Book Review: “NFL Football: A History of America’s New National Pastime”

NFL COVERFrom Steve Ethridge —

Many here at UCF are aware, I would assume, of the Campus Authors section of Barnes and Noble, but some might not be constant visitors as I am. In fact, I had to be told by the author of NFL Football: A History of America’s New National Pastime, Dr. Richard C. Crepeau, of the book’s current availability on these particular shelves, though I’ve known for some time that it has been in production.

As I was to discover, NFL Football is a comprehensive history of the sport-turned national industry with a sense of social impact. The author chronicles the evolutionary process of the NFL as a purely American phenomenon taking place for over a century, ultimately revealing how a series of small businesses fortuitously morphed into one very large and extremely powerful force. While other more romantic perspectives might glorify the league as a product of its heroic players, perspicacious coaches, and crowd-stirring moments, Crepeau focuses his attention toward shrewd owners and commissioners—in concert with, naturally, key socioeconomic factors.

Homage to players and coaches is not totally ignored, however, beginning with early icons who can probably be credited with defining the oft-mythologized football archetypes. In Section I of the book, “The Formative Years,” Red Grange is portrayed as a multi-talented star who could fill stadiums while the infant league was struggling to survive amid cash shortages, limited fan bases, and other competing leagues. As Crepeau mentions, “while it would be inaccurate to say that Red Grange ‘saved’ pro football . . . Grange and Pyle [his promotor] put a lot of money into the pockets of a lot of people besides themselves.” Juxtaposed was a player like Bronco Nagurski, who personified the strong, silent football hero, compared at the time to Charles Lindbergh, “a modest, quiet man who did not seek fame or fortune.” Among others, these two provided the player mystique, while wily owner/coaches like Paul Brown and George Halas represented the shamans.

This first section of NFL Football also pays some attention to larger matters regarding league development, such as The Great Depression, World War II, desegregation, competing upstart leagues, rule changes, and the advent of television. But it isn’t until the two subsequent sections arrive—“The Rozelle Era” and “The New NFL”—that readers see these topics addressed more fully, alongside the elevated role of the commissioner in pro football. Of course, the names of players and coaches continue to enhance the narrative, but only two players are featured strongly in part two, and only insofar as they relate significantly to the turbulent 1960s landscape, when the NFL gained most of its traction: Jim Brown concerning race and Joe Namath concerning rebellion. Featured also is one particular coach, Vince Lombardi, “a stern father figure who continued to affirm the “American One Way.” From this point on, however, it is the battle for money and power through the economic politics of the media, wealthy owners, litigious unions, teams for sale, and three commissioners—to its current state of billionaires and bloated excess—that is abundantly discussed.

I may be somewhat biased in favor of my former teacher, but I’m convinced that Dick Crepeau’s honest chronicle of the NFL is a must-read for anyone even remotely interested in the sport. After all, pro football is the All-American success story.

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