MODERN LIFE IN NFL NATION

A fat lot Keats knew about autumn. "season of mists and mellow fruitfulness"? Fiddlesticks. It is football season, the distilled essence of modern life.

It is sex (pneumatic cheerleaders), violence (when the 1976 Super Bowl made the Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders famous, a CBS producer said, "The audience deserves a little sex with its violence"), technology (quarterbacks electronically instructed by coaches wired to subordinate Merlins in the upper reaches of the stadium), committee meetings (huddles), division of labor (interior linemen specializing in third-and-short yardage situations), jargon (zone-flooding nickel packages and seam-splitting nose tackles, or something like that) and a hallmark of a commercial society--strategic parsimony about time.

Welcome to the National Football League, a cultural artifact that causes thinkers to commit sociology. Michael MacCambridge plumbs these depths in his fine new book, "America's Game: The Epic Story of How Pro Football Captured a Nation." It is a rip-roaring epic of American business.

In 1920, 11 men met in a Canton, Ohio, Hupmobile showroom and assessed each other $100 franchise fees. In 1999, the fee for the Houston Texans franchise was $700 million. The eight-year, $17.6 billion TV deal signed in 1998 pays each club $84 million this year. The NFL has come a long way since the Philadelphia Eagles--named after the symbol of FDR's National Recovery Administration--traveled by train to New York on game day to avoid hotel expenses and ate at Horn & Hardart Automats.

In 1952 the Chicago Bears-Dallas Texans Thanksgiving Day game was moved from Dallas to Akron in quest of better attendance--and drew just 3,000 fans to a field where, that morning, 14,800 had attended a high-school game. But a new appliance was coming, and soon the NFL supplanted boxing as the sport whose compact action seemed most suited to television screens. Of which there were only 14,000 in 1947 but 26 million in 1954.

By 1980 the League of Women Voters had to beat a hasty retreat from scheduling two presidential debates on Monday nights. (Carter might have been re-elected if that year's debate had been up against "Monday Night Football." Few would have watched.) By the 1990s the NFL had the power to transform Fox into a major player among the networks.

On the field, unlimited substitution was restored in 1950 and made most of the swarming players seem like interchangeable parts in large machines. That, and competitive balance, a product of equal team shares of the dominant source of revenue (national television contracts), led to the apotheosis of head coaches, and especially to the cult of the Packers' Vince Lombardi. Both Richard Nixon and Hubert Humphrey considered him as a running mate in 1968.

"The period of the early '70s," writes MacCambridge, "brought an odd sense of cognitive dissonance to pro football's rise. At no other time in its history did the guiding ethos of football--teamwork, self-sacrifice, the concerted application of mental and physical discipline toward a single, united goal--seem more out of step with the larger cultural moment."

The NFL, with its aversion to understatement, flourished in the 1960s and 1970s, when cultural change was accelerating, and the tone-setters in American sports were Muhammad Ali and Howard Cosell. Soon the NFL produced the first black celebrity featured in a national corporate advertising campaign, for Hertz. O. J. Simpson. Oh, well.

This NFL season will reach a climax with the XXXIXth Super Bowl--Roman numerals for gladiatorial spectacles. It will be watched by many millions more Americans than will have watched the presidential Inauguration 17 days before. The fourth Super Bowl, in January 1970, was watched by more people than had watched Neil Armstrong walk on the moon six months earlier. The 10 most-watched television programs in history are all Super Bowls. Most viewers have financial stakes in the outcomes, having bet on them. Super Bowl Sunday is second only to Thanksgiving in Americans' caloric intake. "If Jesus Christ were alive today," said Norman Vincent Peale in 1974, "he'd be at the Super Bowl." But surely not in a luxury suite.

The best thing about NFL teams is the purity of their professionalism. None are appendages of institutions of higher education, so there is no damned nonsense about "student athletes." When in 1957 Queen Elizabeth attended a Maryland-North Carolina game, she asked Maryland's governor, "Where do you get all those enormous players?" He replied, "Your Majesty, that's a very embarrassing question."

In Sports Illustrated's recent 50th-anniversary issue, Jeff MacGregor wrote, "Organized sports are the perfection of the unnecessary." Perhaps. But, then, most of what makes life sweet involves emancipation from necessity. The NFL is an acquired taste that Americans have acquired less as an alternative reality than as an intensification of modern reality, although why they want that is a mystery.