The common belief is that the National Football League began its meteoric rise in popularity with the 1958 championship game between the Baltimore Colts and the New York Giants played at Yankee Stadium. Baltimore, led by quarterback Johnny Unitas and head coach Weeb Ewbank (who would coach another legendary quarterback, Joe Namath, in Super Bowl III, where the underdog New York Jets won) beat the Giants in overtime 23-17. It has been called “the greatest game ever played.” Sports fans and journalists tend to think in superlatives, extremes; something is always “the greatest,” “the greatest of all time (GOAT),” “the fastest,” “the biggest,” “the most dominating,” “the most potent, “the most underrated,” or “the worst,” “the ugliest,” “the weakest,” “the most disappointing,” “the most overrated.” The superlatives, on the one hand, somehow relate the drama and myth of sports, how much larger than life they are but also suggest the harsh, simply honest, criticism of subpar performance, the disdain of mediocrity and failure. I suppose this tension is at the heart of what makes sports attractive for people: the poetics of exaggeration and the unyielding assessment of merit. By the late 1960s, after merging with the rival American Football League, and with the creation of the Super Bowl (a superlative if there ever was one), the NFL had become the lion in the house of American popular culture.
The key to all of this is broadcasting: how to have a sporting event reach more people than those who can actually physically attend it. First came newspapers and the word, then radio and the voice, then came the behemoth television and the image. Such became the power of television that in 1976 John J. O’Connor, the television critic for The New York Times, could be quoted in You Are Looking Live!: “…professional sports have become little more than elaborate television productions.” (90) The representation of sports on television became as compelling, perhaps even more real, than the event itself, because television did not give viewers the event merely but pre-game shows leading up to the event, post-game shows about the event, commentary during the broadcast itself, and spools and spools of narrative. As KMOV-TV (St. Louis) sports announcer Tim Van Galder put it, “… all you are doing is telling folks what they just saw.” (124) Or, with pre-game shows, what they are about to see. This is true in the simplest, plainest sense but televised sports actually were giving a voice to something that was mute, making legible and visible something that our untrustworthy or untrained eyes could not discern. In other words, television did not merely present sports, it created them, or created how a viewer could understand them.
By the late 1960s, after merging with the rival American Football League, and with the creation of the Super Bowl (a superlative if there ever was one), the NFL had become the lion in the house of American popular culture.
Rich Podolsky’s You Are Looking Live! is an account of televised sports in the 1970s and 1980s told through the history of one program, CBS’s The NFL Today, at its height one of the most popular sports programs in history. Podolsky, a sports journalist, wrote for The NFL Today for five years, from 1977 to 1982, at the time when the show had its most famous cast: former Philadelphia Eagle defensive back Irv Cross, former Miss America Phyllis George, former sportswriter and local Chicago sportscaster Brent Musburger, and oddsmaker Jimmy “The Greek” Snyder. This is the cast featured in the 1980 photo on the cover of the book. The show, launched in 1974, predates this cast. The original host was Jack Whittaker, an old CBS pro who had been the play-by-play man for the Philadelphia Eagles at the local CBS affiliate WCAU in the early 1960s. Whittaker was particularly adept at commentary or spinning little essays, something like the Eric Sevareid of sports, the sort of sportscaster that Vin Scully was. In any case, in 1974, when CBS decided to go live with its pregame show, Whittaker could not handle “the quick pace of the live show with highlights being thrown at him from every angle at halftime.” (23) Enter Brent Musburger, who took to the rapid pace of live broadcasting with ease. He became the new host and coined the opening sentence of the show, “You are looking live!”
What made the 1975 cast of The NFL Today memorable was Irv Cross, who broke ground as a Black sports commentator, and Phyllis George as the first woman to be featured prominently on a sports program. Unlike Cross, who in fact worked hard at knowing the intricacies of the game, George was not a football expert and did not try to be one; everyone realizing that male viewers would not accept her as such even if she could explain the difference between a draw play and a screen pass, discuss stunts or an offense running the option, indeed, especially if she could. She was something of a pretty face, an attempt to bring a bit of sex appeal to the show. But she was personable, could interview players well, and did not seem out of place in the studio with the men because she stayed in her lane. During her years on the show, she was clearly the star, the one who, when the cast appeared somewhere in person, attracted the largest number of admirers and autograph seekers. The groundbreaking with Cross and George was self-aware, to be sure, but not nearly as self-congratulatory and virtue-aggrandizing as it is today. In Podolsky’s account, there is something almost refreshingly innocent about it. Cross and George, apparently, were not paraded as symbols. (I find this to be true in my remembrance of the show, which, for a few years, I watched regularly.)
