The Myth Machine: From Travis Vogan's "Keepers Of The Flame"

An excerpt from Travis Vogan's look at how NFL Films has shaped -- and manufactured -- football's history.
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Travis Vogan is an academic, and teaches at the University of Iowa, and yet his new book Keepers of the Flame: NFL Films and the Rise of Sports Media does not read like a book by an academic. Some of this owes to its uniquely rich (and weird, given that the NFL is involved) subject matter, and much of it is Vogan's astute, graceful writing. Whatever the percentage, it's a good book, and Vogan and the University of Illinois press were kind enough to lend us a short excerpt. -- DR

While baseball is traditionally recognized as America’s favorite pastime, the National Football League has stood as the United States’ most popular and lucrative sports organization since the late 1960s. NFL football’s immense cultural and economic power is not simply a product of the games it provides for millions of live and mediated spectators, but also its cultural meanings. Scholars of sport have argued that pro football serves mythic functions in American culture. More than merely a game, the sport embodies and articulates characteristics, beliefs, attitudes, and values unique to American history, identity, and everyday life.

These mythic qualities, of course, are not essential to football. Rather, they are crafted through its representation -- from brief newspaper game reports to the macho cacophony of sports talk radio. Consider Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi’s five NFL championships and overall winning percentage, and it is clear that he was one of the most successful coaches in football, and even sport, history. But wins alone do not explain his status as an American icon that signifies leadership, work ethic, tradition, and virtue. Lombardi achieved this significance through his depiction. Indeed, he is still the subject of a steady stream of commemorations that includes biographies, documentaries, a postage stamp, and even a Broadway drama.

The National Football League realized early on that football’s meaning is pliable. Throughout its history, the NFL has developed various strategies to manufacture an image that sets the gridiron game apart from other sports and that distinguishes itself from other sports organizations. Perhaps the league’s most important branding and marketing effort was its 1964 establishment of NFL Films, a subsidiary film production company that creates celebratory made-for-television documentaries about the league. NFL Films’ productions, which are featured on various segments and programs that run throughout the entire year, transformed the league’s players and coaches into “legends of autumn” who partake in “cruel rites of manhood” on the “one-hundred-yard universe” of professional football. In doing so, these films changed how football, and sport in general, is represented and imagined while establishing a foundation from which the contemporary sports media landscape--an almost unavoidable facet of popular culture--developed.

In 2008, sports journalist and ESPN football analyst Sal Paolantonio published How Football Explains America, a short volume that considers why “we [Americans] dedicate our Sunday afternoons to the poetically violent rituals of the National Football League.” His book examines pro football’s relationship to democracy, territorial expansion, militarism, patriarchy, entertainment culture, and other elements he considers representative of American identity. Paolantonio uses various iconic moments from the league’s history to describe its mythic status.

To make the case for football’s relationship to masculinity, he references an instance when New York Giants linebacker Lawrence Taylor, famous for his unbridled and relentless play, attempts to motivate his teammates on the sidelines by screaming, “Let’s go out there like a bunch of crazed dogs and have some fun!” To prove the same point, he recalls a moment when Chicago Bears linebacker Mike Singletary goads and intimidates the opposing team’s offense by maniacally yelling: “Hey, baby! I’m gonna be here all day, baby! I like this kind of party!” Paolantonio cites both cases to claim that NFL players are larger-than-life warriors who revel in the game’s violent intensity and engage in single-minded missions to vanquish whatever adversaries stand in their way.

Along slightly different lines, Paolantonio uses a touchdown pass from San Francisco 49ers quarterback Joe Montana to receiver Dwight Clark in the waning minutes of the 1982 National Football Conference championship game -- a play now known simply as “The Catch” -- to describe football’s aesthetic potential. The play seemed doomed when it began. Montana’s pass protection had been overwhelmed by the Dallas Cowboys’ defense, and he was forced to search for an open receiver while fleeing toward the sideline. Just before the oncoming defenders slammed Montana into the ground, the off-balance quarterback hurled a high pass toward the back of the end zone, which initially appeared to be heading out of play. Clark, however, made a leaping grab, landing just in bounds to score and secure the lead. San Francisco wound up winning the game and then prevailing in the Super Bowl -- the first of four championships it would win in the course of the following decade. “The Catch” is now one of the most famous plays in sports history, and footage of it is repeatedly shown in advertisements and promotions to demonstrate pro football’s excitement, unpredictability, and beauty.

