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On September 10 1974, the American football player Michael Oriard was called from his room at the Kansas City Chiefs’ training camp and told that he was being cut from the team. His three-year career in the National Football League was over.

In his latest book, Brand NFL, Oriard consults the archive of the Kansas City Star newspaper to see how he responded. The Star reported that day that the player was “deeply hurt” but would return to graduate school and had “no worry about his future”. Indeed: Oriard is now a professor of English at Oregon State University. Brand NFL explains how his old sport transformed within four decades from “rinky-dink sideshow”, baseball’s thuggish kid brother, into arguably America’s favourite entertainment. But as football grew, its character had to change.

Professional football went mainstream in the 1950s, when American homes acquired television sets. The game worked better on TV than baseball, thanks partly to the brilliant Roone Arledge at ABC Television, who understood that football had to be a show rather than just a game. Arledge’s many cameras would film whatever was interesting, even in the crowd – for instance, “two romantic students sharing a blanket late in the game on a cold day”. His commentators turned games into stories. Oriard lists a few: “The bitter-enemies story, the wounded-hero story, the Cinderella or Ugly Duckling story, the son-challenging-the-father story (former assistant versus wily mentor) . . . versions of the oldest and most-repeated narratives in the western world”.

When Joe Namath came along, football acquired exciting characters to people these stories. Oriard calls Namath “the best thing to happen to the NFL since television”. The New York Jets’ quarterback was 1960s Man. He had long hair, a $427,000 contract, and resided on New York’s Upper East Side in “a large oval bed nearly as famous as he”. He played in white shoes – shocking at the time. Winning the SuperBowl in 1969, he waved “his right index finger to signal that he and the Jets were ‘Number One’ ” – shocking again, though the gesture later became routine. Since Namath, the NFL has been a show with showmen.

Key to Namath’s allure were his bad knees. Watching fans knew that “a single hit could end his career”. Oriard explains that the NFL lives off danger. “Injuries in football are necessary. Without them, the players’ risk would not seem real, their heroism would be diminished.” One of football’s eternal images is Lawrence Taylor snapping the leg of the great quarterback Joe Theismann, “exposing his shattered tibia and fibula for endless TV replays”. In a survey in 1997, 63 per cent of former players reported permanent injuries. The great quarterback John Unitas in retirement had no control of his legendary right hand; the great running back Earl Campbell “could barely walk”.

The dangers have grown as the players have. “In 1988 there were seventeen 300-pounders in the league,” writes Oriard, “in 2005, over 500.” When a player celebrates a touchdown on ESPN’s SportsCenter, the millions watching know that his glorious youth may last just a couple of autumns. That knowledge is part of the thrill.

It is widely believed that the NFL’s violence spills over beyond the field: that players are constantly committing gun crimes or assaulting women. However, Oriard argues that this is a myth. Number-crunchers have shown that NFL players are no more criminal than other young men, though that may be damning with faint praise. Yes, many players commit domestic violence but then perhaps 8m to 12m American women are assaulted by their partners each year. According to one statistician, NFL players of a decade ago were arrested only half as often as 20-year-old men in general.

For all the crime reports, the NFL has kept booming. In 1965, football overtook baseball as America’s favourite spectator sport. Today more than two-thirds of Americans take “an interest” in the NFL. Probably no other form of entertainment in the US has as large a constituency.

Everyone wants a part of football, at almost any cost. In 1964, NFL teams grossed perhaps $14m in total from TV. Between 1998 and 2005, TV paid the NFL nearly $18bn. Television lost “as much as $2bn” on its outlay and ratings slid, yet for its next deal it paid nearly 70 per cent a year more. Cities behave just as irrationally: taxpayers fork out hundreds of millions of dollars on new football stadiums, although their economic benefit appears negligible. Who does benefit? The average player today earns more than Namath did.

What bothers Oriard is that in becoming an entertainment for all, football has changed character. To please “80m or 90m casual fans, on top of its passionate 40m”, it requires show. Scoring a touchdown is not enough. To become famous, a player then has to enact a celebration that makes it on to SportsCenter. Chad Johnson in his celebrations has “performed CPR on the football, putted with an end zone pylon . . . and proposed to a cheerleader.” He explains: “I no longer play football. I’m an entertainer.” Players understand that entertainers make more money.

Oriard worries that amid the entertainment, the game might cease to matter. Given that the NFL is now the world’s most successful sports league, it probably isn’t worrying very hard.

‘Brand NFL: Making and Selling America’s Favorite Sport’ (University of North Carolina Press, $29.95)

simonkuper-ft@hotmail.com

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