The NFL looks remarkably spry at 100 years old.
The game is still spectacularly popular across bipartisan lines in the United States. An array of problems threatens its future — from how it deals with domestic violence to the blackballing of Colin Kaepernick to the concussion crisis to a cord-cutting population migrating away from traditional television. But the league remains enormously popular across lines of gender, race, age, class and even politics, and NFL games remain pretty much the only sure thing for high ratings on the networks’ schedules — in 2018, they accounted for 34 of the top 50 broadcasts.
That popularity is easy to see in economic terms: The value of the average NFL franchise is now $2.86 billion, according to Forbes, up more than sixfold in the last 20 years. Indeed, with the exception of Disney’s assorted properties, no cultural product unites Americans the way the NFL does.
It may feel as if the NFL has always been this powerful. But for much of its early existence pro football was a niche, regional sport that did not take root nationally until the late 1950s. (The acknowledged starting point of the sport as we know it was the so-called Greatest Game Ever Played, the 1958 championship battle between the Baltimore Colts and the New York Giants, which went to a sudden-death overtime while being broadcast to a huge television audience.) In 1965, the Harris Poll found that pro football had replaced baseball as the country’s favorite sport. It has not relinquished that place since.
That enduring popularity speaks to the way the game taps into deep and abiding strains of dominant American culture. The NFL appeals, paradoxically, both to the American veneration of toughness and to the American love of organization and management. Walter Camp, the father of the game, wanted to make players “exercise equally their minds and bodies,” demanding both physical sacrifice and careful tactical planning. So he constructed a sport that is at once incredibly violent and tightly organized, and in that sense thoroughly American.
Football is the most collectivist of sports, seemingly at odds with American individualism, but the United States has always been a nation of joiners and a country in thrall to the idea of team. The NFL has managed to strike a balance between those poles: celebrating teams’ combined effort while elevating individual stars (these days, almost always quarterbacks).
Over the years, the NFL has kept the game in line with the sensibilities of the most valued U.S. consumer (an ideal that has always favored straight white men), consciously emphasizing different aspects of the game in different periods. Today that means focusing on the wide-open passing game and the talents of young, dynamic quarterbacks like Patrick Mahomes and Lamar Jackson. But in the 1950s and 1960s, Americans were worried that the postwar boom had made the country soft, that they were being eclipsed by the Soviet Union.
So football generally, and pro football specifically, helped reassure the country that American men were not mollycoddled softies. It’s no coincidence that hard-hitting players like Ray Nitschke and Deacon Jones became stars in this era, or that the greatest offensive player of the time (and arguably of all time), Jim Brown, was often described as a “punishing” runner.
League-sanctioned documentaries from this era played up the toughness angle. In 1960, a CBS documentary, “The Violent World of Sam Huff,” gave fans an inside look at what it was like to play middle linebacker (Huff was the first player to wear a microphone during play), colliding with large objects at high speeds over and over again.
Five years later, the William Friedkin documentary “Mayhem on a Sunday Afternoon” included a rookie player musing: “I just forget about my life when I go in there. I’m not going to worry about what happens to me. It’s just going to be a destroy type of deal.”
The inside look at football became a standard perspective as the league came to colonize the American imagination via NFL Films. Founded in 1962 by Ed Sabol, the company immediately began producing an extraordinary number of documentaries, short subjects and highlight reels that tried to simultaneously convey the gritty reality of the game and mythicize it in a Homeric fashion.
In the 1967 documentary “They Call It Pro Football,” for instance, linebackers were described as the “search-and-destroy men of the defense,” which was quite a choice of commentary at a time when U.S. troops were searching and destroying in Vietnam. (The phrase was used again to narrate a sequence of linebackers smashing into quarterbacks, with John Facenda intoning: “Number 50, search and destroy. Number 58, search and destroy.”) The documentary was added to the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry in 2012.
At the same time, the NFL carefully tapped into the American fascination with organizational genius, lionizing the figure of the coach. From Vince Lombardi instructing his Green Bay Packers for hours on the beautiful simplicity of the power sweep to Tom Landry masterminding the Dallas Cowboys’ flex defense to Bill Walsh remaking the passing game in San Francisco, NFL coaches came to be seen as not just motivational masters, but also as brilliant engineers, moving players around like chess pieces.
The ultimate exemplar is the New England Patriots’ coach, Bill Belichick, whose success seems to confirm the idea that system ultimately trumps talent, and that players — with the important exception of the quarterback — are effectively interchangeable parts.
