- Football's Wine Cellar:The NFL Films Archive
Those [NFL films] archives constitute the soul of professional football, the stored treasures of football's wine cellar.Steve Sabol, President, NFL Films
The National Football League (NFL) is ubiquitous in contemporary American media culture. At any given time—day or night, during the season or not—one would be hard-pressed to flip through the television channels for long without encountering at least one representation of the NFL, from recaps of games to commercials that somehow feature the league. Many of these images derive from a single site, the NFL Films archive. Since 1965, NFL Films, the NFL's subsidiary film production company, has documented every one of the league's games and filmed thousands of interviews with its players and coaches. It uses this footage to create dramatic, made-for-television films that glorify the NFL and its history. The company now possesses the world's largest sports film archive, which is located at its headquarters in Mount Laurel, New Jersey.1 This mammoth collection constitutes the [End Page 1] starting point from which NFL Films manufactures its documentaries and sells film to other media outlets. Beyond storing footage, this private, commercial archive organizes it to correspond with NFL Films's established stylistic conventions. A consideration of this collection provides a useful way to investigate the relationship between institutional moving image archives and the aesthetic, economic, and ideological imperatives that guide their operations. It demonstrates how this archive assists NFL Films's efforts to create and control the NFL's public image. Furthermore, it illustrates how NFL Films's careful management of the league's highly visible and valuable image shapes its archive's organization, policies, and operations.
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The NFL Films archive consists of two divisions that serve overlapping functions. First, there is a fireproof, temperature-controlled, limited-access vault that houses and safeguards nearly all the film the company has generated and purchased. Though its vault certainly slows the deterioration of its holdings, the NFL Films archive does not necessarily preserve materials—at least not in the conventional sense of the term. According to the National Film Preservation Foundation (NFPF), the term preservation is traditionally equated with duplication, copying film onto a new and more stable film stock. However, the NFPF asserts that the definition of preservation has recently broadened. It is now increasingly "understood as the full continuum of activities necessary to protect the film and share the content with the public."2 In addition to the vault, the NFL Films archive features a library that organizes copies of footage for efficient use in productions and for sale to clients. Like most archives, this collection catalogs materials based on when they were created and the subject matter they feature, but it also explicitly arranges content according to the company's aesthetic conventions and even according to the material's potential to evoke certain emotions. Before footage is woven into one of the company's productions, it has already been filtered through an archival system designed to maintain the mythology NFL Films creates for the league.3
At the most basic level, archives are sites where materials are stored and organized for future use. However, these collections—even those that do not lend or sell materials—are not simply repositories. Archives are selective in the materials they collect and in how they arrange them. As Allan Sekula claims, "archives are not neutral; they embody the power inherent in accumulation, collection, and hoarding as well as that power inherent in the command of the lexicon and rules of language."4 Archives' selective [End Page 2] operations are also guided by the institutions to which they are attached. The materials archives acquire, the care with which they are able to store those materials, and the conditions under which holdings are circulated or discarded are all determined in part by the organizations that define a given archive's purposes and regulate its functioning.5
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Despite its popularity and long...