By Peter Richardson / Original to ScheerPost
For two decades, Dave Zirin has worked at the intersection of sports and politics. His output includes articles at The Nation, a radio program and podcast, and a short shelf of books culled largely from his articles. As provocative as he is productive, Zirin returns again and again to issues of race, gender, labor, and the corporatization and corruption of sports. There’s no shortage of fresh material. The way we organize and market sports in this country amounts to the Dave Zirin Full Employment Act.
Despite his enviable career, Zirin has had little direct competition. ESPN and HBO produce good work, but most of what passes for sports journalism remains narrow and predictable. Much of this has to do with its commercial incentives. Local sportswriters usually flack for the home team—to do otherwise is career suicide—and broadcasters tout the athletes they feature. Moreover, televised games have become a gold mine. They are among the few shows viewers want to watch in real time, and that leads to lucrative advertising deals. In this media ecology, Zirin is a kind of designated iconoclast. From his perch at The Nation, the venerable leftist weekly, he can criticize the sports establishment without fear of devastating reprisal.
Some on the left are unmoved by Zirin’s achievement. Spectator sports are a distraction from the political engagement they seek to foster, but Zirin sees sports as a powerful cultural force and a site of resistance. Describing himself as an absolute sports freak, he never scolds his fellow fans for enjoying that diversion; instead, he applies his political analysis to what they already value. His critics might learn something from that example.
In his new documentary film, Behind the Shield: The Power and Politics of the NFL, Zirin teams with co-writer Jeremy Earp to consider the National Football League. He begins by acknowledging the game’s immense appeal and cultural centrality. As one ESPN commentator noted, football isn’t only the nation’s most popular sport; it’s the nation’s most popular THING. Television ratings bear out that claim; 19 of the 20 most highly rated programs in history have been Super Bowl games, which routinely attract more than 100 million viewers.
Over and above its popularity, the NFL has produced a powerful brand identity, complete with associations that people can relate to and identify with. Many of those associations have to do with civic and national pride. Mostly what the NFL is selling, aside from its own product, is a particular (and highly idealized) view of America. In this sense, Zirin regards NFL football as the closest thing to a national religion.
The main thrust of Behind the Shield, however, isn’t that football matters. Instead, it takes aim at the notion that professional football is or should be apolitical. For many Americans, most of them conservative, players have politicized the game to the point of ruin. When players use their platform to support social movements, especially but not only Black Lives Matter, critics portray that support as an unwelcome intrusion on simple weekend pleasures. Their message to players is also simple: Shut up and play ball. It should be noted that 70 percent of those players are Black, while most of the fans are white. All the team owners are also white, and 90 percent of their political donations go to Republicans.
Behind the Shield argues that the league’s policies, partnerships, and branding decisions can’t be separated from politics as such. For Zirin, the question is not whether the NFL is a political actor, but what kind of politics it endorses.
The fact is, it’s not sports and politics which aren’t allowed to mix, as we’re so often told. It’s only sports and a certain kind of politics. One set of political ideas is fortified by the sports world, and another is marginalized. And of course, there’s no sport in America where these two currents have more of an impact on our country than NFL football.
The league’s political leanings, Zirin argues, should be set alongside the protests that some fans find objectionable.
This isn’t new territory for Zirin. He has targeted the NFL and its owners in several books, most notably A People’s History of Sports in the United States (2008), Bad Sports: How Owners Are Ruining the Games We Love (2010), and Game Over: How Politics Has Turned the Sports World Upside Down (2011). But Behind the Shield, whose title refers to the NFL’s logo, is a culmination insofar as it encapsulates Zirin’s critique of the league, its branding, and its jarring hypocrisy.
Having established the NFL’s cultural significance, Zirin turns to the norms and ideals it endorses. The first is American manhood. Long before the formation of the NFL, Ivy League colleges practiced an exceptionally violent form of football. Although injuries and even deaths were common, some observers saw the game as salutary. Football, Walter Camp wrote in the early part of the twentieth century, “was doing for college-bred men what the experience of war did for their predecessors.” Theodore Roosevelt also endorsed football as the antidote to a generation of soft, weak, or effeminate men. That message is echoed today by right-wingers, including Donald Trump, who views new rules and safety protocols as signs that football and the culture at large have gone soft.
For Zirin, the link between football and virility masks a basic fact: many players’ lives are characterized more by chronic pain, immobility, and severe brain trauma than by healthy masculinity. For years, the league worked tirelessly to keep that fact out of view. “The bottom line,” Zirin notes, “is that the NFL has been more concerned with managing the damage to their brand than the damage to their players’ brains and bodies.” Even as the players who embody the culture’s masculine ideal push for new safety measures, critics mock those measures and revel in tough talk. Sitting safely in television studios, far from the game’s violence and its crippling effects, these critics dismiss the concern for player safety as a direct attack on American manhood.
