Thursday, December 10, 2009

The Sportswriter: Seven Questions for Edward Rielly

(Editor's Note: Edward Rielly, a St. Joseph's College professor of English and a Westbrook resident, recently authored the book Football: An Encyclopedia of Popular Culture. Below are his answers to the seven questions I e-mailed to him.)

1. Besides this book, you've also written Baseball: An Encyclopedia of Popular Culture. What intrigues you about using sports as an allegory for American pop culture?

Both my earlier Baseball: An Encyclopedia of Popular Culture and the recent Football: An Encyclopedia of Popular Culture explore many ways in which that particular sport and American culture intersect, each affecting the other. With both sports (but not necessarily with all sports), there is such a historically strong interest in the game that we see a great many dimensions of our society represented in it.

I discuss in the football book such matters as race relations, the role of women, gun violence, disabilities, concussions, politicians, labor-management relations, the media, retirement issues, suicide, and many other topics. All of these are significant within football but also extremely important within our broader culture.

In some ways football, like baseball, is emblematic of American society. At times, football may be ahead of the curve, for example, integrating before large geographical segments of our country did; at other times, as in taking head injuries seriously, it has lagged behind. I am happy to see that football finally is catching up in this health area.

2. What are some of the most common roles baseball and football have played in reflecting or changing American pop culture?

Both sports have played huge roles in integrating our society and helping people to accept a multicultural nation. I think that they also emphasize the increasing globalization of the United States and the rest of the world. That is especially true in baseball with so many players coming from Latin American countries, but we also are seeing more players from Japan. The trend will continue. In football, as the NFL continues to play games abroad, as in the recent Patriots game in England, we probably will see more players coming here from other countries. Of course, the impact of these sports is widespread.

I mentioned a lot of connections earlier, but we also see these games yielding some outstanding films and literature. If we do not think that football has a big impact on us, we should remember the Super Bowl. Who would be so foolish as to schedule a meeting or other event when the Super Bowl is being played?

3. What are some of the biggest differences between the two sports in the roles they've played in pop culture?

Baseball achieved great popularity in the nineteenth century and to a great extent has retained that popularity. College football went through a golden age of popularity in the 1920s, but professional football did not reach something close to parity with other major sports until television became a major player in the late 1950s. The championship game between the New York Giants and Baltimore Colts, with Johnny Unitas leading the Colts to a dramatic overtime victory, is often credited with being the turning point for professional football. In my book, I call that contest football's greatest game--a subjective judgment, but one shared by many people.

It is hard today to believe that until then professional football was no better than the fifth favorite sport, behind baseball, boxing, horse racing, and college football. So football, especially professional football, has lagged behind baseball historically in popularity, thus limiting its impact on American society.

When General Douglas MacArthur chose a sport as a way to encourage the Japanese after World War II to accept American democratic principles, he picked baseball, not football. Of course, baseball had been popular in Japan before the war, and MacArthur was a former baseball player. Perhaps if General Eisenhower, a football star at Army, had been choosing, he might have selected football.

When the Japanese wanted to insult American soldiers, they hurled derogatory comments about Babe Ruth across the lines. Conversely, when U.S. troops came upon someone they thought might be a Nazi infiltrator, they would quiz him on baseball facts. The assumption was that any true American knew about baseball.

4. Baseball is, of course, frequently described as America's past time. Do you think that continues to be true, or do you think football as overtaken baseball's claim as America's past time?

Continuing what I just said, I would add that because of the longer and steadier relationship between baseball and the United States, and the perception that baseball is a quintessentially democratic pastime (something almost everyone at some level can play), baseball still deserves the title of America's National Pastime. The number of people following the sport today, in my opinion, is not the deciding factor regarding that title.

5. Which entry in the book is the most meaningful to you?

That is a really hard question to answer. I will take the liberty of answering it a little differently. As a graduate of the University of Notre Dame, I included a few more entries dealing with the Fighting Irish than perhaps someone else would have chosen. I will opt for the Notre Dame entries collectively as my personal favorites.

6. As a soccer fanatic I can't help but ask: How long before I can pick up a copy of a book in which you explore the relationship between soccer and American pop culture?

My grandchildren love soccer, and my son coaches it. However, when I was growing up in Wisconsin, no one around there played soccer. I am sure that a great many people now do, but soccer was not a part of my childhood. I never connected to it the same way that I did to baseball and football. Of course, soccer does not have the same long tradition within the United States as they enjoy. All of this is to say that although soccer may deserve a similar volume, it is unlikely to come from me.

7. Is there anything you'd like to add?

Any writer is likely to add the hope that people will actually read his or her book. My Football: An Encyclopedia of Popular Culture can be purchased at Border's, ordered through or directly from the University of Nebraska Press, or, in fact, requested through any bookstore.

Of course, I'm biased in this matter, but I think that it's a good read. It is the type of book that a person can move through a bit at a time, reading an entry here, another there, whatever topics seem especially interesting. If anyone has a question or wants to contact me, I can be reached at

- John C.L. Morgan

Related: On Location: 19 Monroe Avenue (September 9, 2008)

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