The iconic moments Paolantonio describes have more in common than their apparent illustration of how football explains America. They were shot, edited, and are distributed by NFL Films. These instances that have come to embody the National Football League’s history, football’s significance in America, and even what it means to be American, were carefully designed to display the NFL in its best light.

The meaning Paolantonio assigns to the moments he mentions is largely a result of NFL Films’ distinct aesthetic practices. The intensity Taylor and Singletary seem to radiate is displayed principally by the subsidiary’s use of ground-level cameras and the sound it gathered with wireless microphones -- conventions the company popularized. These techniques allow viewers to see players’ straining faces and to hear the emotional tenor of their voices, elements of the game that, prior to NFL Films, were imperceptible to those watching on television or even in the stadium.

Similarly, Clark’s catch is almost exclusively displayed through NFL Films’ footage of it, which was shot in slow motion by a 16mm camera placed at ground level in the back of the end zone. From the perspective of NFL Films’ camera, it appears Montana has no receivers available and that the pass he throws is sure to sail out of bounds. The camera keeps the ball tight in the frame as it floats toward the end zone. Just before it flies beyond the field of play, Clark leaps into the shot -- seeming to come out of nowhere -- to make the fingertip catch. The slow motion builds suspense for how the play will resolve, and the shot’s framing makes Clark’s emergence and catch seem almost miraculous. While it is undoubtedly a great play, NFL Films’ conventions make it seem astonishing -- transforming Dwight Clark’s touchdown catch into The Catch. Paolantonio’s discussion of these iconic instances conflates the NFL’s past with the history NFL Films has created for it.

Like all representations of football, NFL Films’ dramatized productions give the sport meaning and shape how it is imagined. However, unlike newspaper game reports or television broadcasts, the company’s works are intended -- and in fact obliged -- to create a positive, salable image for the league. Steve Sabol, former NFL Films president and the driving force behind its distinctive style, described the subsidiary as a group of “historians, storytellers, [and] mythmakers.” It both documents the NFL’s history and positions it as a heroic institution characterized by awe-inspiring moments and epic battles. 

In doing so, it transforms pro football into a spectacle that exceeds its position as a sports organization and becomes a corporate site of cultural production. The company’s widely circulated documentaries have created some of the NFL’s most memorable instances and, by extension, some of the most beloved and frequently evoked moments in the history of American sport. NFL Films turned the frigid 1967 NFL championship game into what is now known as “The Ice Bowl,” and it captured the plays that fans and sportswriters have since dubbed “The Immaculate Reception,” “The Drive,” and “The Miracle at the Meadowlands.” It christened the Dallas Cowboys “America’s Team,” made Vince Lombardi into a symbol of stern patriarchy, molded Baltimore Colts quarterback Johnny Unitas into a working-class hero, and fashioned New York Jets quarterback “Broadway” Joe Namath into a countercultural rebel.

As former NFL coach and sportscaster John Madden once claimed, “If you’re not in NFL Films, you’re not a part of NFL history.” Through its productions and other operations, NFL Films strives to control how the National Football League is consumed and remembered. Since its development, the company has attached a consistent set of themes to the league and depicted it through a distinct combination of conventions. Pro football, as NFL Films depicts it, is an intense, violent, beautiful, and sometimes humorous sport where heroic men band together to overcome adversity and reach a common goal. It is an institution that expresses what it means to be American and embodies teamwork, manliness, perseverance, courage, discipline, sacrifice, and leadership -- sporting characteristics that, in part because of NFL Films’ pervasiveness, are now clichés.

NFL Films cultivates and maintains this image regardless of the personalities or historical circumstances its documentaries showcase. As Paolantonio’s references and Madden’s statement indicate, NFL Films’ hyperbolic representations are so widespread that they are often treated as the league’s actual past, rather than as a carefully crafted and commercially motivated version of it. Even Paolantonio’s offhand description of NFL games as “poetically violent” owes a debt to the now well-worn way that NFL Films combines slow motion violence, symphonic scores, and baritone narration to convey what Steve Sabol called pro football’s “ballet and brutality.”

From from Keepers of the Flame: NFL Films and the Rise of Sports Media by Travis Vogan. Copyright 2014 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Used with permission of the University of Illinois Press. No part of this excerpt may be reprinted, reproduced, posted on another website or distributed by any means without the written permission of the University of Illinois Press.

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