In the new documentary Behind the Shield: The Power & Politics of the NFL created by Dave Zirin, the trailblazing sports writer and journalist for The Nation magazine breaks down the idea of such an ingrained cultural phenomenon as American football while dissecting the NFL for all its bitter contradictions and failures. From understanding why jets fly over stadiums before games to why the second ever Black coach was only hired in 1989, Zirin dives into the odious history that defines the sport today.
Zirin joins host Robert Scheer on Scheer Intelligence this week to further dive into some of the crucial yet often overlooked history of not only football, but sports in general in the United States. Zirin, as a sports fan himself, understands the hype and understands why millions and even billions tune in to watch their favorite teams battle it out on the field, pitch, court or diamond. That very passion and excitement, however, is exactly what is exploited from fans and Zirin says this is “why the platform is so heavily policed and why so much care is taken by the people who really run sports—the billionaire owners—to make sure that that platform is not used to speak about things that can either interrupt the profit machine or challenge their own right wing politics. And they're acutely aware of how strong that platform is and how powerful that platform is.”
As for the NFL specifically, Zirin emphasizes that the integration of politics did not start in 2016 with Colin Kaepernick kneeling during the national anthem, but rather has been a backbone of the sport and business since its inception. “...The league has been political for decades. Whether you're talking about the militarism that exploded after 9/11, whether you're talking about the militarism during the Vietnam War period that the league happily attached itself to…They had formal relationships with the Pentagon about how they should be used for recruiting and for morale, both in Vietnam and then in the post-9/11 period,” Zirin says.
The details that surround the racism, classism, sexism and any other forms of bigotry that were part of the foundation of many franchises often elude fans. But Zirin says once you start asking and answering these important questions and addressing the contradictions, “it really is like pulling the string on a sweater as it slowly unravels and you start learning a lot more about power, about bigotry, about exploitation. It unfurls itself in front of you. But at the same time, how do [the leagues] survive if they're so blatantly hypocritical and paradoxical and all the rest of it? They survive because of a compliant media.”