with Michael Oriard, former NFL player and author of Brand NFL, on how the game became a larger-than-life phenomenon.

Q: You are a former professional football player as well as a professorof American literature and culture. How does your unique backgroundinform your history of the NFL and your inquiry into whether it is abrand or a sport?

A: As a former player, I have an intimate feel for the experience ofplaying pro football that has nothing to do with "entertainment" (myperspective, of course, is shaped by the fact that I was an offensivelineman, not a quarterback or wide receiver). As a professor of Americanliterature and culture, I understand "sport" and "entertainment" (or"product" or "brand") in more than the visceral way I absorbed as aplayer. I know that football historically has engaged fans at a levelmuch deeper and more profound than mere entertainment, and as I havewatched NFL football become extraordinarily more commercial over theyears since I've played, I could not help but wonder whether the game'sappeal at this deeper level has been affected.

Q: What is the most recent estimate of the NFL franchise's worth?

A: According to Forbes magazine, which publishes its new calculationseach September, the average franchise value in the NFL in 2006 was $898million, with five franchises worth more than $1 billion, topped by theWashington Redskins at $1.4 billion. In a few months we'll see figuresfor 2007 that will be even higher.

Q: What role has television played in the modern image of the NFL? Andwhat did Roy Rogers have to do with the birth of the League?

A:  Beginning in the 1950s, television made it possible for professionalfootball to become a truly national sport, instead of an inferiorimitation of college football of interest only to fans where NFLfranchises were located. Because the NFL football most Americans haveknown since the '50s has been the one we've seen on television, how andwhen television has presented the game has crucially shaped the game'splace in our lives. Monday Night Football made the sport an inescapablepart of American life even for those with a casual interest or nointerest at all in the games. ESPN has saturated American culture withNFL football to an extent unimaginable before cable and has been themost powerful force in transforming star athletes into full-blowncelebrities. Beyond these obvious changes, the most remarkable part ofthe story of TV and NFL football in recent years has been the soaringrights fees at the same time that ratings have steadily declined.

Roy Rogers' role was more symbolic than actual: when Roy RogersEnterprises contracted with the National Football League to marketNFL-logo products as well as Roy Rogers six-shooters, the arrangementforetold the transformation of the NFL in the 1990s into a commercialbrand in an entertainment market that includes X-Boxes and Spider Manmovies as well as the NBA and NASCAR.

Q: What was the waiver system, and how did it affect players' teamchoices and salaries? How did it affect their passion for the sport?

A: The waiver system was part of the basic structure of the NationalFootball League in the 1960s and 1970s, including my own playing days,which allowed players no freedom to choose their own clubs but tied themto the club that drafted them until the club had no more use for them.When a club released a player, it put him on waivers, available to beclaimed by another club for $100. If he was claimed, his original clubcould withdraw him from waivers and try to arrange a deal. The playerhad no say in any of this, not even any knowledge of who or what wasbeing decided about his fate, until the entire process had run itscourse. Players were most conspicuously "owned" by their clubs in thiswaiver system. It also helped hold down salaries by not allowingreleased players to negotiate with more than one team.

Q: What were the major strikes that were staged in the history of NFL? Were they effective?

A: The NFL experienced three major strikes: during training camp in 1974(when my own NFL career ended) and during the regular season in 1982 and1987. In 1982, the owners locked out the players and canceled games. In1987, they fielded teams with "replacement players" (i.e. scabs). Noneof the strikes succeeded, in part because of the players' hugedisadvantages (their own short, uncertain careers; the owners' greaterfinancial resources and access to the media), but in part because of theplayers' own failure to maintain a solid front. In both 1974 and 1987,large numbers of players abandoned their striking teammates and crossedthe picket lines. All three strikes failed, but they set the stage for adecisive victory in court because the NFL's restrictions on playermovement (free agency) clearly violated anti-trust laws. After decadesof owners claiming that free agency would destroy the game, the 1993labor agreement that gave the players free agency became one of thefoundations of a new NFL in which owners and players alike (butparticularly the owners) have gotten rich beyond levels even imaginablein the 1970s when the conflict began.

Q: When did the Super Bowl begin to gain such wild public popularity?

A: The Super Bowl began in 1967 as just another American sport'schampionship game, but by the late 1970s it had become an unofficialcivic holiday and national ritual. Pro football became Americans'favorite spectator sport (as first reported in a poll in 1965) beforeSuper Bowl I, and having a single game instead of a seven-game seriesmade the Super Bowl singularly important. But the NFL's staging of thegame as a grand festival of sport, entertainment, super-patriotism, andconsumption also had much to do with making the Super Bowl more acultural phenomenon than a sporting contest.

Q: Why was 1982 such a "nightmare year" for the NFL?

A: A convergence of factors, related only coincidentally, made 1982 theNFL's "nightmare year." The 1981 season saw the highest TV ratings inthe NFL's history to that point (and they have never reached that heightagain). The Super Bowl concluding that season was also (and remains) thehighest-rated ever. But then the sky fell in, not once but three times.In May, Al Davis won his initial antitrust lawsuit against the NFL,which allowed him to move the Raiders from Oakland to Los Angeles andtrigger five more franchise shifts in the late 1980s and early 1990s (aswell as the threat of several more). (Also in May, a new rival league,the United States Football League, was announced, but it was initially aminor irritant because it did not attempt to compete directly with theNFL for players and fans). In June, Sports Illustrated published thesensational "confession" of Don Reese, a former player who claimed thatabuse of cocaine was rampant throughout the league. And then inSeptember, the players went on strike for 57 days, disruptingregular-season games for the first time in NFL history. The impact, bothshort-term and long-term, of all three events was profoundly disruptivefor the NFL, both for its stability and for its image with the public.

