The Genius of Steve Sabol

On a missed understanding of the game of football
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Steve Sabol, co-founder of NFL Films

Photo courtesy of Black and Right

“The autumn wind is a Raider.” What the hell does that even mean, anyway? Regardless, that line ran through my head in a continuous loop all day on Tuesday after I heard the news of Steve Sabol’s passing. “The autumn wind is a Raider.” Somewhere, deep inside, I know what that means even if I cannot verbalize it. That’s ultimately what made Sabol, the late head of NFL Films, a genius—the ability to reach us in places we didn’t know we had; the ability to make us feel rather than think; the ability to, in a game replete with punishing and concussing hits, touch us ever so lightly but oh so deeply.

The genius of Steve Sabol is that he made Americans passionately care about something they never showed much interest in caring about at all. It may seem heretical to speak of the NFL this way today, but before Ed Sabol and his son Steve arrived on the scene in the early 1960s, pro football was something to occupy the periphery of our attention between the end of the World Series and the start of Spring Training. The Sabols (mainly Steve, the artiste of the family) took a game that was at once too fast and too slow for the American populace and recalibrated it. Through their films (which is how most of us recall the seminal moments of the game, rather than through the actual broadcasts), they removed the tedium of the endless huddles and replaced them with non-stop action, augmented with booming soundtrack and drama-laden narration. At the same time, they slowed the action itself down to half-speed to present for the first time the hidden game of pro football—one full of grimacing giants, precision blocking, beauty and grace. While the networks presented the game much as it was viewed from the stands, with stationary cameras perched high above the frustratingly intermittent “action,” the Sabols understood that people at home wanted something different, something better, something much more intimate. Largely as a result of their genius, the NFL became a multi-billion dollar industry.

For those who question the power and influence of Steve Sabol: Watch the replays, in their entirety, of the network broadcasts of the legendary moments memorialized within his films, which are now increasingly available on the NFL Network. Watch CBS’s coverage of the 1975 Cowboys–Vikings playoff game—the “Hail Mary” game, for example. In Sabol’s reimagining of the game, Roger Staubach’s pass to Drew Pearson was epic, the pinnacle of a game slowly building to its dramatic, last-second climax. On CBS, it was something else altogether – a second-down pass with 32 seconds left, still time enough for Dallas to maneuver down the field had the pass not connected. Even after it did, the Vikings got the ball again with 24 seconds left and three timeouts—long enough to change the outcome. On CBS the game was interesting; through NFL Films it became legendary. Watch NBC’s coverage of Super Bowl III—one of the most boring games you’ll ever force yourself to sit through. After Sabol got through with it, however, the half-hour film of that Jets–Colts game is miraculously full of the storylines and drama we recall the game as having. Watch almost any game on network TV up through the 1980s, and then compare it to Sabol’s recreation of it after the fact and ask yourself if pro football would be where it is today without him.

Where the game is today, however, is most likely not where it will be twenty years or perhaps even a decade from now. The game is in the initial stages of decline. Despite the technological advances in broadcasting, or perhaps because of them, storytellers like Sabol are losing ground to the ugly reality show that is the NFL in the 21st century. The welter of microphones and cameras now embedded in virtually all live NFL telecasts (in an ironic twist, all innovations credited to Sabol) record the game at its worst with harrowing regularity. . The crush of bodies, twisting of limbs, the sick pop of helmet-to-helmet hits are all there in HD and in Dolby 7:1 surround sound every Sunday, Monday, and Thursday, and. Add in the tragic postscripts written by former players such as Junior Seau, Andre Waters and Dave Duerson, and a national participatory decline in youth football, the decreasing television ratings (slow but steady), and the increase in available seats in several NFL stadiums begin to make perfect sense.

In a way, the NFL is today where boxing was in the 1970s. Who would have thought, with stars such as Ali, Frazier, Foreman and Leonard on the scene, that only a few decades hence boxing would exist solely on the fringes of big-time sports? Alas, as boxing’s storytellers died out—the journalists who gave the sport its context and emotional heft—boxing, at least as a major spectator sport, died along with them. Today, absent the mythmaking bards and existing only in real time on outlets such as HBO, boxing alternatively bores and horrifies the sporting public. Itself increasingly a real-time only sport as well, the NFL is headed toward the same fate.

In fact, all that really preserves the NFL from boxing’s eventual fate is gambling. Despite waning interest by casual fans, the sport nevertheless is a gambler’s paradise. Which is one reason why the referee lockout so troubles the league (although not enough, apparently, to compel it to sit down with the NFL Referee Association and resolve it). Whenever the NFL talks of the “integrity” of the game, know what it is referring to: its ability to present a game to the public that can be reliably wagered upon, whether through the point spreads set in Vegas or through the multitude of fantasy leagues that likewise produce millions upon millions in revenue in various ways. Blown calls by inexperienced refs threaten the confidence in the game as a wagering tool. And once the gamblers go, the NFL’s “bubble” will pop, exposing the truly sorry state of the game that has hidden inside of it for many years. And then the NFL will join boxing on the periphery. It is no longer a question of if but merely when.

Steve Sabol was one of the last remaining wedges against the inevitable.  He presented the game as we wished it to be, rather than how it was, giving us the poetry we yearned for rather than the brutal honesty we preferred not to acknowledge. Now that the poet, the storyteller, is gone, so are the poetry and the story. All the NFL has left is the truth, laid bare before the American public in real time. When it comes to professional football, that may not be something the American public wants to confront.

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