Documentary Review: Dave Zirin’s “Behind the Shield: The Power and Politics of the NFL”

Dave Zirin is a sports fan.  You’d do well to remember this as you watch, and not read, his latest work. 

That’s right, author and journalist Dave Zirin has flipped the script on us yet again with his latest project, this time coming in documentary form.  His film is called “Behind the Shield: The Power and Politics of the NFL” and it joins an already impressive line of research within which Zirin analyzes the role of the activist athlete in the face of institutional resistance.  In “Shield,” Zirin confronts the “multi-billion-dollar, corporate leviathan” known as the National Football League head on.  I can’t imagine they’re overly thrilled with the results but sometimes, the truth hurts.

Zirin’s latest project strays in format, but is consistent in message, from his already lengthy catalog of work covering athletes from Jim Brown and Muhammad Ali to Michael Bennett and Colin Kaepernick.  Before I review “Behind the Shield” and more importantly, before you watch it, I should remind you once again that Dave Zirin is an NFL fan.  He spent his childhood watching the league and his adulthood covering it.  But he does so with a discerning eye.  It has become his life’s mission to make sure you do the same.

In “Behind the Shield,” Zirin divulges how the league has historically been in the business of (often shameless) self-promotion and how it has consistently pushed upon us idealized if not false images of masculinity and military, both subliminally and blatantly, while those of us watching barely batted an eye.  Zirin also reminds us that the league has historically claimed it wants no part of politics yet has been pushing its own brand of politics for years.  “It’s not sports and politics that aren’t allowed to mix” but rather “sports and a certain kind of politics.”

You might not agree with Zirin’s politics.  It’s also quite likely that you’ve tuned him out as a liberal with an agenda once you hear he wrote a book called “The Kaepernick Effect.”  And you’d be right.  Zirin does have an agenda and that is to remind you what you’re watching.  “Behind the Shield” is researched, factual, often upsetting and objectively hard to argue with.  The documentary’s principal premise that the NFL has historically and hypocritically claimed there is no room for politics in its game, while simultaneously churning out messages that are impossible to separate from politics, is presented inarguably and meticulously.

In an era where messages can so easily be misinterpreted, at no point does Zirin ever suggest we should stop watching the NFL.  Such a proposal would be ludicrous.  Super Bowls account for 19 of the 20 most watched programs in the history of television.  As Americans, it’s what we do, and he understands that.  He just wants us to be aware of what we’re watching.

The documentary begins with an introduction to Zirin, and no Zirin work is complete without references to Jackie Robinson, Bill Russell and of course, Muhammad Ali.  It wasn’t until college that Zirin first realized athletes can do more than play a sport, that they have a voice and sometimes even a stand when they see injustice.  By contrast, the NFL has traditionally been opposed to said stands, or knees, while gradually becoming one of the most “predominant cultural and political forces in America.”

Football’s efforts designed to combat the “wussification of America” started long before the NFL ever came into play, originating in the 19th century.  This eventually followed with the league pushing patriotism, starting with the Vietnam conflict, and continuing with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  This imagery came to a head with 9/11 where the NFL’s pro-military agenda tugged at America’s heartstrings and suggested you’re either with them or against them.  And who the hell could be against them?  Zirin expounds upon Howard Bryant’s “The Heritage” premise that 9/11 is the lone event that most significantly changed the way we watch sports in this country.  This was not the players involving you in their politics, it was the league.

Zirin traces how the NFL’s image has changed over the years, as the league became blacker, more inclusionary, at least on the field, all the while still perpetuating gender norms, domestic violence, and quite often outright racism.

You will be exposed to the consistently historical sketchiness of the NFL, the banning of black players, the shell game it played with CTE and the passing of Pat Tillman.  The NFL became what Zirin calls “the perfect syringe for the drug of militarism” but was not pro-armed forces out of the kindness of its heart.  The NFL received funding from the Department of Defense for military fly overs and not the other way around.

You don’t have to be a conspiracy theorist to recognize that truly American institutions such as the NFL operate with their own interests at heart, often at the expense of the health of those caught in its wake.

You’ll hear a bevy of soundbites within which both fans and journalists tell athletes to shut up and play, all of whom want sports and politics separated. Ironically, the NFL has been skillfully feeding us its own political agenda with those wanting their politics and football remaining blissfully unaware.  The NFL’s carefully crafted image has become “synonymous with a sense of national pride.” 

Dave Zirin is not a “shut up and play” kind of guy.  He’s far more about what you have to say and is it interesting?  Do you bring constructive ideas to the table that might help and why are these ideas being silenced?  Most importantly, Zirin hears a voice that is lost in all this madness, and that’s the voice of the players.  You’ll be reminded why so many athletes, who all loved the game, left it early, thanks to the physical pounding imposed on both their bodies and their psyches.

I asked Dave why he embarked on this project via documentary rather than the written word.  He told me that “just wanted to experiment with a new form” that would provide him with a new challenge.  It worked.  For example, one can write about animated images of fighter planes inexplicably placed in NFL promotions without questioning why they’re there in the first place, or Super Bowl halftime performances with hordes of children belting out Bette Midler’s “Hero.”  To prove those points on film, as Zirin does with “Behind the Shield,” is far more convincing.

It takes Bennet Omalu size balls to release a documentary about the NFL that is bound to be far more unpopular than it is popular, but this is Dave Zirin’s mission.  He wants to share things with you as he sees them, which is with a healthy dose of perspective and truth serum.

Dave Zirin is a football fan.  Just like you and I, he loves the NFL.  That’s why he made this documentary.

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2 Replies to “Documentary Review: Dave Zirin’s “Behind the Shield: The Power and Politics of the NFL””

  1. Well written SC, and I couldn’t agree more. As a sports fan myself, I enjoyed every sound bite, clip and image Zirin leveraged to open even my eyes to the truth of how the NFL is entrenched in politics while we were nearly blissfully unaware. As a USAF mom, I’m proud of my son’s sacrifice for this country, but even he knows that those sacrifices are what allows athletes who need to kneel, the right to do so. I loved the documentary but more so, I loved watching you soaking it all in like a sponge, the multiple times you watched it. Xoxo

  2. BCole…

    As always, I enjoy the company.

    As you know, I find Zirin to be one of the great sports minds of our generation. Which is why he and I are tight on Twitter.

    Name drops.

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