Keepers of the FlameIf you are a football fan and week one of the NFL season has given you an early letdown (we’re looking at you Chicago Bears fans), perhaps some warmly manufactured memories and the soothing tones of John Facenda can smooth over any disappointment.

As Travis Vogan writes in Keepers of the Flame: NFL Films and the Rise of Sports Media, there is always some rose-colored glasses for fans who’d rather lean on nostalgia in place of a disappointing weekend’s performance:

In the words of longtime NFL Films producer Phil Tuckett, the company’s documentaries “portray reality as we wish it was.” More accurately, NFL Films portrays reality the way the National Football League wants consumers to believe it is.

NFL Films creates the league’s history by arranging exceptional moments into celebratory narratives. Greatest Moments in Dallas Cowboys History (1992) edits a series of noteworthy and thrilling instances into a story that argues for the franchise’s greatness. Era of Excellence: The 1980s (1989) functions similarly. It assembles a collection of outstanding snippets that index the 1980s NFL into a form that praises the league’s apparent excellence during that decade. Likewise, the syndicated television program NFL Game of the Week reflects on a recently completed NFL contest by organizing its most important and sensational plays to emphasize the featured game’s significance within the context of the week and season when it occurred.

NFL Films’ documentaries suggest the league’s past is constituted by extraordinary moments—diving touchdown catches, punishing blocks, and graceful runs—that evidence the NFL’s unique excitement and epic importance. They use conventions such as slow motion, orchestral scores, and narration to make featured instances seem as riveting as possible and then organize them into Hollywood-inspired stories of heroes uniting to battle against physical, emotional, and technical adversity. As such, these documentaries privilege arranging filmed content into dramatic narratives over providing thorough or even accurate reports of the events they examine. If footage does not readily exhibit the inspirational and broadly appealing set of qualities NFL Films uses to characterize and sell the league, the company’s productions either ignore it or—like Big Game America’s treatment of Joe Namath and The New Breed’s depiction of Tim Rossovich—take measures to contain it within the branded history the subsidiary constructs and promotes. NFL Films productions thus embody and illuminate a tension that marks all nonfiction representation: they simultaneously document “actuality” and filter it through forms influenced by a host of rhetorical, ideological, institutional, and economic considerations.

Comments are closed.