The fetishization of management has only been amplified in recent years. The league and its many media partners increasingly cater to the inner nerd in many football fans by offering elaborate dissections of teams’ offensive and defensive schemes and analyzing specific plays with a level of detail once reserved for team film rooms. The NFL draft and even the scouting combine have become major media events, and fantasy football has allowed tens of millions of fans to think of themselves as general managers. Decades ago, the social critic Noam Chomsky remarked on how much more energy and attention people invested in sports than they did in politics, and how surprisingly knowledgeable and sophisticated they were about the sports they loved. Nowadays, that is more true of pro football than any other game.
The NFL’s most important move was embracing television early on. Owners originally tried to limit television broadcasts, fearing their effect on ticket sales, but the impression made by that 1958 championship game, along with the influence of Pete Rozelle, who became commissioner of the league in 1960, convinced them otherwise. Television helped make the sport a national, rather than a local, phenomenon, and, since football is better watched on television than in person, it also increased the game’s appeal, luring millions of fans who never would have thought to go to a stadium to see a game.
The league also got lucky. In 1961, Congress passed a law banning the NFL from broadcasting professional games on Fridays or Saturdays during the high school and college football seasons. In practice, the passage of the Sports Broadcasting Act focused the fan experience rather than diluting it, jamming pro games into a reliable programming slot — Sundays.
Then, with the 1970 debut of “Monday Night Football” — the brainchild of the ABC executive Roone Arledge — national audiences got a single weekly football game as a destination TV event in prime time. The broadcast accomplished something essential: It made people fans, in some sense, of the NFL itself. People would watch games even when their favorite teams weren’t playing. And, now, even if those games were played on a Thursday.
Even the success of a competitor redounded to the NFL’s benefit. When the American Football League started in 1960, the NFL understandably viewed it as an unwelcome interloper, given that the competition inflated player salaries and gave the best of the college players another option for employment.
The AFL, which ended up merging with the NFL in 1966, introduced a series of innovations that would help transform the pro game. Some were small, fan-friendly ideas — putting players’ names on their jerseys; using slow-motion replays. Others were more substantive. AFL offenses were more freewheeling and pass-oriented than the NFL’s, and, at a time when the NFL employed a majority of white players, the AFL invested heavily in black players, particularly players from historically black colleges and universities, and featured the first black starting quarterback (Marlin Briscoe) and first black starting middle linebacker (Willie Lanier). The success of black players on the field — along with the merger — pushed NFL teams, however grudgingly, to integrate. Today, roughly 74% of NFL players are black.
The league has never stopped tinkering with its rules, almost always with the goal of encouraging more offense, more passing. Forty-five years ago, only one quarterback in the league averaged more than 200 passing yards a game. This year, 30 quarterbacks do.
Some of these changes have arguably been introduced out of necessity. Higher-scoring games draw better TV ratings, so ball carriers and throwers must be protected from brutal tackles. Fans express outrage about the threat of brain damage to their heroes, so there must be at least a feigned effort at reducing hits. (Where the league once celebrated violence, it now plays it down.) And as fans’ attention spans get shorter, the RedZone channel allows viewers to jump from game to game, depending on where there’s action, in an endlessly updated highlight reel that circumvents one of football’s biggest weaknesses: lots of dead time.
Of course, it’s impossible these days to treat the NFL as simple entertainment. Watching football is necessarily an exercise in cognitive dissonance: Enjoying a game requires us, on some level, to ignore everything we know about brain injuries, the shortness of most players’ careers and the physical toll the game takes on their bodies, the team owners’ intolerance for some social commentary and the disregard for domestic and sexual assaults.
The sight of Lamar Jackson leaving five defenders scattered behind him on the field exhilarates, but only if we forget, for a moment, about his chance of having a knee blown out by a tackle while playing for a wage that he cannot negotiate early in his career, even if he is named the league’s most valuable player.
And yet the truth is that the fans are as exhilarated by him as we were by Peyton Manning, and Randy Moss, and Michael Vick and Joe Montana and Lynn Swann and Joe Namath and Gale Sayers, just as we were exhilarated — in a different way — by Ray Lewis and Lawrence Taylor and Joe Greene and Dick Butkus. And ultimately, perhaps, there’s no way to really separate what makes the game so spectacular from what makes it so problematic: If Jackson were playing flag football, his ability to elude defenders wouldn’t seem quite so magical. In 1967, “They Call It Pro Football” described the sport as “a game of beauty and violence.” Fifty-two years later, it still is.