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Pigskin Rules!

How pro football became America's sport

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When the National Football League, guided by its young commissioner, Pete Rozelle, signed a landmark $4.7 million TV contract with CBS in 1962, it put the league's broadcast rights in one collective basket while making each franchise an equal partner in broadcast revenue.

Four decades later, Major League Baseball has yet to solve that same quandary of sharing broadcast revenue, a problem Rozelle and the NFL settled when John F. Kennedy was still president.

During the 1960s, professional football would also launch its own hagiographic films division (NFL Films), create an ambitious promotional and merchandising arm (NFL Properties) and stave off threatening competition from the rival AFL with a successful merger.

These innovations form the heart of Michael MacCambridge's America's Game, a compelling account of how pro football rose from third-rate afterthought to become the nation's most beloved spectator sport. While the author spends ample time demonstrating that football's rise wasn't just a result of its telegenic nature, he doesn't underplay its impact or timing. He notes TV sales increasing to 25 million in 1954, up from 172,000 six years earlier.

This boom coincided with the greatest game in league history, the 1958 NFL championship played in New York between the Giants and the Baltimore Colts. Stars like Johnny Unitas, Frank Gifford and Alan Ameche captivated millions with a sudden-death classic.

Today, pro football is the country's most popular televised sport, with revenue approaching $6 billion annually. The Super Bowl, as everyone feels compelled to mention, has become an unofficial national holiday.

Even as franchise fees soar toward the billion-dollar mark, the NFL's rigorous socialism makes it all but impossible for an owner to fail. This season, each team receives $84 million in national TV contract shares; the league salary cap is just under $81 million. Easy math, isn't it? And that's before sponsorship money, ticket sales, luxury suites and concessions have been included.

With that backdrop, MacCambridge wisely sets most of the action in the boardrooms and league meetings where so many pivotal decisions and negotiations were hammered out. Thus former Rams owner Dan Reeves receives, for example, as much stage time as Unitas. MacCambridge emphasizes the innovators and shapers of the game, from crafty Dallas Cowboys executive Tex Schramm, who authored the wild-card format, to Paul Brown, who created modern coaching with his use of advance scouts, exhaustive film study and statistical analysis.

Pro football's rise is, more than anything else, a business story blending hucksterism and foresight with the cultural mores of a burgeoning leisure class. All of which is a fancy way of relating Americans' enthusiastic response to that age-old question: Are you ready for some football?

Rozelle, who died in 1996, receives, and deserves, much of the credit for transforming the NFL into a cultural powerhouse. But MacCambridge, through meticulous research and judicious anecdotes, reveals the origins of pro football's ascendancy beyond Rozelle's unexpected rise to the commissionership in 1960.

"A lot of the things that were attributed to Pete Rozelle -- in terms of the philo-sophy of the National Football League -- had actually been in place well before then," MacCambridge said in a recent telephone interview. "It was that philosophy that was carried on by Rozelle and that is responsible for where it is today."

That philosophy was ushered in by Bert Bell, Rozelle's predecessor. Bell, who led the league from 1946 to 1959, came up with the idea of an annual draft, conducted in inverse order of the previous season's performance -- a system aimed at strengthening weaker teams. This reflects the league's long-held vision of being only as strong as its weakest link -- a philosophy rival sports leagues ignored to their detriment.

Bell also developed the NFL's innovative scheduling system, pitting strong clubs against strong clubs and weak against weak while ensuring more exciting games and playoff races throughout the regular season.

Those maneuvers set the course for Rozelle's storied 29-year tenure. A former Los Angeles Rams PR man, Rozelle was 33 when he assumed control of the NFL. Within two years, he secured the league's first consolidated TV deal and granted a pair of iconoclastic filmmakers, Steve Sabol and his son, Ed, universal rights to create video tributes to gridiron glory.

The Sabols' longshot project would, by 1965, morph into NFL Films, the most powerful mythologizing movement in American sport during the past 50 years.

Steve Sabol penned the flowery scripts, paeans to pigskin pomp. Think of the infamous, redundant narration describing Lambeau Field's surface as "frozen tundra," served up by John Facenda, a Philadelphia newsman and opera fan who knew little of football when Sabol approached him. Most fans can summon up at least a few NFL Films touches, from Facenda to dramatic slow-motion shots to miked coaches on the sidelines. Now try to name any similar ventures churned out by Major League Baseball or the NBA. Done? Me, too.

Painting football into a cultural corner is easy. It's militaristic, conformist, corporate, obsessed with time and detail and, above all, violent. Which may explain why Richard Nixon was obsessed with football. But the football-as-conservative-manifesto description flags when you realize that Nixon and gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson agreed on just one thing during their interview sessions -- they both loved the NFL, as did the way-less-than-conservative Abbie Hoffman.After Super Bowl IV, Kansas City quarterback Len Dawson was summoned by Chiefs equipment manager Bobby Yarborough after vanquishing the Vikings.

"Hey, Lenny, come here," Yarborough said. "The phone -- it's the president."

Dawson answered, "The president of what?"

"The president," Yarborough said. "Nixon!"

With the post-game chat, Nixon ushered in a new American tradition: The First Football Fan phoning in congratulations after the Super Bowl.

Of course, hard as it is for Tostitos Nation to believe, there was a time before Super Bowls existed. The 1966 merger of the upstart AFL, launched by Lamar Hunt in 1960 with eight teams, and the well-established NFL ushered in the first world championship game. Rozelle and other league executives were so dubious of the AFL's chances against the NFL, plans were already in place to alter the format. Then along came Joe Namath in 1969, leading the AFL's New York Jets to a stunning upset of the Baltimore Colts. But, as MacCambridge writes, it was Kansas City's win the following year that really cemented the AFL as an equal power. One win may have been a fluke; two straight refuted such notions.

With the absorption of the AFL, the NFL was bolstered by its former rival. The AFL spawned such renowned football minds as Al Davis and Sid Gillman, as well as star players including Namath and Dawson. It was known for a more wide-open, creative approach, thrilling fans with high-scoring, pass-happy attacks.

The AFL also proved more progressive on racial matters. In 1965, for instance, the league moved its All-Star game from New Orleans to Houston after several black players complained of shoddy treatment from local hotels and others.

MacCambridge delves into the integration of the game at some length, an area usually ceded to Jackie Robinson and baseball. Packers coaching legend Vince Lombardi, often portrayed as a conservative martinet, was admirably progressive on race matters, telling his team in 1959, "If I ever hear nigger or dago or kike or anything like that around here, regardless of who you are, you're through with me."

Rozelle's crowning achievement was the 1970s launch of Monday Night Football. Here, in prime time, was the coronation of America's football obsession. It also marked, in some ways, the last truly fun years of pro football. Oh, to have Dandy Don, Howard Cosell and the Giffer back. Not to mention the Steel Curtain and America's Team and the Purple People Eaters.

Once Cosell and the others begin fading away in the 1980s, MacCambridge's chronicle falls a bit flat. The NFL remains a convincing number one, true, but it's sapped of its earlier vitality.

Rozelle left office after a ravaging final decade punctuated by two player strikes and the beginnings of a franchise exodus including the Colt's infamous move, sneaking out of Baltimore at night in moving vans.

By the time we get to current commissioner Paul Tagliabue, even MacCambridge seems a bit bored. Despite the unsatisfying coda, America's Game is a fascinating tale of an upstart (football) blitzing a colossus (baseball) and never looking back.

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