A similar disjuncture applies to football’s image as a working-man’s sport. In fact, every aspect of the game is governed by a corporate—and virulently anti-labor—logic of profit-maximization. The body-mangling nature of the game is only one reflection of that outlook, which a top NFL executive articulated during a player’s strike in 1987. “The players are like cattle, and the owners are ranchers,” Dallas Cowboys general manager Tex Schramm said. “And the owners can always get more cattle.” Good to know, but Schramm’s simile chimes poorly with the league’s branding efforts, which trade vigorously in patriotic ideals, not the dehumanization of its players.
Then there’s the militarism. At least since the days of Richard Nixon, the NFL has associated professional football with the U.S. flag and armed forces. Only days after one of the largest anti-war protests of his presidency, Nixon became the first president to attend an NFL game. Shortly after that, the second Super Bowl game featured the first military flyover. The league cultivated a rebel image during that period, but it took a dim view of players who spoke out against the war. Militarism was also front and center at the 1991 Super Bowl, where 72,000 flags were distributed ten days after President George H.W. Bush launched the Gulf War. That year, Disney produced the halftime show, which featured children celebrating military heroes. From the White House, President Bush then beamed his patriotic and pro-war message to a vast television audience.
Especially after 9/11, the NFL became what Zirin calls “the perfect syringe for the drug of militarism.” Television graphics became more militaristic, and patriotic displays became routine in regular-season games as well as the Super Bowl. The NFL entered a formal partnership with the Pentagon, one of the league’s major advertisers, and a minor scandal followed reports that the armed forces paid the league $6.8 million of taxpayer money to stage game-day salutes, color guards, and other military displays. Those payments stopped, but the NFL’s “Salute to Service” program continues, and coaches occasionally sport camouflage on the sidelines.
This league’s carefully crafted image is essential for understanding the controversy surrounding Colin Kaepernick, one of the few Black quarterbacks in the league. (For years, African Americans were thought to be unfit for that high-profile position.) In 2016, Kaepernick remained seated during the pre-game national anthem to protest racial injustice and police brutality. He quickly accepted a suggestion from an army veteran to kneel during the anthem because that gesture was more respectful. Enraged critics immediately construed it as disrespect for the United States, its flag, and the armed forces.
Kaepernick maintained that the flag stood for freedom and justice, and that he respected the military for defending those values. Despite these disclaimers, he received death threats and was burned in effigy. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said he didn’t support Kaepernick’s decision, which he cast as disrespectful. “We encourage all our players to respect the flag,” Goodell said. “We’re all about patriotism.” At the end of that season, Kaepernick became a free agent. When no team offered him a contract, he accused the NFL of blackballing him and settled that case in 2019.
The following year, the murder of George Floyd by a white police officer in Minneapolis sparked more player demonstrations of solidarity with victims of police brutality. Four years after censuring Kaepernick, Goodell assured the nation that the league stood with the Black community in the fight for racial justice. “We, the National Football League, believe [B]lack lives matter. We, the National Football League, admit we were wrong for not listening to NFL players earlier, and encourage all to speak out and peacefully protest.” By that time, however, Goodell had banned all player protests during the national anthem.
Many Black journalists wondered about Goodell’s belated admission. ESPN’s Howard Bryant asked, “Is it a reckoning, or is it just another dance?” Jemele Hill added that NFL teams routinely stand by players convicted of heinous crimes, yet Kaepernick’s peaceful protests were a career-killer. Zirin certainly doesn’t believe that the league has taken its place in the vanguard. “The cold truth is that this is a sport that revels in the violence of the Black body for the consumption of white fans as well as the profit of white owners, and it has a major issue with any kind of Black autonomy and control.” That view was strengthened by the 2021 scandal that brought down Las Vegas Raiders coach Jon Gruden. When a workplace misconduct investigation unearthed his racist, sexist, and homophobic email messages, they confirmed that the NFL’s lofty rhetoric didn’t match the facts on the ground.
“One thing about the NFL,” Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones told Yahoo Finance in 2019, “is that politics are not good for us in any way.” The film exposes the hollowness of that claim, and Zirin foresees a day of reckoning for the NFL. His prediction may be overly optimistic for reasons covered in the film. Millions of fans identify deeply with the game and what it stands for. To the extent that these identifications are impervious to facts or evidence, that they operate beneath or beyond consciousness, or that they express desires even stronger than the critiques, the NFL is likely to thrive. At the same time, the film also shows that the league is averse to bad publicity and susceptible to pressure. In that sense, Behind the Shield is a step in the right direction.