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America’s Game, America’s Obsession: The National Football League—Then and Now

ISSUE:  Fall 2008

The Best Game Ever: Giants vs. Colts, 1958, and the Birth of the Modern NFL, by Mark Bowden. Atlantic Monthly, May 2008. $23

A Few Seconds of Panic: A 5-Foot-8, 170-Pound, 43-Year-Old Sportswriter Plays in the NFL, by Stefan Fatsis. Penguin, July 2008. $25.95

One of the biggest shifts in American popular culture in the past half century—right up there with hip hop sidelining rock and roll and TV steamrolling radio (and now TV being shoved aside by the internet)—has been professional football usurping baseball as America’s sport of choice. During the National Football League’s 2006 season, nearly three out of every four Americans watched an NFL game on television. The National Basketball Association, the National Hockey League, and Major League Baseball do not have audiences that come anywhere close to that figure. The NFL—which plays a fraction of the games that pro hockey, baseball, and basketball do, and doesn’t benefit from featuring a game played as globally as the other three—is the richest sports league in the world, with the average NFL team worth nearly a billion dollars. If baseball is “America’s pastime,” then football is America’s obsession.

The evidence, beyond the overflowing coffers of team owners, is everywhere. Linebacker jerseys are worn as casual clothing, or even dressy fashion, if it’s an authentic $350 item from Mitchell & Ness. Adults work their summer family vacations around draft parties for their fantasy football leagues. (Every fall, newspapers report how US companies lose hundreds of millions of dollars a week in productivity as employees, from their cubicles, haggle over quarterback trades and scan the waiver wire for available running backs.) The yearly release of one of the most successful video games ever created, John Madden Football, is treated as a bit of Christmas in August. And most telling of all, there’s the Super Bowl’s apotheosis.

It’s an unofficial American holiday with its own unvarying rituals: Everything shuts down for one Sunday, as people who don’t care at all for first downs and safety blitzes get together with friends and family. They all eat and drink as the game plays out on the latest model of television, purchased only days before, especially for the event. The game might go mostly unheeded, but everyone quiets down when the spectacularly costly commercials come on. Even at its worst, the Super Bowl fares better than other pro championships at their best. The fewest number of people to watch a recent Super Bowl was 74 million, when San Francisco played Denver in 1990. In 2004, when the Boston Red Sox finally won the World Series—one of the greatest events in modern baseball history, featuring a team with fans across the nation—the series averaged only 25.5 million viewers.

The reasons for the NFL’s popularity are not mysterious. The game is fast and complex; the athleticism displayed is outrageous; the physical courage required of men knocking each other off their feet with tackles packing a half ton of force is awe-inspiring. Where other leagues play nearly every day during their seasons, the NFL’s sixteen regular season games are played once a week, on the weekend or on holidays or Monday nights during prime time, making viewing—or even attending—relatively simple. Then, there are the emotional aspects of the game and its lessons of resilience and grit, imparted by last-second field goals and crucial first-down conversions. Football’s grunting combativeness and bruising execution attest to the value of discipline and intensity. You must be prepared through endless practice and relentless training if you want to win. And sometimes, even that’s not enough; you have to desire victory more than the other guy. You have to gut it out. Difficult circumstances cannot be avoided. If rain is pouring and the field is a muddy tributary, you must play. If snow is flurrying and the field morphs into frozen concrete, you must play. If the sun is scorching and the bottom of the stadium turns into a pan of throbbing heat, you must play. Hard work, full commitment, and personal sacrifice are the difference between succeeding (signing multi-year contracts for tens of millions, winning the Super Bowl, becoming a star) and failure (missing the playoffs, risking unemployment, and becoming a nobody). The lessons are edifying, which is not to say they’re false.

There are, perhaps, other reasons for football’s popularity, reasons that resonate with the American subconscious, in an alarming way. Americans know too well about being asked to give their all at work, and, somehow, like the lackluster teams in the NFL, coming up short. We understand that, like the players on the field, we are beholden to bosses who adhere to a bottom line, no matter what the cost to employees. We accept that in American society there is a unique chance at great prosperity and lasting security, but that only a few will ever achieve it, no matter how hard a man might work, no matter how talented a woman might be. There are no guarantees. Football, more than any other sport, accurately reflects the dilemma of achievement in modern America: You have a short time to make it, and if you don’t, you’ll be watching the action from the stands with everybody else.

As legendary Green Bay Packers head coach Vince Lombardi—the man for whom the Super Bowl trophy is named—taught all Americans a half century ago, “Winning isn’t everything. It’s the only thing.”

