Dave Zirin, sports editor for The Nation, was writing about the impact of athletics on our culture well before it became common practice. This time, Zirin has taken his socially conscious perspective on sports and aimed it at one of the largest, most powerful entities in the world: the National Football League.
With Behind The Shield: The Power and Politics of the NFL, Zirin and collaborators Jeremy Earp and Loretta Alper have produced a blistering indictment of the most popular sports league that has ever existed. Behind The Shield takes a deep and often dark look at the NFL’s embrace of militarism and increasingly conservative politics at the expense of the athletes that enrich the game’s owners and leadership.
In our conversation, Dave and I discuss the history of the NFL’s largely unchecked political power and how it has affected not just the game itself, but how we see our country and each other.
Awards Daily: You and Howard Bryant are the most prominent writers covering sports and culture. You’re looking at athletics from a larger perspective. How did you carve out this space?
Dave Zirin: The space now is so much bigger and fuller than when I started doing this almost two decades ago—you can’t even compare it. The world of writing about sports, culture, and politics is so different now than just a few years ago, let alone twenty years ago. When my first book came out, What’s My Name, Fool?: Sports and Resistance in the United States, during all that time it was like being a regular size fish in a very sad puddle. There wasn’t much oxygen there and there wasn’t really anybody else doing it. That’s really shifted dramatically over the last ten years. By the way, there are a million brilliant people whose work I learned from. From Ralph Wiley to Bob Lipsyte to Lester Rodney, there was a foundation built of people who wrote about sports, politics, and culture. But that really had dried up by the early 2000s, especially in the wake of Bush, the war, all the patriotism at sporting events that came with the post 9/11 era, as Howard Bryant recounts amazingly in his book The Heritage. That whole period didn’t allow for a lot of oxygen in the sports world. You took whatever scraps you could get and turn it into something—or I wrote about history. That’s how I got to know John Carlos from the 1968 Olympics; we wrote his memoir together.
Everything changed dramatically with the stalking and killing of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman and the way that connected like an electric current to the world of sports and to athletes. It inspired the Miami Heat, led by Lebron (James) and Dwayne Wade, to pose with hoodies on, and that became one of the first viral sports photographs on Twitter, a la Tommie Smith and John Carlos raising their fists at the 1968 Olympics. That was a kind of indelible moment. It made a lot of athletes realize we can use this emerging medium of social media to go around a sports media that’s traditionally old and white and conservative, and try to connect directly with our audience. When they saw the impact they were able to have, it inspired more rounds of it. Players individually posing with hoodies on, players posing with political messages, with the words BLM or Black Lives Matter, or I Can’t Breathe. As this builds it rose and rose and then of course it goes to another level when Kaeprnick takes his knee. People start photographing themselves and using social media to share that. With all of this stuff happening in the sports world over the last ten years, it birthed big time industry. Newspapers like USA Today, The Washington Post, The New York Times started positions or even whole departments that they called sports and culture, or sports and society. This is amazing to me. You have the Andscape website connected to ESPN; so all of legacy media realizes that this is a moment where if you’re not speaking about this stuff, you’re not even talking about the sports world in general. From my perspective, that’s been amazing to see. I feel like a bird that’s landed on the back of a bucking bronco and I’m just sort of holding on for dear life and making sure to remind myself that I’m not actually riding this, this is riding me.
Awards Daily: We had this long gap between, say, the end of Muhammad Ali’s career up until the social media age, when athletes got very conservative. I watched The Last Dance just recently. I had kind of resisted it initially because I was a little concerned there would be a lot of hagiography built into it. It was better than I thought and very well made. I was glad they covered the point of Michael Jordan not supporting Harvey Gantt in his senate run against noted racist, Jesse Helms. We saw Jordan’s resistance to getting involved, and his lack of political curiosity. Like you said, at a certain point, the wave of change is not something you’re riding, it’s riding you.
Dave Zirin: Oh, absolutely. One of the significant parts of the Miami Heat posing with the hoodies is that it was LeBron. LeBron, at that time already, had been anointed as The Chosen One. The athlete of his generation the way Jordan was the athlete of his—at least in the world of basketball. If you could describe that whole generation of players in the 90’s and the 00’s as “the children of Jordan,” how they saw their fame, how they saw their wealth, I think you could call post-2012 “the children of LeBron,” or, in some respects “the children of Kobe” as well.
