Michael Oriard, a former professional football player, is Distinguished Professor of American Literature and Culture and Associate Dean of the College of Liberal Arts at Oregon State University. He is author of Reading Football: How the Popular Press Created an American Spectacle; King Football: Sport and Spectacle in the Golden Age of Radio and Newsreels, Movies and Magazines, the Weekly and the Daily Press; and Brand NFL: Making and Selling America's Favorite Sport (all from the University of North Carolina Press).
A few exchanges from a Q & A at Oriard's publisher's website:
Q: You are a former professional football player as well as a professor of American literature and culture. How does your unique background inform your history of the NFL and your inquiry into whether it is a brand or a sport?Read the entire interview.
A: As a former player, I have an intimate feel for the experience of playing pro football that has nothing to do with "entertainment" (my perspective, of course, is shaped by the fact that I was an offensive lineman, not a quarterback or wide receiver). As a professor of American literature and culture, I understand "sport" and "entertainment" (or "product" or "brand") in more than the visceral way I absorbed as a player. I know that football historically has engaged fans at a level much deeper and more profound than mere entertainment, and as I have watched NFL football become extraordinarily more commercial over the years since I've played, I could not help but wonder whether the game's appeal at this deeper level has been affected.
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Q: What is "black style" and what role does it play in NFL games?
A: I assume that there is popular perception of a black style in football, most evident in the choreographed end zone celebrations by Terrell Owens, Chad Johnson, and numerous other wide receivers and running backs. The NFL tries to legislate against "excessive celebration," but whether these antics are celebrations or taunting, whether they entertain fans or violate ideals of sportsmanship, whether they express an essential aspect of African-American culture or are simply self-promotion, is not self-evident.
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Q: You dedicate a section of your book to "the racial state of the game." What is the racial state of football?
A: In thinking about "the racial state of the game," I am interested in how far we have come since the days of segregation, Jim Crow laws, and openly virulent racism, and also in how far we have to go. It still amazes me that I played games in college against Georgia Tech and the University of Texas before those schools had integrated their football teams. The most obvious measures of "the racial state of the game" are found in the increasing number of black quarterbacks, the more slowly increasing number of black head coaches, the still tiny number of African Americans in executive and ownership positions, and so on. But to me the more interesting aspects of "the racial state of the game" are the hints of how the dominance of black athletes in the NFL has affected our collective thinking about race -- as evident, for example, in responses to the "black style" mentioned above, and in the explanations periodically offered to account for black athletic success. The stereotypes of black "athleticism" and "naturally" talented black athletes are subtler than the older, officially discredited racism, but they are still pernicious. NFL football dramatizes a kind of "racial theater" in which fans, perhaps unconsciously more often than not, see their own and their country's racial attitudes play out.