… television did not merely present sports, it created them, or created how a viewer could understand them.
The racial and sexual aspects of the show became more complicated when George left the show after marrying movie producer Robert Evans in 1978. (She left Evans after two months when he suggested that they add another woman to their bed, a bit much for a bourgeois beauty queen from Denton, Texas, who was annoyed by the pretentiously pornographic “experimental” liberation of the Hollywood elite.) She was replaced by Jayne Kennedy. The fact that there were now two Blacks on the show was a concern, according to Kennedy, especially with southern affiliates. (100) (This was at a time when one Black on a not-all-Negro program was considered integration but more than one and, well, there goes the neighborhood.) Kennedy’s time with the show was not a success. She complained that the producer and the director did not offer her enough training. In some ways, it seemed that some at CBS wanted to sabotage her performance, including Musburger who once completely blindsided her by asking her to run down the scores from other games, typically his job. She was unceremoniously fired in 1980 when George decided to return to the show. As Podolsky writes, “CBS came out of this with blood on its hands. It was shameful how they treated Jayne Kennedy in the end.” (108) George may have been better than Kennedy or George may simply have been Whiter than Kennedy.
Probably the downfall of Jimmy the Greek is, if not tragic, certainly poignant. The Greek had become popular as an oddsmaker, with bettors and gamblers watching The NFL Today for his assessments. It was not the case that his predictions were always reliable. In fact, I never found him to be that good at his job. (Apparently, the late actor James Caan felt the same because he got into a screaming match with The Greek when they ran into each other at the Playboy Mansion in Los Angeles in 1980. ) But correctly predicting the future is an important aspect of sports fandom and sports commentary. If you can correctly predict, you are somehow more in the know than others, and being more “in the know,” in sports as in politics, is highly valued as a kind of show-off talent among the cognoscenti and a money-making talent with bookies. The inside dopester, as sociologist David Riesman put it, is an American type.
The groundbreaking with Irv Cross and Phyllis George was self-aware, to be sure, but not nearly as self-congratulatory and virtue-aggrandizing as it is today. In Podolsky’s account, there is something almost refreshingly innocent about it.
In January 1988, the Greek, while interviewed by Black reporter Ed Hotaling about civil rights in sports, said, “The Black is a better athlete to begin with, because he’s been bred to be that way. It’s because of his high thighs and big thighs that go up into his back. And they can jump higher and run faster because of their bigger thighs, you see.” (136) As Podolsky revealed, Sports Illustrated in 1971 had run an article making practically the same claims. But nothing makes White liberals feel more sanctimonious than burning some racist witch at the stake for mouthing bad opinions, all on behalf of their concern for the feelings of their little Black brothers and sisters. After Los Angeles Dodger executive and Jackie Robinson teammate Al Campanis’s racist comments about Blacks “not [having] some of the necessities to be, let’s say, a field manager or, perhaps, a general manager,” when interviewed the year before (1987) by Ted Koppel on Nightline on the fortieth anniversary of Robinson breaking the baseball color line, Campanis was fired. There was little hope for the Greek. And The Greek was burned at the stake, especially for saying what he said right before Martin Luther King’s birthday celebration. Not even his friend Jesse Jackson could save him. The Greek lost his job, his side business, his marriage, his reputation, his money, and even his ability to wear clean clothes. (195) In 2003, Black baseball manager Dusty Baker (of the Chicago Cubs at the time) said about the same thing as the Greek and wound up, well, winning a World Series in 2022 as the manager of the Houston Astros. I do not claim this to be a double standard. I only claim it to be interesting.
You Are Looking Live! is a lively and informative book for anyone who wants to know more about the history of television and sports. Not only does Podolsky give an account of the on-air personalities, but one learns about the producers and directors of The NFL Today, about the men who became the heads of CBS Sports division, and the competition between the networks over sports. I found the book at times to be repetitive but on the whole useful and enjoyable. Ahh, I remember the time.