Before World War II, there wasn’t as much lucre to be reaped in professional football. Players worked second jobs to make ends meet; they were expected to perform at more than one position for a team. Clubs routinely folded. Baseball was supreme. By the 1950s, professional football went through radical changes. Not uncoincidentally, the country was going through major shake-ups, too. “Millions of American men had returned home from World War II and marched straight into a period of unprecedented prosperity,” journalist and author Mark Bowden writes. “There were jobs aplenty, bigger salaries, and more leisure time, which meant the average working man had more money to spend and more time to spend on fun.”

Book cover

In his finely compressed, elegantly written book on the 1958 NFL championship game, Bowden (Black Hawk Down, Killing Pablo) points out that spectator sports, like baseball, benefited greatly from this new development, but so did football. “The game itself was evolving. It was getting better.” Because of rule changes and the advent of the forward pass, football was growing in complexity for players, but it was also becoming “more aesthetically interesting” for audiences. The inches-thick playbooks of today started accumulating their pages then:

The quarterback no longer just called a signal indicating who would be given the ball and which direction he would run. . . . There were routes assigned to receivers and holes assigned to running backs, and depending on whether the ball was thrown or handed off, the players could be either decoys, blockers, or ball handlers. . . . On the other side of the ball, teams had to decide whether to defend against the pass by dividing the secondary into zones, or assigning defenders to stay with flankers and runners, man to man. Should the linebackers hang back to watch the play develop? Drop back to help guard against the pass? Charge into the backfield after the quarterback?

Football became chess that left bruises, and in short order found its Grand Master. Paul Brown was a high school and college coach of such repute that when he was named head coach of Cleveland’s new pro club, in the upstart NFL alternative All-American Football Conference, the city voted to name the team the Browns. For Brown, all that mattered was football, and he approached its strategies and execution as if lives depended on it. While other teams’ practices worked on the theory that professional players had “mastered the game and the coach’s job was to keep them in shape and help devise a plan of attack against opposing teams,” Brown believed he had to rebuild his players from the ground up. Where other squads merely “warmed up, scrimmaged, and then fooled around until it was time to go home,” Brown had his men run the gauntlet:

It was not enough for prospective players to be talented athletes, they had to pass Brown’s intelligence and psychological tests. Other teams had two assistant coaches; Brown had six. And they no longer held seasonal jobs; they worked long hours year-round. He stunned his players by regimenting every aspect of their lives. They were given playbooks with descriptions and diagrams of every play, and after studying them in classrooms, were forced to spend hours at night copying them out by hand in their own notebooks, which were collected and graded.

Brown’s particular genius did not come without its costs. When his players failed him, the coach, a “stern, aloof figure on the football field,” viewed these grown men with what could only be called contempt. The grand master harbored deep-seated hatred for any pawn that failed to move to where it was supposed to go and wasn’t afraid to belittle his own players in front of their teammates.

On the whole, however, his methods proved unimpeachable. The Browns won three All-American Football Conference championships. When the team joined the NFL in 1950, “the Browns were regarded as the best team from a lesser league until they rolled right through the more established competition, too, losing only twice on the way to a fourth straight championship.” The road to victory had been clearly laid out by Brown; others would come charging down it, adopting a style calling for mastery of play-calling and complete control over the players themselves. Among his disciples were Weeb Ewbank, an assistant coach under Brown.

Ewbank would go on to become head coach of the Baltimore Colts. He shared Brown’s penchant for “needling” players in practice. It eventually led to constant head-butting with the Colts’ “fun-loving, devil-may-care” fullback, Don Ameche, a four-time Pro Bowl selection. Because of Ameche’s crude humor in a locker room, Ewank believed the veteran wasn’t playing hard enough. Ameche became the “constant butt of Weeb’s ridicule.” In the end, Ameche retired from the league after six short seasons, “largely because he disliked playing for the coach.” Still, the Brown way of coaching worked. Ewbank turned the Colts into a fearsome team, one prizing “mean, aggressive players and award[ing] extra credit for the useful application of violence.” He was so sure of his methods, Ewbank promised a championship within five years of his hiring. That was in 1953.

