Q&A with ‘Behind the Shield’ co-producer Dave Zirin ahead of Amherst Cinema premiere

‘Behind the Shield: The Power and Politics of the NFL’ dissects the NFL and all of its problems

Courtesy+of+the+Media+Education+Foundations+official+Twitter+page.

Courtesy of the Media Education Foundation’s official Twitter page.

By Judah Katz , Collegian Staff

The National Football League is much more than a wealthy and powerful professional sports organization. It’s on a short list of entertainment institutions that wield major influence in American culture, especially on issues related to race, gender, patriotism, and so much more, an influence that is not always obvious to its massive fan base. A new film about the NFL, entitled “Behind the Shield: The Power and Politics of the NFL” produced by the Northampton-based Media Education Foundation, features the work of acclaimed author and sportswriter Dave Zirin.

The film is directed by MEF Production Manager Jeremy Earp and co-written by Zirin and Earp. MEF, which produces and distributes films that inspire critical reflection on the social, political, and cultural impact of American mass media, was founded in 1991 by University of Massachusetts communication professor Sut Jhally.

A special screening of “Behind the Shield” is scheduled for Dec. 7 at the Amherst Cinema. Zirin and author and television sports commentator Howard Bryant will engage in a dialogue after the film. I spoke with the co-writer/producer and star of the film, Dave Zirin, who is also the sports editor for The Nation magazine.

Judah Katz: Can you provide some background about your take on the NFL? What motivated you to work on a film focused on professional football and all its problems?

Dave Zirin: Well I read an article that said that of the top 100 television shows any given time, 85 of them were NFL games. Then I looked at the other 15 shows and saw that none of them were sporting events, and that really made me realize NFL football isn’t just another sport. It’s not football, baseball, basketball. NFL football is really the closest thing we have to a monoculture in this society, which is split, divided, sliced, and diced. Football is the closest thing we have to some sort of national connectivity or national language. I had to reckon with what football is, what kind of force it is culturally, politically, ideologically, etc. It has such an impact on what makes this country what it is. As far as my own personal relationship, I grew up a crazy football fan. Loved it. That was generally the case for me until I started really investigating what’s going on behind the shield. Now I still follow it, but I follow it more to see how it’s impacting mass consciousness. It’s less of a rooting relationship and more of a research relationship.

Katz: What were some of the main themes you wanted to focus on and how did you crystalize them in the film’s message?

Zirin: We really started with the big themes: war, patriotism, racism, sexism, manhood, and how the NFL ideologically shapes these central tenets and tent poles of who and what we are culturally as a nation. Once we had our list of what we wanted to discuss, ordering it became really import. How do you tell this story of politics and the NFL? I don’t want to give too much away but I think it’s pretty clear that when you watch the end of the film, we’re trying to end it on a certain note that’s more hopeful than the kind of difficult grappling that I think defines the rest of the film.

Katz: “Behind the Shield” uses an expansive collection of video footage of the NFL, footage whose use is presumably protected by the Fair Use Act. Are you at all concerned that the NFL would come after you and MEF with their high-powered lawyers about your use of their material?

Zirin: Well, that’s not happening…to my great regret. My concern is more about the lack of response than the response because I want this film to get under their skin. I want them to have to reckon with it, and if they dare try to go after us with lawyers, I welcome the fight on the grounds of fair use. On the grounds of the right to culturally examine and study these incredible forces that define so much of our consciousness. The idea that we can’t critically define this cultural product because they have lawyers that make God knows how much per hour, ready to sic themselves on people trying to just understand this sport and its impact on the world. I think that’s a pretty repellent position, so if they really want to have that out, we’ll have it out. But I’ll tell you this. If I was advising the NFL, I would say ignore this film because then it becomes the film the NFL doesn’t want you to see. So I’m sure that’s a consideration as well because I know they’re aware of the film’s existence.

Katz: What are some areas that you cover in this film that aren’t normally discussed about the NFL? For example, what do you say about the history of football?

Zirin: I think people are going to be surprised at how explicitly it was said by people like Theodore Roosevelt that young people needed to play football to toughen up young men so they can rule what they saw as the American Century. Or the ways that Pete Rozelle, the long-standing commissioner of the National Football League, made connections with government and the military to use the NFL as a way to promote those the ideals at the height of the Vietnam War. I think that’s just a little taste right there, but we go through everything from the turn of the 20th century to Colin Kaepernick and Brian Flores, the coach who’s suing the league for racial discrimination right now as we speak. I’m proud of the fact that the film is not just wide but also deep.

Katz: How can fans of the NFL leave this movie with a more nuanced understanding of the sport they care so much about?

Zirin: It’s all about thinking about what you’re seeing. I think the starting point for any kind of social change is critical analysis. That’s why these governors are cracking down on so-called critical race theory and so-called woke education, because what this type of education encourages is critical analysis. That doesn’t mean left-wing or right-wing. It means to search for truth, and not taking everything at face value that the subject itself puts forward, especially when the subject is about privilege and power. The National Football League projects an image of itself. If we can get people to critically think about what it really is, I think that’s the starting point for social change, not just more nuance.

Katz: If you had to give an elevator pitch on why this movie is so important, what would it be?

Zirin: That you better know what’s going on in the NFL — whether you’re a football fan or not.

Judah Katz can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @judah_katz.