This idea that you’re not just going to be this current or ex-athlete playing on the golf course, you’re not going to be only a commentator, you are going to be a mogul, and not just a mogul but somebody who is socially conscious and willing to brand themselves as such. You have this whole group of athletes who are now trying to think about “how can I be socially conscious?” In a way they’re protected by LeBron, because how are you going to attack—the way Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf was attacked or Craig Hodges in the early 90’s—how are you going to attack somebody if the biggest star, the untouchable one, is speaking out? Similarly, if Michael Jordan had been speaking out, there’s no way the NBA would have had the gumption to run off Craig Hodges.
Awards Daily: Let’s start getting into the film. There’s a ton of information that’s loaded into this 92 minute documentary. At the same time, you’re taking on the NFL. You’re telling the truth, but the truth can be expensive sometimes. What gave you the burning desire to make this film?
Dave Zirin: Oh man, I did a film with the Media Education Foundation (MEF) ten years ago called Not Just a Game, and it’s a broad look at sports and politics through the ages. It’s used a lot in colleges and in high schools to go over some of the history of sports and politics, sports and resistance. MEF came back to me and said, what do you want to do a film on? Name it, we’ll do it. Who do you want to take on? I’d just been reading an article that of the top one hundred television programs over the past several years, eighty-five of them were NFL games. What struck me as I read this article was something that they didn’t write about or analyze which was: it’s not just that it’s eighty-five of the top one hundred watched shows, it’s that when you look at the other fifteen non-NFL shows, none of them are even sports. People ask me why I still follow the NFL but that’s like asking me why I still do my job. The NFL is sports, and sports is the NFL. It’s not my opinion, no more than it would be my opinion whether or not I believe in gravity when I fall out of an airplane. This is objective reality. The NFL is the big bad wolf. You have to be able to understand it and write about it. When they asked me, I was just like “Let’s take on the NFL” and they said that sounds really cool. So that was the starting point. Then began the process of figuring out what it was we actually wanted to say. More recently the issue has been: how the hell do we get this thing seen? The media climate was so… well, many of the streaming services would never do anything to upset the National Football League.
Awards Daily: Has it been a struggle to find streaming partners?
Dave Zirin: It has been. The journey is ongoing. I realize a film like this takes consideration. You have to worry about lawsuits. This is one of the big things about our film. We say at the film’s start that we stand by the Supreme Court’s understanding of fair use, meaning that we can show as much NFL footage as we warrant as long as it’s connected to the cultural commentary. The NFL does not agree with that. Someone asked me “Are you scared about the NFL suing you?” I said I’m not scared, I pray for it. Then we become what the NFL doesn’t want you to see. The NFL doesn’t even have to do that. They have networks who can do that for them and just make it the film you can’t see. We’ve had a ton of success in terms of getting it viewed at colleges and high schools. We’ve offered it for free as a way to try to build buzz at behindtheshieldmovie.com. That’s where we’re at with this. This is very much guerrilla filmmaking in the style and tradition of political films made in the 1960s, where you went at it with no budget, just an idea of arguments you wanted to make and images you wanted to put together.
Awards Daily: I think in between using available footage and modern technology, you’re able to make a better looking movie than maybe you could have on a smaller budget many years ago.
Dave Zirin: Yeah, MEF has a great camera crew. I don’t want to make it sound like we’re that amazing film that was done all on apple phones (Sean Baker’s Tangerine). They have a big time rig and set and they do it properly. But you’re absolutely right when it comes to being able to slice and dice and splice all this footage together.The old skill set of being an editor, you’re almost like being a cobbler. Leaning over, putting it together. I don’t want to say that current editors aren’t performing skilled labor, I’m not saying that at all, but the specialization that it took to do it was really profound back in the day.
Awards Daily: I took a perverse joy in how you used so much of the NFL’s own footage against them—their own words, their own press conferences, even their own music. When the movie ends with the NFL theme, there’s a bit of perversity in doing that.
Dave Zirin: A very cool thing I can tell you is I was of course intimately involved with this amazing duo (director/editor) Jeremy Earp and (producer) Loretta Alper, making sure this became the film we wanted it to be. They didn’t tell me about adding the duhnuh duhnuh duhnuh over the final credits. So I was watching it for the first time and when it came on at the end I was like OHMYGOD! (Laughs).