In New York, Giants coaches Tom Landry (who became the stoic, nattily dressed head coach of the Dallas Cowboys) and Vince Lombardi were also embracing Brown’s strategic thinking. In the mid-50s, Lombardi was the offensive coordinator for the Giants, the most glamorous team in the NFL, featuring leading-man handsome Southern Cal star running back Frank Gifford; Landry was the defensive coordinator and author of the 4-3 formation (anchored by linebacker Sam Huff), designed to neutralize the ferocity of Paul Brown’s passing schemes. Instead of going with the traditional set up of five defensive down linemen pitted against five offensive blockers, Landry went with four. The potential mismatch on the line freed up an extra player to cover the pass. In 1958, after beating the Browns 10-0 in a one-game playoff, they would go against Ewbank’s team in Yankee Stadium for the 1958 NFL championship.

That championship would be remembered for those three coaches and the assembly of talent they marshaled onto the field—players like Huff, Gifford, Raymond Berry, Johnny Unitas, Rosey Grier, Art Donovan, Gino Marchetti, Jack Kemp, Pat Summerall, and Don Maynard—and the epic back-and-forth between the teams, leading to the first—and so far, only—NFL championship game to go into overtime. But most crucial to the game’s lingering impact, Bowden rightly notes, was the televised broadcast to staggering numbers of new viewers. (Americans with TV sets grew from twelve thousand in 1946 to four million by 1950.) By the end of the fifties, an “estimated 37 percent of those who turned on their sets [on Sunday afternoons] were watching the NFL… . If radio and baseball went together perfectly, football seemed made for television. Its bunched and scripted action fit neatly in the frame of the set, while skillful cameramen and broadcasters helped viewers follow the ball as plays unfolded.”

By the time the underdog Colts defeated the Giants, 23–17, on a third-down running play leading to a two-yard plunge into the end zone, the future of the NFL was assured. About 45 million people, “the largest crowd to ever witness a football game,” loved what they saw:

“The Best Football Game Ever Played,” as it was soon dubbed . . . vastly increased the profile of pro football and fattened the league’s paycheck. The game’s attraction helped spur the creation of the rival American Football League in 1960 [which fully merged with the NFL in 1970], and by mid-decade the three networks, ABC, CBS, and NBC were competing to broadcast games. By the midsixties, they were paying a combined total of almost $50 million to the two leagues for the rights, an amount which kept escalating. . . . Franchises grew unimaginably rich. . . . Bidding for players went sky-high. The AFL gave quarterback Joe Namath a $200,000 bonus to sign with the New York Jets, and paid him $427,000—just five years after John Unitas was paid $17,500 to lead the Colts to the championship.

Benefiting from the dominance of TV, and the riches and subsequent league expansions that came with it, pro football had a good thing going. And, understandably, owners, players, and coaches wanted to keep it that way. The mindset of Paul Brown, one predicated solely on maximizing a team’s chances of winning a championship, would hold sway. After all, there’s no real difference between maximizing a team’s chances at winning and maximizing the team’s potential for making money. It’s a ruthlessly effective, coldly unforgiving style of management the players try to navigate to this day.

Just five years removed from the Colts-Giants championship, the 14-team NFL awarded its first national television contract to CBS for $4.65 million annually and formed a licensing division. Now, nearly fifty years later, the NFL has expanded to 32 teams and not only claims a television contract with CBS, but with Fox, NBC, and ESPN. It has its own 24-hour cable channel and offers a special viewing package for all its games through the satellite network DirecTV. Its total revenue is more than $6 billion a year, according to Wall Street Journal sportswriter Stefan Fatsis, and it makes more than $3 billion annually from its broadcasting contracts. Not surprisingly, the “tiniest details of the league are observed, documented, recorded, deconstructed, and shared with the world around the clock by a boundless assemblage of media and fans.” The NFL is perhaps the healthiest cultural institution in America.

Book cover

Fatsis, in acknowledgment of the participatory journalism of George Plimpton, immerses himself in this high-stakes world, where the average career length is about three years— in the ’70s it was about five—and where uncertainty roils the stomach of anyone who isn’t an owner. A Few Seconds of Panic: A 5-Foot-8, 170-Pound, 43-Year-Old Sportswriter Plays in the NFL is an unexpected wonder. Fatsis sets out to describe what it means to play in the pros—in his case, as a kicker with the Denver Broncos—and winds up documenting how a group of men handle a work place riddled by paradox.

