MacCambridge has written an outstanding history of modern professional football known as the National Football League. The primary theme of the book is how football has eclipsed other sports, specifically baseball, to become America's game.
The book starts out with the Baltimore Colts defeat in overtime of the New York Giants on December 28, 1958 in the National Football League championship game. The game was televised and is called the Greatest Game Ever Played, partially because it catapulted the NFL into the national spotlight and sent the league on its way to be the dominant sport in American culture.
For the most part this is a very linear history of the Nation Football League, and a very well done one. While it is about the game itself, it's more about the business of professional football and the importance of decisions made by those who ran it leading to a thriving game and a thriving business enterprise. Much is discussed about the first commissioner Bert Bell who held a motley collection of owners together and strived for parity in the league, and Pete Rozelle who help reap millions in television revenue, fostered the revenue sharing agreement between big market and small market teams keeping competitive balance, and maintaining relative labor peace compared to other sports.
Another very interesting and pivotal part of NFL history was its competition with the American Football League in the 1960's and how a group of maverick owners created a rival, viable league of its own and how the eventual merger of the NFL and AFL came about. Interestingly, Lamar Hunt, late owner of the Kansas City Chiefs, was the pivotal figure in both the creation of the AFL and the eventual merger. The merger, in fact, made the NFL even stronger.
There are a few key themes in this book about why professional football became the dominant sport it is today. First, and foremost, is television. The game of football, more so than baseball, is a sport made for television. Television thrust the game into the national spotlight and keeps it there. Second is parity. While there have been some dominant teams in the league and a few dynasties, the revenue sharing, scheduling, and now salary caps which keep the teams on a somewhat even playing field has helped maintain interest in the game. Third, labor peace, relative to other sports, has also helped the game thrive. And finally, the owners and commissioners who have lead the league have been visionary. In these pages you meet the legendary coaches and owners like George Halas, Paul Brown, Vince Lombardi, Wellington Mara, Art Modell, Art Rooney, and others who made the NFL what it is today.
Overall, this is an outstanding history of the modern NFL and I highly recommend it.
Michael MacCambridge has produced a volume of research and analysis worthy of any historical bookshelf. Let the reader beware: the author is nothing but faithful to his title. This is not a nostalgic romp with the Decatur Staleys, nor a highlight reel in words. Rather, MacCambridge traces and assesses how the corporate NFL has managed itself from its humble pre-World War II status to a position today of sports preeminence.
For starters, the author does not think much of pro football before 1945. Pro football was a confederation of teams, all of which were north and east of a line between Chicago and Washington. The owners were a club unto themselves, mostly Catholic and educated by nuns. Their greatest gifts to the game, in MacCambridge's view, are that they did not muck it up too much and they elected Bert Bell to serve as commissioner after the war. Bell was not the brightest bulb in the chandelier--his selection smacks of cronyism as much as anything--but in his humble, gracious way, Bell served the game as well as the owners. He was the first commissioner who sensed an obligation to protect the game itself.
He was challenged quickly enough by another major figure in this work, Paul Brown, and a new league taking shape, the All America Football Conference. The AAFC enjoyed a brief flare of success in the late 1940's, with franchises in glamour cities such as Los Angeles and San Francisco. On the field, however, the premiere team was Cleveland, where Brown invented the model of modern coaching management. Cleveland and its imitators in the AAFC were simply too good to go away. Bell decided to pick the franchises he wanted and add them to the NFL fraternity. By 1950 the NFL was coast to coast and the enemy had been destroyed.
With Bell's sudden death in 1959, the NFL owners closeted for eleven days, and when the white smoke poured from football's Sistine Chapel, there on the balcony stood the longest of long shots, the Rams General Manager Pete Rozelle, 33. If there is a hero in this book it is Rozelle. He, too, was tested from the start, by a number of millionaires from across the country, in particular the south, clamoring for league expansion and new franchises.
In truth, the old guard did not want expansion, but unlike baseball with its antitrust exemption, the NFL under Rozelle was indeed vulnerable to a charge of cabalistic behavior. Rozelle could not play dumb as Bell had. There were too many suitors now, at least a dozen. As these prospective new owners gravitated toward a new American League, Rozelle tried to slow the momentum by the early 1960's addition of Dallas, Minnesota, and Atlanta franchises to the NFL. In hindsight, Rozelle might have done better to appease Lamar Hunt, the driving force behind the new AFL.
The titanic battle of the two leagues ended in 1966, with secret negotiations between Rozelle and Hunt [and not Al Davis, the actual AFL commissioner, who would get his pound of flesh from Rozelle] prompted by bidding wars for top draft choices and then established league stars. MacCambridge observes that negotiating conference alignments was as difficult as selling merger itself. Who of the old guard would go to the AFC?
What made this entire enterprise workable, in the final analysis, was Roselle's management of television. Beginning in the 1960's Rozelle negotiated a series of network contracts that ensured many healthy benefits: national coverage [to feed enthusiasm of local fans], the much beloved "double-header game" at 4 PM, and most importantly, equal division of TV revenue among all teams. In addition, MacCambridge gives considerable attention to Rozelle's cultivation of Ed and Steve Sabol's NFL films production as an invaluable marketing tool of the league.
