NFL Films and the reinvention of football

Sabol Here are two puzzles for anyone interested in professional sport and popular culture. 

1) why did baseball lose it’s status as America’s game?

2) why has basketball not rise to take it’s place? 

The answer to both questions is of course football, but that’s another question, isn’t it?  Why football?

Formally, football is a tedious game, large men banging around in the mud and the cold.  Certainly, we have grown to love it.  We have come to find it fascinating.  And this is what cultures do certainly: collectively they make things matter that would otherwise be inconsiderable, mere and or mystifying.  (Before I get driven out of town on a rail, let me say that I played football, that I love to watch football.  I am making, or trying to make, a technical, anthropological assessment here.)

As George F. Will once said, football combines two of America’s worst faults: violence and committee meetings.  This game is punishing in ways we have yet fully to reckon with.  (Ted Johnson, formerly of the New England Patriots, today began a badly needed debate about head injuries.)  We take perfect athletes and put them into harm’s way.  For every Jerry Rice who appears to walk away unscathed, there are, what, a hundred former players who live with pain and disability. 

If it’s hell to play, it is, again formally, not that interesting to watch.  Football players are so obscured by their equipment, there is not much to see in the way of emotions, the joy of victory, or the agony of defeat. They might as well be bots out there.  For every Terrell Owen, there are a hundred of players who manage to make the big time, play for years, and still don’t rate a place in memory.  (Name the offensive line of your favorite team.  And last year?)

Baseball by comparison is cerebral and contemplative.  Basketball by comparison is vivid, fast, and out of control.  Now, to be fair, football is not as bad as soccer, and that’s because nothing is as bad as soccer.  But how can it have been good enough to have eclipsed baseball and preempted basketball?

I learned the answer while watching that exemplary program called Storytellers, on HBO’s Real Sports With Bryant Gumbel last week.  And it’s a really great answer.  We love football because it was reinvented for us by a father and son.  Ed and Steve Sabol, working out of Philadelphia, starting in the early 1960s, almost when the NFL did, using early and awkward recording technologies, managed to capture an image of the game that changed the reality of the game. 

In the Real Sports interviews, Ed and Steve say they thought about football as something theatrical, perhaps even operatic, well, come to that, actually mythical.  They accomplish this effect with stirring music, slow motion athleticism, and a grand, booming narrative.  All that muddy mayhem turns out to be a perfect medium for narrative arcs, big emotions, heroic action and the stuff of almost complete absorption.  Talk about doing a lot with a little.  Talking about elevating the everyday and the ordinary into something larger than life.  Ed and Steve turned out to be master rhetoricians. 

But here’s the weird part.  The magic they worked on a screen they controlled managed somehow to find its way onto a field they did not. Their image reworked the reality.  I don’t doubt that there are other architects of this transformation.  Roone Arlidge would be one.  I guess Sports Illustrated, Monday Night Football and Real Sports would be others.  But the documentary left me with the feeling that the first act of reclamation was undertaken by the Sabol family.  They were the ones who found a way to turn thugs into thespians and an ordinary game into something so arresting that XLI Super Bowl drew 93 million people. 


Deford, Frank and Joe Perskie.  2007. Storytellers.  Episode 118.  Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel.  January 22, 2007. here.   

See the HBO Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel website here

8 thoughts on “NFL Films and the reinvention of football

  1. Anonymous

    It’s the war quality. The gridiron is the closest thing in American sports to a battlefield. Men get off on football for basically the same reasons they get off on the battle scenes in ‘Braveheart’.

  2. Ian

    “Now, to be fair, football is not as bad as soccer, and that’s because nothing is as bad as soccer.”

    This is an astonishingly parochial, American attitude, and globally a minority viewpoint. It is also a huge reason we are bogged down in Iraq — we are playing football, they are playing soccer, and they are winning.

  3. steve

    You’re on to something here, Grant.

    To me, the beauty of football is the orchestrated, dynamic nature of the action, lots of complex individual actions melding together to create a collective result. It was this high-speed geometry more than violence that first attracted me to the game–on the over-the-air, black-and-white signal I grew up watching the violence was too blurry to be explicit.

    NFL films did romanticize and glamorize the game. The Wagnerian scripts used in the 1970s, the oracular voice of John Facenda, and most importantly, the brilliant choices for musical scores, provided an imagined backdrop even when watching live action. In my opinion, the more recent NFL Films work is not as compelling in terms of content. It also plays less of a role in marketing the game because of the plethora of competing NFL content.

  4. Tom Asacker

    It’s a testimony to the outstanding storytelling and expression of the NFL games that they have almost no resemblance to my memory of playing football. 😉

    To witness the dramatic difference between the NFL and other sports like basketball, hockey and soccer, simpy watch a high school or small college game on TV and compare it to the professional version. The dramatic gap is HUGE in football, but less so in those other sports.

  5. Jamie

    Personally I’ll take hockey any day of the week over football but that being said I think it’s interesting that arguably the only really great sports movies happen to be about football (Any Given Sunday is a perfect example). I guess the set up of a football game is a perfect way of telling an intriguing and engaging story to its audience.

  6. John Wagner

    You forgot the biggest drivers of football’s popularity: Betting and the fact that it’s a great sport for television (commercials).

    Soccer isn’t called the beautiful game for nothing. Don’t be a hater.

  7. Virginia Postrel

    On a related note, Rich Karlgaard of Forbes predicts a great future for hockey and soccer: “Hockey and soccer — They gain popularity. Why? Large flat-panel televisions. Fast-moving goal sports are hard to follow on small TVs. The action turns compelling on 50-inch or larger high-definition LCD or plasma screens. Americans who are old enough remember how boring football was on TV before color and instant replay. With their advent the NFL’s popularity exploded in the 1960s.” Posted here:

    Of course, some people (like my husband, posting above) never found football boring, even before color and instant replay.

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