Before getting approval to participate in and document the Broncos training camp (thanks to his connections with publicity-happy NFL executives), Fatsis prepares for the 2006 season by working out with a personal trainer, and, most importantly, learning how to kick a football between the goal posts. A soccer player in high school, a ball-chaser in college intramural matches, and a pick-up-game player into his thirties, Fatsis isn’t starting from zero. It’s just a matter of fairly repeating the motions the job calls for:

Where to position my left, plant foot (about a foot to the left of the ball). How to take a backswing (left knee slightly bent, upper body straight, left arm extended to the side for balance, right heel reaching back to the right buttock, right foot pointed and locked like Baryshnikov’s). How to execute a proper downswing (snap the lower leg, keep the right foot locked and perpendicular to the body when striking the ball). How to finish the kick (straight at the goalposts). . . . The goal is to learn the motion, repeat it correctly a zillion times, and “drive it into your subconscious.”

Kickers have some of the best careers in the NFL, in terms of longevity. Only long snappers—the player whose sole job is to hike the ball to the punter or the holder for an extra point or field goal—have similar tenures, though long snappers have to block defensive linemen, too. Kickers rarely get tackled (or make tackles), though the position is not without its inherent hazards. “The act of kicking—jamming the plant foot into the ground, jerking the kicking leg downward, slamming the foot into the ball—is extreme and unnatural. Repeating it hundreds of times a week saps leg strength and worsens performance.” That’s why Fatsis’s private kicking coach walks with a limp: During his college and pro career, he managed to jam his left thigh bone about an inch and a half into his hip socket.

The bodily mechanics required of NFL kickers are interesting enough, but it’s the coping mechanisms and cold compromises inhabiting the players—turning some stoic, some bitter—that holds the attention. The game requires constant calibration of workouts and diets to maximize performance. Yet a professional player (and a Division I college player, too, for that matter) risks trashing years’ worth of preparation each time he jogs onto the field; thriving professionally means embracing a cavalier attitude toward your health. For the sake of being as fast as possible, “NFL players today wear less protective equipment than at any time since the early 1900s, when Ivy League students were dying (literally) in primordial gridiron free-for-alls.”

The players are not ignorant to the irony. Nor are they unaware that the sport demanding such displays of blood and guts is administered as if it were a division of Citigroup. Most days of the week, playing in the NFL means, essentially, reporting to an office in your shoulder-pads. When Fatsis meets the Broncos’ part-time kicking coach during practice, he’s struck by his yellow dress shirt. He “looks less like a kicking consultant than a management consultant, which, I learn, is exactly what he is.” The coaches exude the league’s professionalism and efficiency. But it’s the Broncos’ two-time-Super-Bowl-winning head coach who embodies the NFL’s ethos of organization.

In college, Mike Shanahan played quarterback. One game, he was hit so hard by a defender that his kidney popped. He didn’t realize it until later, when he went to bathroom and started peeing blood. Shanahan worked his way up through a string of assistant coaching jobs, until he became head coach of the Raiders at thirty-five. At the time, he bragged “that he hadn’t taken more than a week off in a fifteen-year coaching career that included a marriage and the birth of two children.” He was a workaholic before he could legally drink beer. When he got the job to lead the Broncos in 1995, he “convened a teamwide staff meeting. ‘I’ve got a seventy-two-point program for success. . . . Maybe I can hit on a few of them.’”

He’s just another one of Paul Brown’s long line of progeny. (Bill Walsh, legendary head coach of the San Francisco Forty-Niners, was Paul Brown’s offensive coordinator with the Cincinnati Bengals. Walsh’s coaching style was absorbed by Shanahan and other future NFL head coaches while serving as assistant coaches with the Niners, even though Walsh was no longer coaching the team.) As Fatsis observes, Shanahan “expects those around him to understand, apply, and enforce his standards of organization, punctuality, and responsibility. He has little tolerance for people who don’t work as hard as he works, as restlessly and constantly. Which doesn’t leave much room.” Working for him—for the NFL—means possessing the attributes of the Broncos tight end coach.

“He loves the isolation, insularity, and competitive demands of his job,” Fatsis writes, “as if toughness and success are determined by who spends the most hours watching film, by who is the most self-abnegating.” Survival, for assistant coaches and players alike, means willingly placing yourself at one man’s mercy. Long before training camp ends—before players have a final chance to prove themselves in a long, grueling audition to get or keep a job—Shanahan already has a “good idea” of who isn’t going to make the team. “That essentially means that thirty or so players have little or no chance of making the club. They will suffer through training camp with little hope, barring someone else’s injury, of playing for the Denver Broncos. They just don’t know it.”

