This year, I think I’ve found it. By God—or Pete Rozelle, whoever is greater—I think I’ve found it: In a dull-sounding but absolutely absorbing book, David Harris’ The League: The Rise and Decline of the NFL (Bantam Books, $21.95). For less than an unscalped ducat to the greatest American ritual, have I got a good read for you.
There must be a few males out there with football credentials as marginal as mine, as the gutless guard of the notoriously lousy Holy Rosary Academy teams of 1939 and 1940 in Bay City, Michigan. While the wider world revved up for total global war, we, unwittingly, were learning how to lose in a big way, gracelessly.
Don’t talk to me about uneven playing fields. When the economic going got tougher, our tough-as-nails Dominican nuns fantasized about selling off our gridiron as a ready-made gravel quarry. We hungered for the days when we’d play “away,” at the City Park off Center Avenue, to give us a post-scrimmage going over on our bone-crushed, bruise-heavy hike home.
“HRA pansies” was the crude refrain, based on the doubly faulty premises that because we came from big cities like Detroit, Lansing and Grand Rapids and were wealthy enough to live away from home, we were wimps. We continued as the favorite whipping objects until the Panos boys—Aristides, George and Andrew—arrived one sunny unsuper Sunday. Their immigrant widower father had just opened a grocery store in Detroit, and his boys, soccer-trained in the home country, had biceps and brawn to make our erstwhile tormentors quake.
My interest in, and contact with, football then entered a 40-year hiatus—until I found myself looking for something to share with my sailor son Tim in Corpus Christi, Texas over Christmas 1975. We met in Houston, where a frantic scanning of the Houston Post revealed a major event called the Bluebonnet Bowl at the Astrodome.
When the bell captain assured me that it was not a margarine promotion but a football game, Tim and I used very marginal NPR credentials (I had been taping pieces for their arts magazine, Voices in the Wind) to get a field pass.
Holy Rosary! This was hardly the game I had abandoned a generation before in Bay City, although the number of bad knees getting bounced off the Astroturf made me wonder if HRA gravel weren’t a softer touch. And then there was ABC-TV’s Jim Lamphier, who seemed more solicitous of the televisability of his own pompadour than of the movements of the competing elevens from Oklahoma and U.T. / Austin. (Yes, Virginia, the bluebonnet is the state flower of Texas.)
The most significant difference, of course, was the platoon system of mega-combat. I will also never forgive professionalized football for deleting the drop kick, the only marketable skill I developed from grade school gridiron daze. The plays were razzle and dazzle abracadabra, with the quarterback having become the field marshall of aerial warfare.
And the cheerleaders! High school cheerleaders in Michigan were aphrodisiac enough, but those Texas cuties were hornies of a different and selling dimension. And the paces their male ponces put them through would have made an X-rated video, with uncut outtakes. I retreated, over-stimulated, to the press box.
It was my first taste of Texize munificence. Talk about groaning boards. The tables were positively orgasmic with shrimps so huge you had to nibble around at them to masticate them for an ultimate swallow. And roast beef sliced in slabs that made your wrists bend as you slunk down the buffet tables, all manned by obsequious darkies who had never heard of the civil rights revolution.
The drinks must have been measured out in mega-doses, for after a few screwdrivers all the nuts and bolts in my never too tightly screwed head came unreeling loose. (Poor Tim, he hadn’t seen me that loaded since Finland’s leading publisher of porn magazines scared me away from his girlfriend at his sauna outside Tampere with uncut vodka.)
So you can see why Superbowl Sunday is not my favorite American rite and why I’m so happy to tell you how to chase your Superbowl blues. Read David Harris’ The League: Not the least of your pleasures will be the conviction that this NFL affliction too will pass.
Did you know that the NFL was founded in 1920 in a Hupmobile showroom in Canton, Ohio (that’s why their hall of fame is in that nonentity of a town)? And do you know why? Because the blue collars of Canton, Massillon, Akron and Green Bay had no college teams to root for.
That’s when college football was an elaborate excuse to move Smith and Mount Holyoke girls to Ivy parties during the bad weather of the fall. And fledgling radio made household words of Red Grange, while newspaper writers, fighting fiercely for readership, laid fancy metaphors on us out of South Bend, like the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. The NFL gave steel, auto and rubber workers something to shout about.
But it was television and a flack named Pete Rozelle that turned pro football into the American Game. (Only George Will still thinks baseball is the National Pastime—and only then when the Chicago Cubs are winning.)
Rozelle was the darkest horse you could ever imagine. When Bert Bell (who ran the pre-professionalized NFL out of an office in a Bala Cynwyd bank building) dropped dead of a heart attack. The “boy czar” was then 33. The year before he was hired, the NFL staged 72 games in front of 3,140,000 paid spectators; by 1973, there were 182 games seen by 10,731,000; his first TV contract in 1962 was worth $326,000 for each franchise; in 1973, twice as many teams took $1.7 million apiece to the home office.
Rozelle says he believed that “the strong public view that professional football is more business than sport can only hurt the game.” His strategy of League Think meant keeping a precarious balance between the biggest markets and the smaller ones.
Had he not devised a strategy that spread the take around equitably, the game could have deteriorated into the kind of boring superiority of the New York Yankees in baseball, lethal to country-wide television. So the name of the game was expansion and getting rid of competitors for the TV dollar (first the AFL and WFL, and then USFL), but s-l-o-w-l-y.
It is instructive to read that New Orleans got its Saints because Russell Long and Dale Boggs were the congressional gatekeepers for legislation that kept the Sherman Act off the NFL’s backs for a while.
NBC didn’t want to stop Laugh-In’s roll, and CBS was too committed to the future of I Love Lucy to take Monday Night Football. ABC, then hardly more than half a network with a Disney anchor, got it by default. So much for TV conspiracy theories.
But talking about power struggles, the one between Pete and his nemesis Al Davis of the Raiders makes Dynasty look like a convention of Sunday school picnic caterers. In fact, name any NFL owner and I’ll show you a ready-made sitcom format. Super Sunday, where is thy sting?
From Welcomat: After Dark, Hazard-at-Large, 1987