- Pigskin Nation: How the NFL Remade American Politics by Jesse Berrett
Despite recent high-profile controversies over player safety and national anthem protests, the National Football League (NFL) has maintained its perch atop the American sports landscape. In Pigskin Nation: How the NFL Remade American Politics, Jesse Berrett explores the league’s rise to prominence and its subsequent influence on American politics and culture during the 1960s–70s. Berrett explains how the NFL’s savvy self-promotion gave the league and its players a political voice, turned coaches into model CEOs, and had politicians scrambling to associate themselves with the increasingly popular game.
Part 1 of the book, comprising the first three chapters, examines how the NFL was elevated from a second-tier sport to become an institution that appealed to people from all walks of life and political persuasions. Under Commissioner Pete Rozelle, the NFL successfully crafted a Janus-faced image in which the meaning of football could be interpreted in a myriad of ways. NFL Films effectively packaged pro football as a product that was simultaneously violent yet technically precise, played by skilled warriors who valiantly competed out of their great passion for the game. By the 1970s, the league positioned itself as a champion of patriotism and traditional American values, especially during the nation’s bicentennial celebration. However, the NFL built its empire through socialistic and monopolistic principles. The league gained the political capital to collectivize through practices like revenue-sharing, TV blackouts, and restricting player movement. It also took advantage of its popularity to get its players out of active duty [End Page 115] in the Vietnam War while simultaneously supporting the war by sending players and coaches on USO tours.
Having established the NFL’s success in harnessing television, print media, and patriotism to mold a popular cultural and political image, the remaining five chapters shift the narrative to the ways in which politicians and players alike used football’s popularity for their own purposes. Politicians employed football as a means to appeal to “middle America” by attending games, befriending coaches, and seeking out player endorsements. This was especially true of Richard Nixon, whose public association with football Berrett describes as “merging calculation and honest sentiment” (110). Players, in turn, leveraged their celebrity status to promote themselves or their causes, such as supporting, or protesting against, the Vietnam War. Stars like Jack Kemp became politicians themselves, although Berrett argues that their sports celebrity was often a double-edged sword to their campaigns.
Berrett occasionally veers from his thesis by focusing on the relationship between politicians and college football, rather than the NFL. For instance, there is a lengthy description of Nixon’s fondness for college football, including the political backlash he received from weighing in on which team should be crowned as college football champion. The epilogue centers on the cultural connotations of Ronald Reagan’s attachment to his famous role as Notre Dame football icon “the Gipper.” Although interesting, these topics digress from the book’s subtitle of “How the NFL remade American Politics.” Additionally, it would be helpful for establishing context to explain how the NFL outmaneuvered Major League Baseball in crafting a popular image and political ties that allowed it to take the mantle as the premier American sport.
Ultimately, this is a timely book in that its description of the cultural and political issues concerning the NFL of the 1960s and 1970s mirror similar circumstances the league faces today. The controversial social activism by players such as Dave Meggyesy was a forerunner to that of modern player activists like Colin Kaepernick. Journalists’ contempt toward the middle class’s (and the South’s) love of football in the 1960s is similar to the animosity some have with current sports journalists infusing their reporting with social or political commentary. Richard Nixon’s passion for football is reminiscent of Barack Obama’s affinity for basketball that made his NCAA tournament selections an annual staple on ESPN. Nixon’s manipulation of...