Richard C. Crepeau is a professor of history at the University of Central Florida and former president of the North American Society for Sports History. He answered some questions about his new book NFL Football: A History of America’s New National Pastime.
Q: Your history of the NFL in part focuses on Pete Rozelle, NFL commissioner during its defining decades. What role did he play in the NFL’s path to its current prominent position?
Richard Crepeau: Pete Rozelle was certainly the most significant Commissioner in the history of the NFL. He guided the league at the time of its growth in popularity by cultivating and exploiting television as he was able to seize and maintain the upper hand in contract negotiation. He was equally effective in inhibiting the growth of the NFL Players Association through his skills as a public relations genius and his effective manipulation of public opinion and his cultivation of the electronic and print media. Rozelle also understood that government could be useful as a source of enabling legislation and subsidy as long as it was not allowed to regulate the business of the NFL. He was cultivated power figures in both government and business and used them to advance the power and profile of the NFL.
Q: How did media technological changes in radio, television and the internet affect the NFL’s trajectory to becoming a national obsession?
Crepeau: If you were to create a chart showing the growth of the number of television sets in America with the growth of the popularity of the NFL, you would have two lines nearly identical and in parallel on the chart. The NFL also proved to be quite adept at adopting itself to each change in media technologies of the past sixty years. Unlike other sports it never feared media technology and moved rapidly to find ways to exploit it. Each new electronic innovation made it possible for the NFL to be what is now a constant companion to its fans.
Q: Briefly, what were some of the internal struggles such as labor issues and television contacts that shaped the league?
Crepeau: The labor history of the NFL is a story of struggle for power. The owners dominated the league and were determined to maintain that dominance and this meant preventing players from gaining control over their football lives and gaining any power to control the league. The NFL Players Association was weak but was still able to mount challenges to the league over conditions of labor. The resulting conflicts were manifest in multiple strikes nearly all of which the owners won. The struggle also played out in the courts where in the end the NFLPA had some considerable success. It was only in the past fifteen years that the owners gave up trying to crush the NFLPA and accepted the process of collective bargaining.
On television contracts the NFL has out maneuvered the television networks at nearly every turn. In the beginning the NFL needed television to prosper, but in the end television came to be much more dependent on the NFL than vice versa.
Q: How did the league propel the Super Bowl into the mid-winter spectacle that verges on a national holiday that it is today?
Crepeau: The Super Bowl as a mid-winter national holiday is the result of a perfect storm in which with each passing year the growing popularity of the NFL has drawn more and more people and commercial interests into the center of the Super Bowl. The result has been the creation of an event in which its original purpose, to crown an NFL champion, has been overtaken by all of the tangential activities, events, and pseudo-events which have clustered around it.
Q: The NFL’s image has recently been tarnished by the scandalous behavior of players. How does this most recent string of incidents compare to the NFL’s past public relations troubles and accusations of the league turning a blind eye to bad or illegal behavior?
Crepeau: It is difficult to recall any comparable period in the history of the NFL when scandal was so rampant. In large part this has been the result of the growth of media that is not controlled by or in service to the NFL. How much of this relates to actual changes in the behavior of players is very difficult to say. I suspect there has not been any significant change in this area with the possible exception that players have more money than ever before and the effect of too much money has often been a negative.