- Brand NFL: Making & Selling America's Favorite Sport
All that is solid melts into air captures an essential element of Michael Oriard's Brand NFL. Oriard's "reading" of football is deeply ironic and ambivalent. Oriard views football as a powerful cultural force because it is real. Real men risk their bodies on the field; they actually perform the acts that fans watch; and the players often pay a steep physical price for those performances. In an ephemeral, postmodern world, football is authentic, and that, for Oriard, is its power. The social drama football invokes harkens back to the age of heroes in both grandeur and tragedy.
Brand NFL explains how professional football grew from a successful professional league in the late 1950s into a voracious marketing machine in the late-twentieth century. The iconic figure of Vince Lombardi symbolizes the 1960s, which suggests a purity in 1960s football when players were stoic and the NFL let the game sell itself. A shift occurred in the late-1960s symbolized by "Broadway" Joe Namath who brought an ethnic, working class swagger to professional football. Like the league's chairman, Alvin "Pete" Rozelle, Namath understood image is everything. Whereas Lombardi symbolized conformity, sportsmanship, and discipline, Namath symbolized individuality, style, and freedom. Players gained liberty after decades of bitter labor disputes and owners gained liberty after Al Davis won the right to relocate the Raiders from Oakland to Los Angeles. Liberty drove players' wages into the stratosphere and it allowed franchises to extort enormous concessions from their host cities. The combination of labor peace, new stadiums, and television networks competing to contract with the NFL made professional football inordinately profitable in the 1990s. The motto of the "New NFL" might have been: image isn't everything; it's the only thing. The NFL was always guided by a commercial logic but now Oriard sees it placing appearance before substance, and risks forgetting that the game not the MTV glitz generates fans' emotions and devotion.
I do feel Brand NFL could use more theoretical sophistication and engagement with academic literature. In describing the emergence of the "New NFL," Oriard essentially illustrates how the NFL charted its own course through the rising waters of neoliberalism. Oriard is also overly defensive of football players, which shows up most clearly when responding to critiques of player violence. The penultimate chapter that assesses the "racial state of football" captures one of Oriard's key claims about football. Ultimately, he concludes that a supposedly color-blind society makes sense of football by racializing athletic and end zone performances that are far too complex for simple racial narratives. In Brand NFL and elsewhere, Oriard champions direct interpretation and eschews both speculation and generalization. Fair enough but he also limits his analysis of persistent contradictions in professional football that interlinks commerce, misogyny, and racism. [End Page 301] Brand NFL provides an excellent history of the NFL. It is sophisticated and accessible, it is also more succinct than Oriard's previous football histories. Brand NFL is especially appropriate for undergraduate and non-scholarly readers.