MacCambridge is the first author of my experience to explain the significance of the USFL's suit against the NFL and its potential to destroy the league. The USFL, a pleasant little league that enjoyed its workable niche in the springtime sports world, decided to go head to head with the NFL in the fall, and filed its now-famous antitrust suit. Rozelle's first instinct was to settle, but he and the owners were dissuaded by the brilliant attorney Paul Tagliabue. Tagliabue understood that a non-defense by the NFL would make the league vulnerable to suits from any sandlot league claiming to be shut out of the national TV market and demanding admission to the NFL.
The USFL trial completely exhausted Rozelle, who resigned after a three decade tenure. His replacement in 1989, the steely Tagliabue, would find his tenure filled with home-grown problems. Player conduct, an absence of minority executives and coaches, unforeseen difficulties with the new league salary cap, and even a bare breasted Janet Jackson Superbowl fiasco would occupy his first fifteen years. But his biggest challenge came from the owners themselves over an issue considered anathema forty years before: franchise jumping. Los Angeles to Oakland, Los Angeles to St. Louis, Cleveland to Baltimore, and Houston's melancholic relocation to Vanderbilt University--this was a trend that would alienate the heart of the league's success, fan identification, not to mention a repudiation of the founding credo, "the good of the league." Clearly, Tagliabue did not enjoy the power of a 1970 Rozelle, but the author notes that the commissioner was not Bud Selig, either. His compromise of restoring expansion franchises to Cleveland and Houston was better than nothing. And Tagliabue may have gotten help from an unexpected source: wholesale taxpayer opposition to publicly funded football stadiums, which would of necessity put a damper on owner enthusiasms.
In the final analysis, MacCambridge believes that the NFL is still the healthiest of all professional sports in the United States in terms of fan base and business practices. This work contains an exhaustive bibliography that will probably send the reader off in several directions--at least till the season starts.
Considering the popularity of pro football in this country, the historical literature on the game has really been lacking, especially when compared to the thousands of works on baseball. Finally, McCambridge has crafted what should prove as the definitive history of the game, one that any fan of football should enjoy.
Although it's a 500-page book, the author's style makes this a pretty brisk read. While full of details, the book isn't overwhelmed by them, always giving the reader an excellent view of the big picture, and of the role that each person and event plays. It's clear that the author admires many of the people he talks about, but he still manages to present both praise and criticism, never letting his work become hagiographic. His treatment of the AFL-NFL relationship during the years before their merger is the best I've seen.
This is truly a book that's just been waiting to be written. Thankfully, McCambridge has done great justice to a subject ripe for examination. I think this should be necessary reading for anyone who considers themselves a serious fan.
on December 28, 2004
This book has received (and deservedly so) many accolades for its sweeping and exhaustive history not only of the sport so many americans love, but the people behind the sport. MacCambridge does a great job of bringing little (at least to younger fans) known giants to life, on both the player and management side. His chapters involving the AFL/NFL "war" for players, the fledgling AAFL of the late 40s and 50s, the dynastic Browns teams and many others of that era enrich the reader's knowledge of football. In addition, the book does a great job of illustrating the vision of people like Lamar Hunt who understood very early on not only the power of TV to show the game but the need for collective revenue sharing, that the sum must be greater than the parts (unlike baseball which still looks at the parts instead of the whole).
Other enjoyable portraits of Pete Rozelle, Tex Schramm and others leap off the page and make this book an easy and enjoyable read. My only criticism, and it's a mild one, is that the book almost begs to end about 100 pages sooner than it does. While MacCambridge essentially brings us to today, this part of NFL history is probably the LEAST in need of analysis or recitation right now. Better to have perhaps ended it with the passing of Roselle or the resolution of the USFL/NFL battle showing the league at the doorstep of complete TV domination.
on August 17, 2005
I found this history of the NFL very interesting. Many who follow the NFL know the importance of the '58 championship game. The Author sets up the background leading up to that game, including the original NFL clubs and the upstart AAFC (all-american football conference - original home of Browns and 49ers). There are scores of fascinating personalities - commissioners, owners and players. The author makes it clear how important the three commissioners, Tagliube, Rozelle and Bell were. He looks at a lot of different factors that lead to the ascension of the NFL to the top of the American sports heap, including the revenue sharing decisions, TV, Monday Night Football, and the desire for "parity". If you are at all interested in the history of the leaque, I highly recommend this book.
on November 2, 2004
This is the best book you will ever find about professional football. For football fans and fanatics there are behind-the-scenes revelations, player recollections, and game day vingettes that make this book a page-turner.
For those less familiar with the game, this is a rich history of an organization that succeeded on principles often touted today; teamwork, fair play, and committment to the good of the whole. For someone interested in an inspirational book about leadership, the art of negotiation, and business strategy you will come away from this book richer in knowledge and with an awed appreciation for what it took to build the most successful franchise in America.