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Winning Streak

On the eve of the NFL's divisional playoffs, the author looks at Michael MacCambridge's book America's Game and how the league grew from upstart to the dominant force in team sports.

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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. The idea was filched from a notion dreamed up by baseball owner Bill Veeck in 1952; his fellow owners, naturally, rejected the idea with little consideration.

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 American Football League (AFL) with a successful merger.

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

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

As recently as World War II, baseball was, by a wide margin, the nation's preferred pastime. To many, it is long past its time (and prime), though the recent run of the Boston Red Sox reminded sports fans why the game can be so compelling.

Even with Boston's Reversed Curse, no one can argue the NFL's preeminence. It is the country's most popular televised sport, and the Super Bowl, as everyone feels compelled to mention, has become an unofficial national holiday. (Although it could be argued that the occasional halftime striptease act is still considered louche, even during broadcasts known for relentless promotional entreaties to give Levitra a try).

Revenue now approaches $6 billion annually and, just last fall, CBS and Fox agreed to NFL contract extensions representing a 25 percent increase over the rates included in the current eight-year, $17.6 billion deal. Even as franchise fees soar toward the billion-dollar mark, the NFL's rigorous socialism makes it all but impossible to fail, from an owner's perspective. 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 (no relation to the former Denver Broncos and Atlanta Falcons coach) receives, for example, as much stage time as Johnny Unitas. MacCambridge emphasizes the innovators and shapers of the game, from crafty Dallas Cowboys executive Tex Schramm, who authored the wild-card format, to Ohio's 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 philosophy 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 led the league from 1946 to 1959, dying, appropriately, while attending a Philadelphia Eagles game.

It was Bell who came up with the idea of an annual draft, aimed at restocking franchises with college players. He favored a draft conducted in inverse order of the previous season's performance, a system aimed at strengthening weaker teams. This decision reflects the league's long-held vision of being only as strong as its weakest link -- a philosophy that rival sports leagues ignored for years, to significant consternation and regret.

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. He was selected only as an alternative candidate and failed to win approval until the 23rd ballot at the owners' meetings. As MacCambridge writes, Rozelle's candidacy was a fluke and a search for compromise after Bell's death.

During those fateful league meetings, Pittsburgh Steelers owner Art Rooney told Frank McNamee, who owned the Philadelphia Eagles, of the unexpected candidate: "They think we should go for Pete Rozelle." McNamee responded, "Great. Who the hell is Pete Rozelle?"

A former Los Angeles Rams P.R. 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, Ed Sabol and his son, Steve, universal rights to create video tributes to gridiron glory.

As with so many visionaries who sought Rozelle's assistance, the Sabols were given time, money and creative independence to bolster the league. Their long-shot project would, by 1965, morph into NFL Films, the most powerful mythologizing movement in American sport during the past 50 years. MacCambridge compares the Sabols' film techniques with cutting-edge contemporary fare such as The Wild Bunch and Bonnie and Clyde.

Steve Sabol penned the flowery scripts, paeans to pigskin pomp. Think of the infamous, redundant narration describing Lambeau Field's surface as "the frozen tundra," served up with sounds of the behemoth as rendered by John Facenda, a Philadelphia newsman who, MacCambridge notes, was mostly an opera fan and knew little of football when the Sabols recruited him.

Most fans can summon up at least a few NFL Films touches, from Facenda's narration to dramatic slow-motion shots to microphone-wired coaches on the sidelines. Now try to name similar traits from 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. 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 less-than-conservative Abbie Hoffman.

Nixon was friendly with George Allen, who coached the Washington Redskins during the 1970s, and developed a penchant for calling Allen and other coaches before big games. 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. Hunt, after seeing his kids play with a popular rubber toy called the Super Ball, began calling the game the Super Bowl. Rozelle hated the nickname and Hunt thought little of it as well. Hey, whatever happened to that whole Super Bowl idea, anyway?

Since teams now vie for the Vince Lombardi Trophy, it will come as little surprise that the legendary coach led the Green Bay Packers to the first two Super Bowl titles. As MacCambridge reports, 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.

Joe Namath came along in 1969, though, and guaranteed a win for the AFL's New York Jets over the heavily favored Baltimore Colts -- and delivered a stunning 16-7 upset. 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.

While Namath and the AFL successfully challenged NFL dominance, few others did. The sport's leaders always demonstrated political wile and muscle, from securing approval for the blackout rule (no home game can be televised unless all tickets are sold 72 hours in advance) to congressional approval of the AFL merger, a deal sealed by Rozelle's promise to put a franchise in New Orleans in exchange for Louisiana Rep. Hale Boggs' support.

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.

And, on racial matters, the AFL proved more progressive. In 1965, 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. Pioneers such as Kenny Washington and Tank Younger lend insight, as does Hall of Fame running back Jim Brown, an intelligent, defiant voice who embodied the cultural shifts of the 1960s, much to Paul Brown's mystification.

The didactic Lombardi is 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."

As late as 1961, the Redskins still played "Dixie" before home games and team owner George Preston Marshall refused to integrate the roster. The other 13 NFL teams had 83 black players at the time. With a new stadium opening on federal land, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy instructed the secretary of the interior to cite federal statute and force the Redskins to integrate. It worked. As for the stadium, it was later named in honor of the slain RFK.

Since the 1960s represented the NFL's true ascension, MacCambridge offers a fine parallel: the space program. Both thrived on live TV coverage to enthrall the masses, both relied on a mix of old-fashioned bravado and cutting-edge technology, both were derided as folly and proved enormously popular, and both demanded much larger ratios of preparation than performance.

All of which leads into Rozelle's crowning achievement, 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, 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 No. 1, true, but it's sapped of its earlier vitality. Rozelle leaves office after a ravaging final decade punctuated by two player strikes and the beginnings of a mass franchise exodus. For all its staggering flaws, baseball (thanks to an antitrust exemption football could never secure) never allowed anything near the humiliation of an owner sneaking out of town in a moving van (as Baltimore's Colts did in 1984) or bolting without notice (Art Modell's Cleveland Browns in 1995). By the time we get to current commissioner Paul Tagliabue, even MacCambridge seems a bit bored. The story goes on, but comparing Daniel Snyder and Jerry Jones with stalwarts such as Lamar Hunt and Wellington Mara is like trying to tame Dick Butkus: It just shouldn't be done. Despite the unsatisfying coda, America's Game is a fascinating tale of an upstart (football) blitzing a colossus (baseball) and never looking back.

One of the strengths of America's Game is exploring some of the most important action -- not on the field, but in the boardrooms and league meetings, where the key decisions were made.
  • One of the strengths of America's Game is exploring some of the most important action -- not on the field, but in the boardrooms and league meetings, where the key decisions were made.

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