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Reviewed by:
  • The NFL: Critical and Cultural Perspectives ed. by Thomas P. Oates and Zack Furness
  • Gerald R. Gems
Oates, Thomas P. and Zack Furness, eds. The NFL: Critical and Cultural Perspectives. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2014. Pp. x+ 257. Notes and index. $69.50 cb.

The editors take an interdisciplinary cultural studies approach to critically analyze the NFL in a dozen essays from contributors that range from established scholars to graduate students. On the whole, the anthology is a welcome addition to the extant literature and serves as an antidote to the often laudatory coverage presented by the media. Michael Oriard presents a Foreword that frames the research questions. The book is divided into three parts, the first [End Page 271] of which “focuses on actions by the league and its media partners to produce, promote, and control NFL entertainment” (7). The second part links the influence of the NFL in the shaping of a national identity, and the third part addresses the role of the league in the promotion of militarism and patriotism after the events of 9/11.

Part I is composed of an introduction by the editors and four essays, the first two of which have particular value for sport historians. Daniel Grano poses the 1958 NFL championship game (“The Greatest Game Ever Played”) as an NFL origin story in which the marriage of television and sport, especially football, announced the commercial ascendance of the NFL. ESPN’s fifty-year tribute to the league further idealized the process while hiding the labor inequities, racism, and disabling injuries that coincided with that ascendance. Dylan Mulvin’s history of the instant replay and the use of film for instructional purposes traces the use of the technology back to Princeton football practices in 1915. Jacob Dittmer and Thomas Oates, in separate essays, examine the uses of social media and the ways in which individual players can now challenge the NFL’s control over information delivered to the public and the ways in which media increase fans’ involvement in the game through the televised NFL draft, the Madden NFL game, and fantasy football leagues. Oates charges that such practices present athletes as disposable commodities in the capitalist system and reinforces a white male hierarchy.

Part II is more sociological in nature, with essays on masculinity and race in which Toby Miller rejects the sexualization of athletes and the trampling of their human rights, and Ronald Mower, David Andrews, and Oliver Rick investigate both the promoting and policing of black football players to generate greater revenue for the league, while maintaining its historically core market in the white, male, ethnic, working class. Katie Rodgers interviewed twenty-eight former players to make a psychological assessment of their NFL careers that left them with painful injuries. She found a reinforcement of hegemonic masculinity expressed in physicality, domination, and the normalization of pain. The body was instrumentalized as a weapon. Playing hurt was an expectation, and living hurt has produced no regrets, despite daily pain. Such findings suggest that rule changes to promote greater safety will do little without a wholesale change in the social construction of masculinity. Aaron Baker’s analysis of the Any Given Sunday movie addresses issues of race and violence that contribute to that construction. Nicholas Ciotola’s contribution is a reprint of a Journal of Sport History article from 2000 that examines the collision of race and ethnicity in a case study of Franco Harris, a biracial star for the Pittsburgh Steelers, adopted by the team’s Italian fans. Ethnic pride contended with racial ownership of Harris’s identity, which resulted in his alienation from black fans.

Part III consists of three articles that focus on the well-worn topic of football’s relationship with war in its lexicon, references, and metaphors. Two of the essays analyze the mythologizing and memorializing of Pat Tillman. Samantha King charges that the league’s collaborative efforts with the Bush administration to promote militarism liken the NFL to a marketing arm of the government. Michael Butterworth’s historical investigation of NFL Films’s heroic portrayals of football players in the first ten Super Bowl games shows how the company dramatizes and glorifies warfare...


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pp. 271-273
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