The most popular sport in America, football is both entertainment and big business.  Join Active Minds as we trace the history of the game from Johnny Unitas to Peyton Manning, telling a few of the great stories of the game along the way.  We’ll also cover some of the sport’s current challenges and opportunities, including player concussions and the rise of fantasy football.

Key Lecture Points

  • Football, the most popular sport in America, is closely related to rugby and association football.  Rugby became popular in the late 19th century at northeastern American and Canadian universities.  Walter Camp is considered the Father of American Football for his role in transitioning collegiate rugby into the game of football we know today.
  • In the early 20th century, football had become so brutal that it was banned by some colleges.  In 1905, President Teddy Roosevelt appealed to Harvard, Princeton and Yale to save the sport.  This led to the establishment of a rules committee that made significant changes to the game and which later became the National Collegiate Athletic Association.
  • The National Football League was founded in the early 1920s when professional football was in a state of flux with dramatically rising salaries and players constantly jumping from one team to another, even during the season, for more money.  Today the NFL is the world’s richest sports league, making $12 billion in revenue and posting nearly $1 billion in profits during the 2014-2015 season.
  • In recent years, football’s image has been darkened by the increasing number of reports about chronic traumatic encephalopathy in retired players.  CTE is caused by repeated hits to the head and causes memory and cognitive issues such as dementia, Alzheimer’s and depression leading to suicide.  A class action suit was brought by former players against the NFL and a $1 billion settlement was reached in 2015.  2015 also saw an increased public awareness of the NFL’s domestic violence problem.
  • Since 2011 fantasy football has become enormously popular.  It is expected to bring in $1.5 billion in revenues in 2015.  According to federal law, fantasy football is legal because it is a game of skill and not chance and therefore not gambling.  This logic was questioned when the major day game companies offered big winnings at the start of the 2015-2016 season.
  • With increasing parental concern about concussions and the safety of playing football, rugby has become the fastest growing youth game in the US.

Exploration Questions

  • How is the ownership of the Green Bay Packers different from other franchises?  What are the advantages and disadvantages of each ownership model?
  • What are the major issues challenging the NFL?

Reflective Questions

  • Who do you think are the best players and coaches of all time?  Why?
  • Why do you think Americans are so passionate about football?  Do you think it will continue to be our favorite sport given concerns about concussions and other stains on the image of the sport?

More to Explore

  • Coverage of the NFL concussion issue Click here
  • News, scores, standings, stats and more Click here

Books For Further Reading

  • Schulian, John.  Football: Great Writing About the National Sport. Library of America, 2015. 490 pages.  This anthology brings together legendary football writers like Red Smith, Frank Deford, Jimmy Breslin and more with stories that describe the complexity, the spectacle and the humanity of football.
    Click here to order
  • Mason, Andrew.  Tales From the Denver Broncos Sideline: A Collection of the Greatest Bronco Stories Ever. Sports Publishing LLC, 2014. 224 pages.   This book captures the memorable moments and outstanding players in the history of the Broncos, beginning in 1960 when the team became a charter member of the American Football League.
    Click here to order
  • Roberts, Diane.  Tribal: College Football and the Secret Heart of America. Harper, 2015. 256 pages. This book is part memoir and part cultural analysis.  The author describes her love for college football while discussing the controversies that plague her beloved sport.
    Click here to order