Tuesday, January 25, 2011

#5: America's Game: The Epic Story of How Pro Football Captured a Nation by Michael MacCambridge

This text is much more about two commissioners, Bert Bell and Pete Rozelle, than it is about the game itself. The current commish, Roger Godell, gets small mention in the text largely because it was written before his term started. The small mention, though, is telling: "He uses words like 'monetize' and 'commoditize' one owner said with distaste" (pg 427). Rozelle (and his successor, Paul Tagliabue) would never use those words. Rozelle emerges as a brilliant organizer, marketer and all around decent man. MacCambridge's text never explicitly states that the NFL as we know it would not exist without the influence of Rozelle. He doesn't have too.

The NFL started in 1920 and struggled through the 1930s, built around men like George Halas, Wellington Mara, George Preston Marshall and Art Rooney. What is so striking about this text is its illustration that the NFL was, until the advent of the AFL in the 1960s, a club of families. After the great overtime playoff between the Giants and the Colts in 1958, Bert Bell was making the schedules up on his kitchen table. When asked where the league files were, he would point to his balding head and say "Right Here." Bell died of a heart attack...at a pro football game...in his hometown of Philadelphia. After several days of votes, Rozelle, then the General Manager of the Los Angeles Rams, was put forward as a compromise candidate. The league never looked back. His marketing experience and media savvy turned the NFL into a money machine.

While focusing on the off-field game, MacCambridge sheds light on several factors that are overlooked. Namely, the great work of the Sabol family on NFL Films. MacCambridge rightfully points out that the highlight packages, produced for another Rozelle supported show, Monday Night Football, rivalled MNF itself in popularity. One could argue that the advent of ESPN and the like would not have been possible without NFL films. The very idea of the "highlight" was at that point limited to Wide World of Sports. Steve Sabol turned the mundane into the poetic by use of quick cuts, miking players and coaches on the sideline and emphasizing the personalities in the game.

What is being forgotten about the NFL is that it was built on personality, not a bland corporate identity. People like Art Rooney with his cigars, Dick Butkus bleeding on the sidelines, Jack Lambert with no teeth, and John Facenda describing it all in overwrought prose...that was the NFL of my and many other's childhoods. This is what makes people like Chad Ochcinco cool, if annoying as hell. Dear God, what the hell would that jerk off Godell do with Billy "White Shoes" Johnson and his end zone dance?

The genius of Pete Rozelle is encapsulated by MacCambridge through the statement "Rozelle never lost sight of the fact that the product the NFL was selling was the game itself." I think in many ways that Godell has forgotten that, and so have many of the fans and writers.

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