Q: How did the leaders of the NFL during Pete Rozelle's time ascommissioner differ from those owners who took over after he resigned in1989?

A: Such generalizations always oversimplify, but in general the ownersin Rozelle's time were "sportsmen" who got into pro football with littlemoney but a passion for the game, while those who acquired franchises inthe 1990s were millionaire entrepreneurs drawn to the glamour of thecountry's premier sport but also to the investment possibilities thatNFL franchises now represented. Complicating this simple dichotomy offootball-for-football's-sake versus football-for-profit, the Old Guardwere not just kindly old men with a fatherly concern for their players(such as the popular image of the Steelers' Art Rooney and the Giants'Wellington Mara in his late years), while the New Breed were ruthlesscapitalists. In their relations with players and particularly with thePlayers Association, the Old Guard in many cases were ruthless autocratswho believed the players should be grateful whatever was given them.("You're the cattle, we're the ranchers," Tex Schramm once famously toldrepresentatives of the players' union during negotiations). For theirpart, the profit-minded entrepreneurs of the new NFL recognized therights and financial worth of the men who actually played the game. Froma former player's perspective, both the Old Guard and the New Breed havetheir virtues and their flaws.

Q: Though it is difficult to summarize, what do you think accounted mostfor the radical rise in NFL revenue during the 1990?

A: I would identify three basic pillars of the new NFL that emerged inthe 1990s: labor peace (which stabilized player costs while alsopreventing another strike from alienating the public), TV contracts(which grew astonishingly due to the bidding of more networks than thenumber of TV packages up for bid), and the revenues (from luxury suites,premium seating, seat licenses, naming rights, local sponsorships, andso on) that the Cowboys' Jerry Jones demonstrated could be extractedfrom stadiums. League-wide licensing and sponsorships have providedanother smaller but still sizeable pot of revenue, while invisiblysupporting the entire financial structure has been tax law through whichthe public subsidizes the building and financing of stadiums and theleasing of luxury suites.

Q: What significance did the hiring of Sara Levinson in 1994 as the NFLProperties president have with regard to the NFL's new image?

A: Before she was hired to head NFL Properties, Levinson wasco-president of MTV, which represented cultural forces seemingly at theopposite end of the spectrum from the NFL. Her hiring by the NFL sent aclear signal that pro football was emphatically no longer the simplegame that first captured the public imagination at the end of the 1950s.Whether Levinson was herself the agent or the symbol of the change, herhiring meant that the NFL now officially saw itself in an entertainmentbusiness with a product and a brand in competition with movies, musicvideos, and the rest of the entertainment options out there trying toattract consumers' money and leisure time.

Q: What is "black style" and what role does it play in NFL games?

A: I assume that there is popular perception of a black style infootball, most evident in the choreographed end zone celebrations byTerrell Owens, Chad Johnson, and numerous other wide receivers andrunning backs. The NFL tries to legislate against "excessivecelebration," but whether these antics are celebrations or taunting,whether they entertain fans or violate ideals of sportsmanship, whetherthey express an essential aspect of African-American culture or aresimply self-promotion, is not self-evident.

Q: You dedicate a section of your book to "the racial state of thegame." What is the racial state of football?

A: In thinking about "the racial state of the game," I am interested inhow far we have come since the days of segregation, Jim Crow laws, andopenly virulent racism, and also in how far we have to go. It stillamazes me that I played games in college against Georgia Tech and theUniversity of Texas before those schools had integrated their footballteams. The most obvious measures of "the racial state of the game" arefound in the increasing number of black quarterbacks, the more slowlyincreasing number of black head coaches, the still tiny number ofAfrican Americans in executive and ownership positions, and so on. Butto me the more interesting aspects of "the racial state of the game" arethe hints of how the dominance of black athletes in the NFL has affectedour collective thinking about raceÑas evident, for example, in responsesto the "black style" mentioned above, and in the explanationsperiodically offered to account for black athletic success. Thestereotypes of black "athleticism" and "naturally" talented blackathletes are subtler than the older, officially discredited racism, butthey are still pernicious. NFL football dramatizes a kind of "racialtheater" in which fans, perhaps unconsciously more often than not, seetheir own and their country's racial attitudes play out.

Q: How is the NFL a representation of the U.S. and Americans' need forcompetition? Do you think the country might be different without theNFL?

A: All sports celebrate competition, which of course is also afundamental aspect of American life. From one perspective, competitionexpresses a kind of ruthlessness in our economic and social andpolitical systemsÑto the winners go the spoils. From anotherperspective, competition is tied more positively to democraticvaluesÑthe spoils (in principle, anyway) go to those who earn them, notto those entitled to them by privileged birth. Part of the sport'sappeal lies in the idea that its competition is fairÑthe winners deserveto win. (This is why we are so troubled by steroids in baseball rightnow). NFL football is like other sports in celebrating competition. Ithink its own unique appeal lies in its fundamental tension betweenviolence and grace or beauty or whatever you want to call it, and in itslarger-than-life quality. I think that football serves a need thatarises from our feeling constrained in our jobs, our aspirations, andour social livesÑa longing to "live large" like NFL players seem to do.If I'm right about this, then if NFL football disappeared, we'dpresumably create something else to satisfy that need.