Saturday, December 13, 2008

Book Review: The League

About six weeks ago, I reviewed the new Bill Walsh bio The Genius, and noted it was his second book, after The League, which I had but had not yet read. Well, having now read it, I guess I should say something about it.

The League is a pretty detailed look at the business history of the NFL from the late 1960's and primarily the early 1970's to the early to mid 1980's. Published in 1986, it covers the turmoil of the battle against the rival USFL and Al Davis's fight to move the Raiders to Los Angeles against the wishes of Pete Rozelle and the rest of the league in a far more comprehensive manner than did MacCambridge's America's Game. Note, though, that this is overwhelmingly a look at the NFL's business, not its on-field activity. This means it's not a general history of the NFL, but is instead largely a view of the feuds of the owners. Harris also misses some aspects of the NFL's business story that might have made for interesting reading but may have detracted from his narrative of doom and gloom might suggest. For instance, the liberalization of passing rules in 1978, and how much that change was driven by commercial interests. There's also the complete economic idiocy of cities bribing teams to move, though to be fair to Harris I'm not sure how robust that literature was when he was writing the book. With his publication date, and ending the story pretty much with the Colts' 1984 move to Indianapolis, Harris also doesn't get into the conclusion of the sagas he's telling. Some franchises, most notably to me also the Titans, have moved cities, but it hasn't led to the sort of wholesale shifting that Harris's book implies could have resulted. His timeline also misses the USFL shooting itself in the foot, and the NFL "losing" its antitrust suit, at a cost of $3. There's another book to be written on those issues, and one that also covers the 1987 player strike that led to the current world of free agency.

The question I try to keep in mind when I write these reviews, and the one I try to end on, is who should read the book. Harris did a very reasonable job of covering the time he was covering, and learning more about Rozelle and the owners is fairly interesting, but, well, few of these people are involved anymore. Tex Schramm and Hugh Culverhouse are out of the NFL, not the Commissioner's right-hand men. Lamar Hunt has passed away. Ditto Georgia Frontiere, even. There are a few people mentioned still around-Ralph Wilson, for one, but the power brokers have all changed over the last quarter century. Given that, and how different the NFL's business is with the changes over the past quarter century, I'd say The League is for diehards only.

1 comment:

Jon said...

Thanks for the review, man! I've been meaning t reread this book (I read it years ago) but wound up bogged down recently trying to read The Power Broker and doing research on black baseball players. If only there was an extra day of the week for me to get more stuff done! I am a baseball guy first, but I do have an interest in how leagues are run. One thing in particular I want to do at some point is compare Rozelle to Bowie Kuhn. Rozelle had to put up with some problems that Kuhn didn't like rival leagues and carpetbagging franchises, but he didn't have the antitrust exemption that baseball had and still has. OTOH, baseball did have a freer free agency under Kuhn (but this was despite Kuhn and the owners.)