Midweek Books: The history of NFL Films

On Wednesday I highlight noteworthy new sports books, with links to reviews, interviews and other information about the subject and/or author.

Earlier this week I wrote about a new website project begun by history professor Bruce Berglund, host of the excellent New Books in Sports podcast.

In his latest podcast, Berglund talks to University of Iowa professor Travis Vogan, author of “Keepers of the Flame: NFL Films and the Rise of Sports Media.”

The author had full access to the NFL Films archive in New Jersey, and conducted interviews with staffers, including the iconic Steve Sabol, who died in 2012.

Like many of the books featured on this podcast that are written by academics, Berglund has chosen a work that’s accessible for general readers.

KeepersOfTheFlameThe title comes from legendary Chicago Bears coach George Halas, who Vogan says was initially irritated by the presence a constant crew of cameramen and their bulky 16-millimeter machines.

But Halas recognized early on what many later understood years later: NFL Films helped the NFL become not only the most lucrative sports league in America but established its everlasting status in the popular imagination.

Especially with John Facenda, the “Voice of God,” thundering in with specially created verse.

As Halas famously put it:

“The history of pro football will forever be preserved on film and not by the written word a la baseball.”

NFL Films brilliantly employed artistic elements — poetry, orchestral music and aesthetically sophisticated camera work — and blended them into a product with enormous commercial appeal.

But at times Vogan is critical of what NFL Films created, constantly referring to the “mythology” that Sabol and his father, NFL Films founder Ed Sabol, created around the game, teams, leading figures and everyday personae.

He tells Berglund that NFL Films not only showed but “glorified” the violence that’s now the subject of critical examination related to concussions and brain trauma, and points out that segments entitled “Headbangers” simply wouldn’t be made today.

NFL Films did its job and did it extremely well, he says, serving as a powerful vehicle for a carefully cultivated image the league wanted its high-profile media operation to convey:

“It both documents the NFL’s history and positions it as an 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.”

The rise of cable television in the 1980s, including the emergence of ESPN and 24/7 sports highlights reels, threatened NFL Films’ dominance. Ironically however, it was the creation of the NFL Network that signalled a new, lesser role for the Sabols’ creation. As Vogan explains:

“I wouldn’t say that NFL Films is obsolete or was cast aside entirely, but it is now providing more niche programming within the NFL Network rather than being the NFL’s signature media product. It’s now part of a much larger media infrastructure. It’s not the network’s focus. But there would be no NFL Network without NFL Films.”

Vogan, who is working on a book about ESPN, is interviewed here by Buffalo sports radio host John Murphy.

And here’s the Voice of God below doing what NFL Films did the best:

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