Football, for better or worse, is America's dominant spectator sport. In much of the country -- certainly throughout the South and Midwest -- it inspires a frenzied devotion that baseball, with its loose pace and long summer season, never achieves.

In fact, football dominates because it is not a summer game. It's always been a school sport, supported and largely financed by the American educational system. As a result, for countless Americans, football is tied up with the fresh days of adolescence and early adulthood. They've kept happy memories of its robust pageantry -- the silly cheers, the smuggled flask, the marching band blaring through the theme from Rocky one more time.

But nostalgia can't explain the sustained power and prestige of professional football, nor the fact that the National Football League's title game bears all the trappings of a national holiday. Twice as many Americans will watch this Sunday's Super Bowl as watched the World Series and professional basketball's finals combined. Decades from now, historians will almost certainly point to the rise of the NFL as one of the most striking aspects of American social life in the second half of the twentieth century.

And many will identify the singular influence of Pete Rozelle, the league's commissioner from 1960 to 1989. Before the 1960s, pro football was far less popular than the college game. But Rozelle understood business, politics, and -- perhaps most important -- marketing. Under his direction, the NFL became prosperous, ubiquitous, and, in its way, glamorous. It was thanks to Rozelle, for example, that Monday Night Football made its television debut, to much skepticism, in 1970. From the start, the show packaged football as an entertainment extravaganza complete with infographics, roving cameras, dancing girls, and blimps. On Mondays, football became a brutal but highly complicated sport requiring squads of analysts like Howard Cosell, who boasted a big vocabulary and a law degree. Professional football wasn't just for jocks anymore.

Inevitably, this new prominence attracted Hollywood's attention. In fact, until the late 1960s and early 1970s, football -- unlike both boxing and baseball -- was all but ignored by the film industry. With a few exceptions, such as Knute Rockne: All American (1940), the sport had been portrayed only in the background of films, most of which were comedies. But suddenly, football came to be seen as a subject intriguing in itself -- and an apt vehicle for social commentary.

The coming trend was signaled by the 1968 Paper Lion, a more-or-less true story in which Alan Alda portrays the writer George Plimpton in his quixotic attempt to play quarterback for the Detroit Lions. Detroit's bruisers are competitive and tough, willing to goad their teammates or flatten a foe. But they're also gentlemen, and they eventually warm to Plimpton and permit him, however briefly, a place in their ranks.

But the breakthrough really came with Brian's Song in 1971, a hugely successful "made for television" movie based on the true story of Brian Piccolo, a reserve halfback for the Chicago Bears. Piccolo was less known for his athletic skills than his wit and drive -- as well as his close friendship with his far more gifted teammate, Gale Sayers. Brian's Song follows the course of that friendship from the Bears' rookie camp to Piccolo's death from cancer at the age of twenty-six. Because Sayers was black and Piccolo white, Brian's Song was widely praised for its attempt to help improve race relations during volatile times.

At least one critic dismissed Brian's Song as "treacly," but its leads -- James Caan as Piccolo and Billy Dee Williams as Sayers -- are remarkably understated in their roles. The film's tone is elegiac, not soppy, and is effectively supported by Michel Legrand's wistful score. There's a kind of elegant simplicity to this low-budget movie, which is sometimes interspersed with actual game footage showing Sayers -- one of the game's best running backs -- dodging tacklers as he sprints gracefully upfield.

In Brian's Song, the Bears aid their injured teammates with sensitivity and grace. Similarly, the Bears' legendary coach, George Halas, is shown as a certified tough guy with a heart of gold. But as the 1970s progressed, movies increasingly portrayed professional football as a senselessly brutal game where all the stuff that Pop Warner taught -- like good sportsmanship and clean living -- counts for nothing. In Semi-Tough (1978), for example, players, coaches, and owners are all targets of mockery. Based loosely on a 1972 novel by Dan Jenkins, Semi-Tough focuses mainly on Billy Clyde Puckett (Burt Reynolds) and Shake Tiller (Kris Kristofferson), teammates on an NFL-like squad contending for the league title. But that fact seems almost superfluous; for this team, playing well is far less crucial than partying hard.