Awards Daily: That’s the same feeling I had. I was like “oh, they really did that.”
Dave Zirin: But that was the plan. The plan, top to bottom, was to basically present them with their own arguments and hold them up against the light of reality. Something that I think is frankly essential to all politics and we don’t do it nearly enough.
Awards Daily: I had a conversation the other day about ownership vs. players and I said the way people view athletes is not so dissimilar from the way they view actors. When you think about George Clooney and Tom Cruise you might think actors make too much money, but the truth of it is that most actors are waiting tables and trying out for roles. With athletes it’s not exactly the same, but there’s a hierarchy here and folks at the lower end of the spectrum maybe don’t play very long. The one thing your film points out is that the average NFL career is three and a half years. If you’re on the roster in the NFL for three and half years right now, you’ll make considerable money, but it’s over after that. So we hear a lot of stuff about greedy players, but it’s the owners who are really making out on the labor of people who are putting their bodies on the line every time they go out onto the field.
Dave Zirin: There are a couple of things I would say to that. The difference to me between a George Clooney and a Colin Kaepernick is, for example, if an actor says something controversial, there’s kind of an, “ok whatever, they’ll be able to make another movie at some point.” I mean Susan Sarandon still makes movies. Even if you have to take some time away from the spotlight you can always come back. Athletes don’t have that luxury.
An average career of three and a half in the NFL—not much longer in the NBA, Major League Baseball, the NHL—these are short careers where you have to maximize probably ninety percent of what you’re going to earn in your entire life before your 27th birthday. AND—I don’t know this for sure, but I imagine—much more disproportionately in sports as opposed to the dramatic arts, coming from poor and impoverished backgrounds. So there is a tremendous investment in you made by your family and your community, which is a whole other set of pressures when you reach this lofty status. And yet you still speak out. That imbues it with risk and it gets people’s attention. I wish the risk wasn’t so essential to the formula of athletes and activism because it puts such an undue and moralistic burden on the athlete to speak out, which I don’t think should be there. At the same time, that is what brings people’s attention to athletic activists. This sense that you are part of a tradition of people like Muhammad Ali, and Paul Robeson, and Tommie Smith, John Carlos, Rose Robinson. What they all have in common is that they all risked something and lost something. That makes you pay extra attention.
Awards Daily: I think what’s doubly hard now in the age of social media is if you make a mistake, it gets magnified so greatly. You may have done forty five great things, but all we’re going to talk about is the one bad thing.
Dave Zirin: Absolutely. It has created a disincentive to speak out. I’ve had this conversation with athletes about that. Why don’t you speak out? And they’re like well, I don’t want to be mocked, or I don’t want to be made fun of; I don’t want to become a meme. There are these pitfalls that create an atmosphere of self-censorship. That’s yet another risk, though. When Colin Kaepernick spoke out, I’m sure he had little doubt of what was going to come his way from the other side. The burning of his jerseys and the rest of it. But worse, as we showed in the film, the hanging of effigies and target practice on his jersey at gun ranges. I mean, what the fuck is wrong with this country?
Awards Daily: In the film, former Cowboys’ owner Tex Schramm states that athletes are cattle and the owners are ranchers—and you can always get more cattle. There’s a kind of innate racism in that, and I think you can see that same mentality in some of the fan base. It’s the “shut up and dribble” factor, where we like being entertained by athletes, but we don’t want to hear what they have to say. There is this sort of resistance to the black athlete or any athlete of color coming out and saying something of importance. It is taken as an affront to certain members of the fan base—mostly white people.
Dave Zirin: Absolutely. It’s about, to paraphrase what Maya Angelou said, America loving Black culture and not loving Black people. It’s why John Carlos has always insisted on being seen as a human being. When people ask him “why can’t you just run and not say anything?” he says, you’re asking me to be something less than a human being. It’s very tricky because there is glory and there is history and there is beauty in what I would describe as the athletic arts. It’s a very slippery slope from that to highly racialized gladiatorial combat.
Awards Daily: We saw so much of that with the Kaepernick case, which your film covers so well. Kaepernick was the seventeenth ranked quarterback on a terrible football team—he didn’t have a lot of support. There are thirty-two teams, there are typically three quarterbacks on every roster. That’s ninety six positions. You’re going to tell me the seventeenth best quarterback in the league as a starter can’t have a job in the league at all?
