Reading Football

How the Popular Press Created an American Spectacle

By Michael Oriard

Foreword by Alan Trachtenberg

352 pp., 6.125 x 9.25, 66 illus., notes, bibl., index

  • Paperback ISBN: 978-0-8078-4751-0
    Published: August 1998
  • eBook ISBN: 978-0-8078-6696-2
    Published: November 2000

Cultural Studies of the United States

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Is football an athletic contest or a social event? Is it a game of skill, a test of manhood, or merely an organized brawl? Michael Oriard, a former professional player, asks these and other intriguing questions in Reading Football, the first contemporary book about football's formative years.

American football began in the 1870s as a game to be played, not watched. Within a brief ten years, it had become a great public spectacle with an immense following, a phenomenon caused primarily by the voluminous commentary about the game conducted in popular newspapers and magazines.

Oriard shows how this constant narrative in football's early years developed many different stories about what the game meant: football as pastime, as the sport of gentlemen, as a science, as a game of rules and their infringements. He shows how football became a series of cultural stories about power, luck, strategy, and deception. These different interpretations have been magnified by football's current omnipresence on television. According to Oriard, televised football now plays a cultural role of enormous importance for men, yet within the field of cultural studies the influence of football has been ignored until now.

From the book:

“A receiver sprints down the sideline, fast and graceful, then breaks toward the middle of the field where a safety waits for him. From forty yards upfield the quarterback releases the ball; it spirals in an elegant arc toward the goalposts as the receiver now for the first time looks back to pick up its flight. The pass is a little high; the receiver leaps, stretches, grasps the ball--barely, fingers clutching--at the very moment that the safety drives a helmet into his unprotected ribs. The force of the collision flings the receiver backward, slamming him to the turf. . . . This familiar tableau, this exemplary moment in a football game, epitomizes the appeal of the sport: the dramatic confrontation of artistry with violence, both equally necessary.”

About the Author

Michael Oriard, who played professional football for the Kansas City Chiefs from 1970 to 1973, is Distinguished Professor of American Literature and Culture at Oregon State University. He is author of Dreaming of Heroes: American Sports Fiction, 1868-1980, The End of Autumn: Reflections on My Life in Football, and Sporting with the Gods: The Rhetoric of Play and Game in American Culture.
For more information about Michael Oriard, visit the Author Page.


"[An] admirable book. . . . Oriard's thesis is refreshingly original."--Nation

"A well-researched, fascinating ride through football history that will be enjoyed by scholars and fans alike."--Philadelphia Inquirer

"An important contribution."--New England Quarterly

"Michael Oriard's important book is a welcome, extremely insightful cultural history of football's early decades."--American Historical Review

"The starting point of this careful, fascinating study of football's emerging importance at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century is Michael Oriard's contention that football or more particularly the vast body of writing about football offers the scholar a rich and unique cultural text of the times."--Journal of Southern History

"No wonder we struggle against the distorted values of football and television. As Oriard brilliantly shows, those signals were called a hundred years ago when football and the popular press first ganged up to create the cultural text that helped define manliness, violence, and sexuality. Reading Football is a playbook to understanding America."--Robert Lipsyte, sports columnist for The New York Times

Multimedia & Links

Read Oriard's posts at the Washington Post's NFL blog, The League.