Directed by Michael Ritchie, Semi-Tough aimed to deflate professional football. Early in the film, a pompous book editor urges Puckett to write a tell-all account of his professional career: "We want the real truth: what drugs the players take, how games are really fixed, the influence of the mafia." (In fact, during the 1970s, the real-life vogue for such sports memoirs had just begun, touched off by Ball Four, Jim Bouton's controversial account of life in professional baseball.)

The comic Semi-Tough suggests that pro football is a gigantic joke. Its players are free-floating narcissists, its coaches flakes. The team's owner partakes daily in "mov-a-genics," a therapeutic program requiring him to scuttle around the floor to realign himself with gravity. Shake Tiller's own guru is Friedrich Bismark (Bert Convey), a domineering self-help specialist who reminds his disciples that "life is a shell game without the shell," and "where you are is where it's at."

Semi-Tough is only semi-serious about football; its real satirical target is 1970s psychobabble. (Bismark, for example, owes something to Werner Erhard, founder of EST.) The 1979 North Dallas Forty, however, offers a far darker look at the game. Pro football, the film suggests, exploits and destroys its players and offers nothing of redeeming social value. North Dallas Forty is based on a 1973 novel by Peter Gent, a wide receiver for the Dallas Cowboys between 1964 and 1969 who encouraged the impression that his story was drawn from experience. "If you ever entertained any fantasies about America's autumnal rite's being good clean fun," wrote one reviewer, "this movie should set you straight."

Semi-Tough suggests lightheartedly that drugs and sex are the cornerstones of life for most players; North Dallas Forty makes the same point repeatedly and far more ominously. For receiver Phillip Elliott (Nicke Nolte) and his teammates, including quarterback Seth Maxwell (Mac Davis), life is one long frat party interrupted by practice sessions and weekly games. Elliott, however, is more reflective as he nears the end of a career. His back hurts, his arms hurt, his legs hurt; in the mornings he can scarcely move. "My nose is busted," he laments at one point, "I can't even breathe through it. I can barely stand up. I haven't slept more than three hours at a stretch for over two years."

Still, Elliott persists, pushed by his coaches and afraid of the lull of anonymity that awaits him when his playing days are through. Elliott can play because, like most of his team-mates, he's awash with painkillers and stimulants doled out by the team's trainers; as Maxwell cynically notes, it's simply a matter of "better football through chemistry." When a younger player says that he'll never take codeine, Novacain, and all the rest, the aging receiver scoffs, "You last long enough, and you'll realize that the only way to survive is the pills and the shots."

This bleak Hollywood view has descended to other levels of the game. Occasionally, films like 1993's Rudy or last year's Remember the Titans still offer admiring portraits of players and coaches. But films like All the Right Moves (1983), The Program (1993), and Varsity Blues (1999) spread the cynicism of North Dallas Forty from professional football to the high school and college game, suggesting that the values and ideals extolled back in Knute Rockne: All American are as dead as leather helmets and the Packer sweep.

In Rockne (which memorably featured Ronald Reagan as the legendary halfback, George Gipp), Notre Dame's most famous coach is idealized as a warm but demanding teacher who insisted that, at the end of the day, football recognizes that "the finest work of man is building the character of man." At Notre Dame, "we've tried to build courage, initiative, tolerance, and persistence, without which the most educated brain is not worth very much." Varsity Blues offers, instead, Coach Bud Kilmer, a cool sadist who cares only about burnishing his image in the annals of Texas football. Kilmer demeans and intimidates his players and, like his counterparts in North Dallas Forty, eases their access to performance-enhancing drugs. Varsity Blues has proved popular with students, perhaps because they find in Kilmer a satisfying portrait of every jerk coach and gym teacher they've ever known. But more discriminating viewers will find the film -- part Porky's, part Dawson's Creek -- an unwatchable parade of cinematic cliches.