Dave Zirin: I would just add that when they rank them seventeenth, most QB ratings don’t include running, and he led the NFL in yards per carry that year. Second in the NFL in QB rushing yards to Cam Newton, even though he was in four fewer games than Cam. His receivers led the NFL in drops and he couldn’t have had a worse set of circumstances for somebody who was just a pass away a couple years earlier from being the Super Bowl MVP, so of course he was blackballed. Of course he was turned into a pariah. Of course when that happened it crossed, in a very public way, a line that really coincides with the simultaneous rise of Trump and his election. I really do think that the fact that this sport remained the most popular sport, while under the brightest possible lights denying someone their right to make a living because of the peaceful ideas in their head, crossed a line. There’s been a lot written about how things have changed so dramatically over the last decade, but that to me was the “Toto we’re not in Kansas anymore” moment. We will punish you for thinking the wrong things.
Awards Daily: I think that a lot of casual fans, if they were told there’s a commissioner of baseball, football, basketball or whatever sport, they’d think that commissioner works for the good of that sport. However, the commissioner works for the owners. Roger Goodell is the pre-eminent example of a corporatist mindset in that role. In the film you see him speak, and he’s kind of soft-spoken and he’s got a bit of that avuncular thing that Dick Cheney has. He’s saying things that aren’t really true or honest, but because of how he’s saying it, he doesn’t make you feel unsafe even when he’s saying potentially dangerous things. That’s a skill and a gift; I wish he used it for different reasons. A lot of what he is doing is licking his finger and putting it in the wind and just trying to follow the shifting airflow. He’s made some moves to allow greater freedom of expression, but you surely can’t trust it.
Dave Zirin: And then he’s shifted off of that recently as the political winds have gotten far more right wing and scary. He is someone who is a reactionary in the definitional form of the word. All he does is react, for good or ill. I think in some respects his family, which had such success and glory on this continent, is to me kind of an American tragedy. This got cut from the film, unfortunately, because we had to keep it at a certain length, but I went into a little bit about his father Charles Goodell, a Republican Senator from New York, who took a very courageous stand against the war in Vietnam and it cost him his career. Then he wrote an entire book in defense of dissent called Political Prisoners in America. It’s a beautiful book. An ex-Republican Senator writing a book called Political Prisoners in America. Then you have this son who becomes the king of all the flak catchers. Unbelievable.
Awards Daily: His son’s whole job is quashing dissent, right?
Dave Zirin: His son is a flak catcher for billionaires, which is the antithesis of what his father chose to be. It’s amazing. Only in America. Here’s this person Roger Goodell who becomes this global figure, makes $70 million a year, and yet, you look from where he came and it’s more sad than triumphant.
Awards Daily: The film deals very strongly with the physical toll that players have suffered, particularly with CTE. I watched the Aaron Hernandez documentary series years ago and wrote about it. It was stunning when they looked at his brain scans before he got to college, and he was already somewhat diminished in terms of function. It reminds me of that great scene in Michael Mann’s The Insider when they were saying the cigarette companies are all “we put some leaves in a paper and roll ‘em up. You smoke ‘em, we don’t know what happens next.” It sort of seems like the same thing. If helmets are butting up against each other constantly, how in the world do you not see the connection to the impact, especially when you look at the rates of CTE and ALS in the general population.
Dave Zirin: Let’s talk about (Dolphins QB) Tua Tagovailoa. Tua was concussed, Tua tried to come back out on the field. Tua in his first game back on a Sunday night went helmet to helmet with somebody to show what a tough guy he is, even though Tua probably weighs a hundred seventy pounds soaking wet, if we’re being honest. So he put himself at mortal risk to show his teammates that he was “manning up.”
This is why, if your six foot, hundred and seventy pound quarterback is like that, your star QB, what do you think the mentality is for the special teams guy barely hanging onto a roster spot? That’s the problem. You can have the safest helmets in the world. You can do everything to make the game safer. I do think the league has taken drastic steps because of public reaction to the concussion scandals. But what they’re doing is like putting an extra big filter on a cigarette. It’s like, yeah maybe you’re making it safer, but there’s no such thing as a safe cigarette and there’s no such thing as a safe NFL game.
