In a revised edition for 2020, historian Richard C Crepeau describes the NFL’s 100-year rise to dominate the US sports landscape.
There have been several histories of the NFL in recent years, including several published to mark the league’s centennial. Historian Richard C Crepeau’s NFL Football was originally published in 2014 and has been updated with an extra 20 pages or so of new material to mark the NFL’s anniversary. Rather than being a newly researched history, Crepeau’s book synthesises previous histories into a compact and readable single volume.
Less concerned with relating the sequence of events, Crepeau seeks to put the NFL into a broader social, economic and technological context, examining how it influenced, or was influenced by, developments such as the Civil Rights movement or the rise of television. There’s not much here about tactical innovations or play-by-play recaps of significant games. The focus is very much on how the decisions made by team owners and league commissioners helped or hindered the growth of the league.
Crepeau acknowledges the extraordinary achievement of the NFL in reaching its current status as America’s dominant sport but is not afraid to be critical of the “nine billion dollar business masquerading as a sport”.
Whereas many NFL histories treat the commissioners with reverence, for example, Crepeau notes that Pete Rozelle was an exceptional leader but also prone to acting like “a minor deity”. Today’s commissioner, Roger Goodell, meanwhile, has “great skill” but also “woodenness of personality, and an imperious pairing of hubris and arrogance”.
The book concludes with several handy reference sections – a chronological list of NFL franchises, the complete NFL 100 All-Time Team, and a thorough bibliographic essay that provides a good starting point for anyone who wants to read more deeply about any particular topic.
Richard C Crepeau is a Professor of History at the University of Central Florida I Orlando. He specialises in sports history and his previous books include Baseball: America’s Diamond Mind, 1919-1941.
“The first documented case of pay for play occurred on November 12, 1892, when the Allegheny Athletic Association paid William ‘Pudge’ Heffelfinger a reported $500 plus $25 in expense money to play for their club against the Pittsburgh Athletic Club. Three other players were also paid for this game, and by the late nineties there were at least five professional teams in Pennsylvania. Denial of professionalism was so much a part of the sporting culture that Heffelfinger spent the remainder of his years denouncing professionalism in football.”
“The Steelers-Eagles merger was necessitated by a severe shortage of players on both teams. The two head coaches became co-coaches, Greasy Neale from Philadelphia and Walt Kiesling from Pittsburgh. Because the two men came to hate one another, they divided duties between the offense and defense (Neal taking over the offense and Kiesling the defense), which some say produced the precedent for the use of offensive and defensive coordinators.”
“On the Browns, where Paul Brown was in total control of his team, the head coach had a simple announcement for his players: ‘If you don’t like playing with a black man, get out of here.'”
“Though the loss of the court case to LAMCC and Al Davis ensured a decline in Pete Rozelle’s ability to control NFL owners, there were other signs that the omnipotence of the commissioner was waning. One such sign was his failure, once again, to get an antitrust exemption from Congress, something the NFL had already failed to achieve in the courts.”
“There is one recurring phrase, ‘at no cost to the NFL’ or some variation thereof, and this is the tip of the iceberg. The requirements and lists of needs spread over the 153 pages reveal an insatiable appetite for freebies for the National Football League, a nine billion dollar business masquerading as a sport.”
Academic writing can often be quite dry for a non-specialist reader, but although this book is part of the Sport and Society series of history books it’s written in a clear and accessible style. Naturally, the need to condense so much history into a little over 200 pages means there’s little space for scene-setting, so the book frequently delivers dense chunks of information.
The book’s great strength is that it summarises lots of material that football fans might not otherwise read. Michael Oriard’s Brand NFL and David Harris’s The League are both essential reading for anyone who wants a deep understanding of the business side of the NFL, for example, but readers who are happy with an overview could instead read chapters seven-to-nine of Crepeau.
The new material brings the story up to date, primarily by unravelling two issues with deep roots but which broke the surface in the last five years. First, the concussion issue, which took up six pages of the first edition, is analysed in much greater detail here as the league changed rules and protocols to attempt to manage the problem, while multiple players retired early to protect their health.
Second, the racial justice protests that have dominated the last few years connect to long-running concerns around racism and player autonomy in the NFL as well as the league’s tendency to wrap itself in the flag for reasons of branding or patriotism, depending on one’s perspective.
This is a solid foundation for anyone looking to get a quick grasp of a century of the NFL.
Shane Richmond, Pigskin Books
“NFL Football also valuably historicizes contemporary issues in the sport. For example, Crepeau’s analysis of the NFL’s leadership during the rise of steroid use in football in the postwar era adds depth to the current tragedy of the discovery of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) in numerous former football players. Although many were aware of the health dangers of steroids and drug use for elite athletes by the 1960s, Pete Rozelle refused to acknowledge that they were a problem in the NFL until late 1988. Likewise, it was not until 2009 that Roger Goodell and the NFL acknowledged the well-established link between the sport and brain injuries, even though, as Crepeau shows, literature in medical journals on the subject originated in 1928. This historical comparison adds to our understanding of pro football as an organization very attune to its image and brand.”
Andrew Linden, Sport in American History
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Photo: Paul Joseph