Uncertainty, then, clouds every player’s mind. Even the seemingly untouchable—the wealthy stars, the savvy stalwarts—are banked in this unbreaking fog. The Broncos’ newly-acquired, ridiculously strong-legged punter Todd Sauerbraun breathes it. When Fatsis admits to Sauerbraun who he is and ask if they can talk some time about the NFL, “I’d have nothing good to say,” Sauerbraun responds. “I hate it.” Sauerbraun doesn’t suit up for love of the game. “He plays football only for the money, he says. He hates the culture of the league. He hates the way players are treated. The words come out tough, but matter-of-fact, not threatening.” Denver’s fullback Kyle Johnson puts an even finer point on it. “It’s a good job that pays extremely well,” he says. “Or, really, it’s a bad job that pays extremely well.”

Extremely well—but only for a short time, and even then, not for everybody. Preston Parsons is at the Broncos camp competing for a backup quarterback job—the same position he held for the Arizona Cardinals.

Preston believed he could play in the NFL—and believed he had been denied his chance in Arizona not because he was untalented but because he was undrafted and inexpensive, because the team had little invested in him. Preston is twenty-seven. His wife is living with his parents. They want to start a family. He says the $600,000 he made in Arizona is almost gone.

At twenty-seven, a player like Parsons is running out of time. Hundreds of thousands of dollars for five years’ work might seem like a mighty sum, but it’s not as much as people think. “People look at USA Today and see our salaries,” one defensive back tells Fatsis. “They say, ‘These guys are rich.’ You’ve got taxes, you’ve got lawyer’s fees, you’ve got agent’s fees. There’s life after football.” And that life could be spent with injuries so debilitating, a player can hardly stand, let alone walk, nevermind ever getting another job again.

Yet, on Sundays, the wet grayness of anxiety slides away and the warm blue of purpose reappears. Adam Meadows, a former offensive lineman for the Indianapolis Colts, comes out of comfortable retirement (at Shanahan’s beckoning and most likely at another player’s expense) just to bask in that glow. He is a rarity in the business; he plays because football is his calling. “Ultimately, Adam says, players play for the intangibles, the things that drew him back: camaraderie, team, competition, Sunday. Those things blot out the frustrations.” Playing the game trumps all the rest. “The game itself is a fun, thrilling, scary, addictive turn-on: Sunday! The rest of the job is a largely joyless, stultifying, demoralizing, infantilizing, breakdown-inducing drag.” Like any other blue-collar, or even white-collar fan, he’s working for the weekend.

Midway through his book, Fatsis reports some NFL statistics that are as impressive as the league’s revenue figures and shares of TV audiences. A league-conducted survey of 15,700 former and current NFL players asked them about the experiences of their playing days: “Frustration and/or irritability was cited by 68 percent of the respondents . . . Fatigue: 50 percent. Sleep difficulties: 30 percent. Anger: 38 percent. Poor concentration/distractibility: 25 percent. Anxiety: 24 percent. Headaches: 20 percent. Unwanted thoughts/lack of confidence: 11 percent. Depression: 10 percent.” The results quantify the fallout of the Paul Brown school of coaching.

“What coaches do way too often in the NFL is think it’s about them,” one player tells Fatsis, “not about us.” Respect for the players as people—as men with families to support, and with interests extending way beyond the gridiron—has been lost. Vince Lombardi, while an infamous hard-ass like Brown, never lost sight of his players’ humanity. “Lombardi could be a bully,” Fatsis quotes sportswriter Robert Lipsyte as writing, “but he treated athletes individually and humanely; current bullies tend to treat the athlete as an interchangeable piece in their own intelligent designs.” Interestingly, this jibes with the definition of an athlete offered by Fatsis’ private kicking coach, the one with the damaged leg. An athlete, he says, is “somebody that plays out of his comfort zone. . . . It’s in your mind. It’s not in your body. It’s in your mind. That’s where the power comes from. And when I say power I’m not talking about squatting six hundred pounds. I’m talking about the ability to overcome obstacles.” If you accept the mind games, if you can perform despite them, you are an athlete.

Maybe that means you work on an assembly line without a union contract, because the factory can’t afford to give you one and make its numbers. Maybe that makes you a newspaper copy editor who doesn’t take lunch and won’t claim cash for all the overtime you work, because how would the paper get out the next day or ever? Maybe you’re a day laborer showing up to the job site with a vicious cold because if you don’t work, you don’t eat. You’re an athlete, right up to and right after the moment there’s no place for you in the grand scheme of things. But the instant the ominous call comes from the director of football operations or the floor manager or the department supervisor that he needs to see you right away—when dread, fear, and sadness seize the heart—at that moment, with the cross-hairs draped over your back, you’re nothing if not American.


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