In 1974, with the NFL becoming an increasingly lucrative business, the players went on strike. They wanted the right to change teams when their rookie contracts expired, something we know today as free agency. They didn’t get it. The strike lasted just over a month and the players returned to work. Many of the strikers, however, were cut. One of those was Kansas City Chiefs center, Michael Oriard.
Oriard finished his PhD and became an academic. Now retired, he wrote several books about football during his career. In Brand NFL, he writes that most teams denied that the cuts they made in 1974 were retribution for the strike:
“Not George Halas. After shipping out the team’s player rep and its most vocal strikers, the Bears’ owner exulted, ‘It’s the greatest (bleeping) thing that’s happened to the Bears in five years. We got rid of some of these malcontents. Great day.'”
The 1974 strike, though a failure, kicked off two decades of unrest. There were further strikes in 1982 and 1987 and, Oriard notes, in 1986 David Harris published The League, which was subtitled The Rise and Decline of the NFL. It really looked like the NFL was in trouble. But the 1990s brought a new commissioner, with Paul Tagliabue replacing Pete Rozelle, and free agency finally arrived in 1993. Oriard writes:
“Labor peace was Tagliabue’s highest priority on becoming commissioner, and I am convinced that history will judge it to be his most important legacy. Labor peace created the stability that freed owners to pursue new revenue streams and spared fans yet another troubling spectacle of millionaires striking for more money.”
Labor relations are a prominent theme in Brand NFL, which examines how the league transformed itself from a sideshow to baseball into a financial behemoth and America’s most popular sport. Oriard begins with the 1960s and looks at the NFL’s growing presence on TV and the league’s own, increasingly effective, self-publicity, through outlets like NFL Films.
He also looks at how owners have grown the value of their franchises, particularly through merchandising, TV deals and lucrative new stadium projects that have allowed them to profit from corporate boxes and other gameday experiences. He digs into the league’s marketing strategy, including how it defined its values and sought to reach young people.
Players, too, learned how to market themselves. From figures like Joe Namath, to Deion Sanders and Terrell Owens, Oriard considers the way players have created personas and exploited them – or been exploited for them. This leads into a discussion of race – always an issue in the NFL and one that remains to this day with the controversy over kneeling players. Oriard’s book was written years before kneeling became an issue but he notes that racial stereotypes were still dominant in the way players and coaches are written and talked about.
Brand NFL was originally published in 2006 but a 2010 afterword brings the story somewhat up to date with Oriard considering the negotiations over the collective bargaining agreement due in 2011, as well as the emerging revelations about concussions and the risks of CTE.
Though written by an academic, Brand NFL is not a textbook. It’s a thoroughly readable overview of how the NFL operates as a business and it is constantly fascinating for anyone interested in that side of the game.
Photo: Josh Hallett