It can be safer certainly. I would argue that when you see old footage from the seventies of players making clothesline tackles and headhunting and all the rest of it, you can think, we don’t have that anymore, and the republicans all say the game is soft, buy you’re really not accounting for the fact that now we have people who are two hundred and eighty pounds who can run forty yards in four and a half seconds. That did not exist in the 1970s.
Awards Daily: The power of the collision has changed greatly.
Dave Zirin: I wrote this in my book about Jim Brown. What made Jim Brown so magnificent in his day was honestly that he looked like a 2022 football player. So how good would Jim Brown be today? I’ll give you good, but Jim Brown running against a hundred and seventy five pound linebackers back in the day? That was a large source of his greatness.
Awards Daily: Jim Brown was always like Wilt Chamberlain to me. He was so far ahead of everyone else that he could still be good now. I think there’s a lot of athletes who wouldn’t be, but the distance between him and them was just great.
Dave Zirin: Especially in football. That’s like the highest compliment I could give Jim Brown—that if you put him seventy years into the future, he’d be able to walk onto the field and play. The bigger point I’m making is that you can make the game safer, but the field is still a hundred yards. They change golf courses because golfers are so much stronger than they were a generation ago. They make them longer. You can’t do that in the NFL, but you do have the evolution factor that you have in golf: the power and force, and I think that more than makes up for the lack of clotheslines and helmet to helmet hits.
Awards Daily: You were very fortunate to get Jeremy Earp as your editor and director. This film dispenses a ton of information, with decades to cover, and the subject matter is so vast. There are so many people that are significant that are caught up in it, that to assemble this in a way that is both fast-paced and coherent and fits into a ninety minute window is an exceptional feat by itself. Can you talk about working with Jeremy and what that was like?
Dave Zirin: First and foremost, Jeremy—amazing, talented, all done with (producer) Loretta Alper as well, I really see them as this two-headed rolling ball of genius. They are relentless and focused and they’ll get through whatever is in their path. I knew that they could do this because we had the experience doing Not Just a Game a decade ago. But for this it was a different kind of challenge because we wanted to hit people over and over and over again. We likened it to a great middleweight throwing a jab again and again and again. Jeremy and Loretta get the rhythm of how to do that. As you know the jab is about speed but it’s also gotta be about rhythm. You gotta control the speed otherwise it’s erratic. Speed and rhythm. They understood that cinematically and as documentarians in a way that was amazing. They would send me stuff and I would just be like “What’s next, because this is fantastic.”
Awards Daily: There are some really interesting reveals in the film, even for me as a longtime football fan. The militarism went back farther than I thought. I think we have this sort of recency bias that the things we notice in our adult life are the things that stick. When you went back to the Rozelle years, I was really stunned. I had never really put it together.
Dave Zirin: That’s the important thing about history is that you’ve got to keep going back to the roots. It’s a way of making sense of the present. That’s the only service that the past really gives us. It allows us to understand our current moment. We’re in this current moment where it can feel like this incubator of patriotism and violence and sports all coming together and that’s what the league is. You gotta see that it’s not like an incubator, it’s more like thesugar that’s baked into a cake. Indistinguishable from the league itself. We try to show that in the film. Like how Pete Rozelle dealt with issues of patriotism, war, and politics. I think people will find it different but familiar. Not the same, exactly, but it certainly does rhyme.
Awards Daily: Echoes for sure. You do end the film with a note of hopefulness, which I think is not the easiest thing to do when you have presented the compilation of horrors that the NFL has been party to. It seemed to me what you were saying in the film is that hope lies in the hearts and minds of the players on the field and their willingness to see how far their power stretches and to be bold.
Dave Zirin: All of this violence and racism that the league represents, that it’s baked into the cake of the league, I think you’re gonna have a generation of players who are going to kick over the oven and bake their own cake. It’s not that football is going to go away—it’s that players feel more agency than they ever have. Players look at Colin Kaepernick and don’t see a ghost. They see a spirit that they carry forward. The same way you can’t understand today’s patriotism without looking at Pete Rozelle, you’re not going to be able to understand what happens in the NFL in the years ahead without also understanding the legacy of the 2016 players who took a stand for Black Lives.