America's Game by Michael MacCambridge (Shane's book 32, 2009)

I've read several books about American football this year. The others were about specific aspects of the game but this one is an overview of its history. MacCambridge rejects the common view that the modern NFL was born with the 1958 championship game. Instead he goes back to the 1940s and looks at how the owners of the teams back then laid the foundations for what has become the most popular spectator sport in the US and one of the richest sports in the world. [amtap book:isbn=0375725067]

MacCambridge details the backroom deals that made it possible for the league to flourish as well as the action on the field that made the game so compelling to spectators. Often the two are linked - whenever the popularity of their sport waned or the popularity of baseball grew, the NFL owners would tweak the rules to increase the excitement of the game.

The NFL broke new ground in many ways but the most important was the insistence that the game was the product, not individual clubs, and therefore it was important to ensure that no one team dominated. They shared TV money from their lucrative network deals, they developed an innovative merchandising business and shared revenue from that too. They made coffee table books and funded a film division - the aim was never to make immediate profits but instead to grow the popularity of the sport. It was a visionary approach.

The book also examines some of the social effects of the sport, particularly its influence on racial integration. From the days when racially-mixed teams were not allowed to stay in the same hotel while playing in the South, to the later years when rich black players found themselves barred from white communities, MacCambridge shows that the NFL often had an important role to play in breaking down barriers.

The game attracted the attention of politicians too. Edward Kennedy delivered an ultimatum to the Washington Redskins forcing them to begin employing black players (they were the last segregated team by a long way) and Richard Nixon was so taken with the game that he would even suggest plays for the SuperBowl.

It's obvious that a lot of research has gone into this book. MacCambridge offers remarkably well-rounded views of some of the game's key characters - Pete Rozelle, Vince Lombardi and Jim Brown, for example. The story is well balanced between character portraits, action-packed descriptions of classic games and the tense negotiations in boardrooms and the League office.

MacCambridge's writing is simple and clear. He seems to spend longer on the earlier parts of the history, speeding up once he gets to the 70s. By the time the 90s roll around, MacCambridge is just offering an overview. That makes sense because fans will be most familiar with the League's recent history.

Clearly, an interest in the NFL is required if you're going to enjoy this book but I got a lot out of it.