- Keepers of the Flame: NFL Films and the Rise of Sports Media by Travis Vogan
Since the early 1960s, professional football has dominated sport in the United States through the astute marketing of the NFL and a game whose speed and violence seemingly resonates with contemporary America. In Keepers of the Flame—a phrase borrowed from legendary Chicago Bears owner and coach George Halas—Travis Vogan, an assistant professor of journalism and mass communication at the University of Iowa, traces how NFL Films became a corporate tool proclaiming that professional football exemplifies American society by embodying the characteristics of “teamwork, manliness, perseverance, courage, discipline, sacrifice, and leadership” (5). In researching this first scholarly study of NFL Films, Vogan draws upon interviews with employees as well as the founders of the organization, even gaining access to the filmmakers’ archives. The result is a primarily descriptive but not uncritical account of how ostensibly artistic filmmakers may serve larger corporate goals and interests.
NFL Films was the brainchild of Ed Sabol, whose small film company, Blair Motion Pictures, won the bid to document the 1962 NFL championship game between the Green Bay Packers and New York Giants. Working with his son Steve, Sabol produced [End Page 285] Pro Football’s Longest Day, a film that used a more dramatic feature approach to tell the story of an upstart Green Bay taking on the metropolis of New York City. NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle was pleased with the production, and Sabol won the rights to film the 1963 and 1964 championships. Concerned about rising production costs, the Sabol family convinced Rozelle and the NFL to purchase their company so that the league would have control over representation of its image and history. NFL Films, as the Sabol production company was now called, was to document all league games, provide highlight films for all league franchises, and film the annual championship game.
With this contract secured, Ed and Steve Sabol began to develop the signature style that would characterize NFL Films. In addition to creating a dramatic storyline, hand-held cameras were employed to highlight the overall game atmosphere. Vogan observes that close-up shots, slow motion, and microphones were able to “convey professional football’s pain and emotion by situating the male body as an object of pleasure, desire, and consumption” (20). The NFL Films style was also exemplified by the rousing music of Sam Spence and the authoritative voice of John Facenda that made every play of epic stature. Thus, NFL Films assumed the role of preserving the history of the league and connecting it with a patriotic celebration of American values. Issues that might cast the NFL in a negative light, such as the impact of concussions or criminal activities beyond the playing field, were ignored. When a topic such as racism was depicted, it was to celebrate the league’s success in addressing prejudice. In addition to extolling the league’s virtues, NFL Films promotes the quality of its films by eschewing the use of videotape in favor of sixteen-millimeter film and cinematic quality displayed by its numerous Emmy awards.
Vogan, however, raises questions regarding the validity of these claims. In terms of originality, Vogan points out that CBS’s The Violent World of Sam Huff (1960) pioneered the concept of placing microphones on the players and embracing the sport’s violence, while the dramatic potential of sporting stories was borrowed from Roone Arledge and ABC Television’s The Wide World of Sports. In terms of Steve Sabol’s assertion that his films were works of art, Vogan concludes that “NFL Films’ practices are as indebted to 1960s sports television as they are to the films, paintings, and works of literature the company more commonly cites as its primary aesthetic influences” (137).
Vogan emphasizes that the primary function of NFL Films was to support the corporate line. Thus, many of the major productions for NFL Films in the 1970s were providing highlight reels. The more historic...