In some ways, Oliver Stone's Any Given Sunday (1999) is similarly trite. Football films of recent vintage are filled with shots of savage hits and grunting linemen, tension-breaking cuts to cheerleaders showing plenty of cleavage, and locker-room glimpses of naked guys snapping towels. Stone's film features all of these, as well as a continuous stream of self-consciously arty shots, as if Stone hoped to distract us from his well-weathered plot and stock characters: the crazed linebacker, the crusty coach, the aging quarterback, and the brash kid eager to take his place. Stone also gives us a corrupt, drug-dispensing team doctor and an arrogant owner for whom football players are livestock. And finally, there's the dramatic, season-closing big game.

Never a subtle filmmaker, Stone contends that professional football bears striking similarities to ancient Rome's gladiatorial games. For Stone, team owners are imperious and crass, happy to provide the hordes with a bloody spectacle that can leave its combatants paralyzed or -- as the film's most gruesome scene suggests -- without an eye. Players, too, are an insipid and ruthless lot, driven mainly by a malignant lust for money and fame. Twenty years have passed since the release of North Dallas Forty, but Stone leaves the impression that nothing has changed.

Still, Any Given Sunday is probably the best football movie yet made, carried by its predictable but still somehow compelling plot and the deft casting of Al Pacino as head coach Tony D'Amato. Pacino plays a man who cut his teeth some thirty years ago, back when Starr and Unitas and Hornung still played and Vince Lombardi roamed the sidelines. D'Amato isn't completely out of touch. He accepts the fact that his players, weaned on hip-hop and heavy metal, prefer to dress off field like Barbary pirates; the day has long passed when a coach like Lombardi could order his players to act "like the most dignified professional in your hometown." But D'Amato believes in football's old-fashioned, Lombardian fundamentals: solid teamwork, granite linemen, strict discipline, and a running game with all the subtlety of a Sherman tank.

Stone depicts D'Amato without irony and with considerable sympathy. Indeed, although in such films as Nixon and JFK Stone made himself famous for attacking American institutions, he has also shown a certain fondness for characters who exhibit time-honored American values. Like Carl Fox, the resolute airline mechanic who emerges as a hero in Stone's Wall Street, D'Amato instinctively disdains hype and flash; he seals deals with his handshake, treasures loyalty, and believes a man is only as good as his word. Stone rewards D'Amato, leaving him triumphant in the end, a flawed but fundamentally solid figure still willing to press on in a sport sullied by corruption and excess.

What's next for professional football? Given current trends, it might look increasingly like the XFL, a new professional league that debuts on NBC in early February. The XFL is the brainchild of wrestling impresario Vince McMahon, who argues that the NFL isn't violent enough -- despite the endless stream of injuries, the epidemic concussions and blown knees. From the sound of it, McMahon's eight-team league will stress aggression, melodrama, and theatricality; its televised games will be Monday Night Football meets Survivor meets Mad Max. Thus the XFL will feature, among other things, "Playboy-caliber cheerleaders" and the commentary of Minnesota's governor, the honorable ex-wrestler Jesse Ventura.

Unlike the NFL, it will permit mikes and cameras everywhere: in the locker room as well as on the field. Needless to say, the XFL will encourage its players to talk trash and cavort as they wish. It will, however, eliminate the fair catch and the point-after kick and set up a time clock to make the action go faster. The XFL, like McMahon's World Wrestling Federation, is aimed at television's most coveted viewers, eighteen- to twenty-four-year-old males. And what they supposedly want, the XFL is set to deliver: violence, speed, and sexy cheerleaders.

The XFL is no sure thing. Other NFL rivals have come and gone. But McMahon has made a fortune estimating public taste. If the XFL does succeed, the NFL will be compelled to follow suit. And then it's Lombardi be damned. On any given Sunday, the National Football League will look like the World Wrestling Federation: a Playstation game designed by P. T. Barnum.

Brian Murray teaches writing at Loyola College in Maryland.

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