It is the summer of discontent for fans of the National Football League. What will they do if team owners and players cannot reach a labor agreement before the fall season? The satirists at The Onion have offered their speculations: fans of the Green Bay Packers will gather by the thousands to watch the sprinklers at Lambeau Field, the crime rate in the US will increase by 5000%, and Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo will injure his arm tossing a shirt into the laundry bin.
Like all good satire, The Onion isn’t far off the mark (especially in regard to Romo). In the quarter-century since the last NFL labor dispute, professional football has become an even larger part of American society and culture, so much so that its absence is unthinkable. How is it that the NFL, organized in 1920 in the showroom of a car dealership, has grown to be the most popular and influential sport in the US as well as the professional league with the highest average attendance and highest overall revenue in the world?
This is the story that Michael Oriard investigates in Brand NFL: Making and Selling America’s Favorite Sport (University of North Carolina Press, 2007, 2010). As a scholar of football in American cultural history and a former player with the Kansas City Chiefs, Michael combines the approach of an expert researcher with the understanding of an insider. His book spans the period from the 1960s to the present, addressing how the league navigated drug scandals, labor problems, and tensions over gender and racial issues to become the colossus of American sports and entertainment.
In the interview, Michael addresses the key points of this history, and he talks about the league’s current problems: the owners’ lockout of players and the growing awareness of the potential health risks of playing football. Our conversation is far-reaching, but it still gets to only a few of the many subjects that Michael hits in his book. Whether you watch every Sunday or just tune in for the Super Bowl, you’ll learn a lot from Michael’s account of the league’s rise and his view of its future challenges.