[18 November 2009]
You don’t have to be a football fanatic to enjoy Edward J. Rielly’s Football: An Encyclopedia of Popular Culture. Quite the opposite: as the title suggests, Rielly’s interest is not so much in football per se as in football as a force in American culture. There are lots of books about football on the market already—general histories, statistical compendia, books about famous players and teams—but this volume offers something different: short essays arranged alphabetically on topics which the author feels are significant both to football and to American history and culture.
Some of the selected topics are expected (Bowl Games, Forward Pass, Television Broadcasting) while others are more surprising (Jewelry, September 11 Terrorist Attacks, Wine). Rielly has a relaxed and informal writing style which practically invites you to pull up a chair and make yourself comfortable while he discourses on his chosen topics. The ratio of words to information can be pretty high so if you’re looking for quick facts or finely-honed essays you will quickly become frustrated, while if you’re in the mood to spend some time with a charming but garrulous companion it may be just the thing.
Take the essay on “Cheating” for instance. Not a man to avoid stating the obvious, Rielly opens with “Cheating occurs in every area of human life”, followed by several more paragraphs of discussion on what does or doesn’t qualify as cheating before coming to the conclusion that if it’s not a clear and deliberate violation of a written rule it’s not cheating. His first example is that of faking an injury to stop the clock, something Notre Dame did so egregiously in a game against Iowa in 1953 that the NCAA added a rule specifically prohibiting the practice (so injury-faking was cheating in 1954 but not in 1953 by Rielly’s logic).Then we get a paragraph on performance-enhancing drugs (no specific examples) and six paragraphs on the “Spygate” incident which involved a New England Patriots staff member using an on-field video camera during their 2007 opener against the New York Jets, allegedly to steal the Jets’ defensive signals. That was definitely cheating in the eyes of the NFL, who slapped the Patriots and their coach with $750,000 in fines and the loss of a first-round draft choice.
This article exemplifies the strengths and weakness of Football: An Encyclopedia of Popular Culture: it’s far from a definitive discussion of cheating in football and you may wonder why these particular examples were chosen and one was treated at such relative length. It feels at times as if Rielly was writing to fill up space rather than considering the many aspects of a complex topic and boiling them down to a compact essay. But the cheating article did encourage me to look up the Notre Dame-Iowa game and see what others had to say about it, while my disagreement with his definition (which seems overly legalistic for a game which purports to build character) set me off on a philosophical contemplation on when (if ever) one is obligated to honor the spirit as well as the letter of the law.
And that’s probably the best aspect of the book: it provides a starting point for the consideration of many topics which you can follow up on as desired. The articles include suggestions for additional reading and in this age of Internet search engines it shouldn’t be hard to come up with more on your own. This book could be particularly useful to teachers who could capture the interest of sports-mad young people with an article on, say, African Americans in football, then direct the discussion to the wider historical and social issues raised by that article.
Football: An Encyclopedia of Popular Culture will also be useful to people who don’t follow the sport closely but want to get up to speed on cultural references which everyone else seems to understand (the Gipper, the Immaculate Reception, Touchdown Jesus). Unfortunately the index is not as detailed as it might be, limiting the book’s usefulness for this audience. For instance the term “Little Brown Jug” doesn’t appear in the index so to find its meaning (a trophy awarded to the winner of the Michigan-Minnesota game) you have to know to look in the “Rivalries” article.
Even a hard-core fan can learn a few things from reading this volume. Take the entry on Edgar Allan Poe, for instance. If you follow football at all you probably know that the Baltimore Ravens take their name from Poe’s famous poem. But you probably didn’t know that a different Edgar Allan Poe, offspring of the author’s cousin John Prentiss Poe, was an All-American quarterback and halfback at Princeton (class of 1891). Poe the All-American later served as attorney for another Princeton football fan, F. Scott Fitzgerald, who included football in many of his short stories as well as the novel This Side of Paradise.
The choice of entries can be quirky—for my taste there are too many entries about recent players and coaches whose accomplishments don’t seem all that overwhelming—and the content of the essays sometimes seems arbitrary as well. The final word on Football: An Encyclopedia of Popular Culture is that it represents one man’s take on some aspects of the game, written in an engaging style while not providing a definitive treatment of any particular subject. It probably won’t help you raise your standing in the local fantasy football league but it may broaden your perspective on the game.