Political Football: Social Movements and the Professional Gridiron in the United States, 1955-1979

Open Access
Linden, Andrew David
Graduate Program:
Doctor of Philosophy
Document Type:
Date of Defense:
August 26, 2016
Committee Members:
  • Jessica Lynn Schultz, Dissertation Advisor
  • Jessica Lynn Schultz, Committee Chair
  • Mark Dyreson, Committee Member
  • R. Scott Kretchmar, Committee Member
  • Nan Elizabeth Woodruff, Outside Member
  • football
  • American football
  • social movements
  • politics
  • NFL
  • history
  • sport history
  • U.S. history
Politics and political movements appeared in professional football since the sport emerged. However, because the National Football League (NFL) was not yet popular across the country, these issues had little effect on the broader culture. In the second half of the century, the NFL became the most popular consumer sport in the country. Conflicts between labor and capital, between men and women, between races and ethnicities, and between groups associated with the broader counterculture and liberation movements were brought by political advocates into the sport. Nonetheless, throughout this same time, the league had political priorities of its own and endorsed certain political issues while not engaging others. In this dissertation, I utilize a “multiple histories” approach to analyze the effect of social movements on the NFL and demonstrate the influence of political football in American culture. To do so, I examine how four social movements (Civil Rights, the New Left and counterculture, labor, and the women’s movement) intersected with professional football from the late 1950s through the 1970s. League representatives had varying reactions each time a social movement appeared on the gridiron. For example, some team owners and coaches supported black athletes fighting to desegregate the game and other areas of society through non-violent protest, but they reacted to the broader Civil Rights Movement by reaffirming notions of white supremacy. While league marketers promoted athletes who endorsed the Vietnam War and other “patriotic” efforts to defeat communism, they avoided engaging with critics (particularly if they were players) who believed football was antithetical to an idealized “American way of life.” League officials also separated from what they considered “labor radicals” during the labor movement of the 1960s and 1970s, instead reasserting their stronghold over players by officially recognizing only moderate union leaders. League officials endorsed women’s inclusion as spectators and sideline cheerleaders, but discounted attempts of women to play the game themselves. Journalists, moreover, covered the women’s game, but discounted it as not actually sport. Overall, I argue, while players offered undercurrents of opposition to the status quo from the late 1950s through the 1970s, people in the NFL, more often than not, disregarded and delegitimized such views, thus normalizing and popularizing certain political issues while making others seem unreasonably “radical.”