Top five: The NFL and the Presidency

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“Stick to sports!” is the familiar cry whenever someone primarily known for football expresses a political opinion with which the speaker disagrees. The last part is important – few people, if any, tell someone to stick to sports when they agree with them. Still, there are those who believe that sports and politics do not – and should not – mix.

That’s a mistake. Sport is political, just as most major social forces are. NFL teams appeal for taxpayers’ money when they want a new stadium and the league itself has lobbied over the years for exemption from anti-trust laws and tax exemption (which it relinquished in 2015). Military flypasts before games and even the playing of the national anthem are political too.

However, every now and again the league becomes entangled with politics, and particularly the presidency, in ways that are much clearer. Here are five books that deal with times when the presidency loomed large over the NFL.

1The Big Scrum (2011) by John J Miller

The game of football nearly didn’t survive long enough for the creation of a professional league. The early college sport was so violent that players frequently died from on-field injuries. This almost led to the abolition of football in 1905, as Miller’s book explains. However, President Theodore Roosevelt had been a football fan of the sport since his Harvard days in the 1870s and sought a solution that would rescue the sport. The President argued that football had no future without improved safety – an attitude that has echoes today. The sport’s leaders increased the penalties for unsportsmanlike conduct and banned some of the more dangerous tactics, and football survived.
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2Last Team Standing (2006) by Matthew Algeo

Another Roosevelt – Franklin – is a major figure in this book. Theodore’s fifth cousin, Franklin took office in 1933, guiding America out of the Great Depression and, in an unprecedented third term, into the Second World War. With the pool of players depleted by the war, the NFL struggled to keep going. Algeo’s book tells the story of the merged Pittsburgh Steelers and Philadelphia Eagles team that scraped together a mix of military draft rejects and ageing stars to play in 1943. Alongside the story of the team, Algeo details life during the war and America under Roosevelt’s leadership.
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3Clouds Over the Goalpost (2013) by Lew Freedman

Locked in competition with the emerging AFL, dealing with accusations of gambling and possible gang links, the NFL had a difficult 1963. Things got worse when commissioner Pete Rozelle’s decision to play games on the weekend following the assassination of President Kennedy, which turned into a public relations disaster. The league was widely criticised and Rozelle, a PR man at heart, regretted the decision for the rest of his life. Though primarily an account of the 1963 season on the field, Freedman’s book details a tough year for the NFL.
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4Super Bowl Monday (2011) by Adam Lazarus

Another book in which war hangs over proceedings, in this case the first Gulf War. Operation Desert Storm began just 10 days before Super Bowl XXV was due to be played and such was the tension in the US that there were questions about whether it would go ahead. The game was played, with troops in the Gulf watching – on Monday, because of the time difference, hence the book’s title. They saw a classic game, filled with patriotic gestures and including a halftime address from George H. W. Bush, the president, and his wife Barbara.
Buy the Book: AbeBooks

5Football’s Fearless Activists (2020) by Mike Freeman

We finish as we began, with a president involving himself in the running of the sport, this time in a less welcome fashion. When players, led by Colin Kaepernick, chose to protest against the killing of numerous black people by the police by kneeling for the national anthem, the response was anger from the political right. Newly elected president Donald Trump seized on the issue as a rallying point for his supporters, demanding that owners sack any player who knelt during the anthem. He returned to the theme repeatedly at rallies and in social media outbursts, antagonising players, dividing fans, and throwing the NFL’s leadership into chaos, with some wanting to appease the president and others inclined to support players. Freeman’s book details the cost to the players who chose to protest – many of whom received death threats and were kicked off their teams.
Buy the Book: Amazon US | Amazon UK

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