Behind the Shield: The Power and Politics of the NFL

"Wouldn't you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, you'd say, 'Get that son of a b—- off the field right now. Out! He's fired." — Donald J. Trump, September 2017.

"The players are like cattle, and the owners are ranchers. And the owners can always get more cattle." — Former Dallas Cowboys president Tex Schramm, during the 1987 NFL player's strike.

Since the first years of the 21st Century, David Zirin has been writing, speaking, publishing, and making documentaries about the politics of sports. As the sports editor for The Nation, and through his radio program, podcasts, eye-opening books, and a popular syndicated sports column, The Edge of Sports, Zirin is a people's historian of sport.

Zirin zeroes in on the ongoing legacies of the power, pilfering, and profiteering connecting dots between owners and advertisers, as well as developers, politicians, and the military. Zirin also complicates our understanding of sports and politics with topics ranging from eugenics, race, gender, and gaming, to the health, safety, and everyday lives of athletes and their families. Zirin exposes corporate monopoly sports' graft, greed, and gratuitous violence. He tells stories about athletes' ideas, political perspectives, and awe-inspiring talent.

All of Zirin's books should be made into documentaries. Two, so far, have. Not Just a Game – Power, Politics & American Sports, Media Education Foundation, released in 2011, is based on the book A People's History of Sports.

On September 7, 2022, Zirin and director and editor, Jeremy Earp released, Behind the Shield: The Power and Politics of the NFL. The video of the Trump quote above is the opening scene.

"Digging deep into the history of the league and navigating a stunning excavation of decades of archival footage and news media, Zirin traces how the NFL, under the guise of "sticking to sports," has promoted wars, militarism, and nationalism; glorified reactionary ideas about manhood and gender roles; normalized systemic racism, corporate greed, and crony capitalism; and helped vilify challenges to the dominant order as "unpatriotic" and inappropriately 'political.' The result is a case study not only in the power of big-time sports to disseminate stealth propaganda and reinforce an increasingly authoritarian status quo, but also the power of athletes to challenge this unjust status quo and model a different, more democratic vision of America."

David Phillips writes in Awards Daily, "A blistering documentaryBehind the Shield does an incredible job of showing how the NFL closes ranks to prevent any change that might affect its bottom line by alienating its white-majority, hyper-masculine audience. It knows that violence sells, so for years the NFL ignored and suppressed evidence that the repeated blows to the head sustained by players during games and practices had been linked to CTE (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy), a neurodegenerative disease with a long list of debilitating symptoms."

Sports and politics have always been deeply intertwined; Zirin reminds us time and again, with grace and eloquence, fire in the word. The aggressive, deeply theorized, and stubborn willful ignorance, denial, and disavowal about those connections between sports and politics, gaming and power, profit and violence continue to poison the play and joy of sport. Yet, there has always been resistance, refusal, and renewal from athletes and fans that do not agree with the profit-margin politics and the commodification of bodies that dominate not on the NFL.

Here are a few of Zirin's titles for over two decades: What's My Name, Fool? Sports and Resistance in the United States; Muhammad Ali Handbook; The John Carlos Story: The Sports Moment That Changed the World; and Brazil's Dance with the Devil: The World Cup, the Olympics, and the Fight for Democracy.

In 2021, Zirin published The Kaepernick Effect: Taking a Knee, Changing the World. Not focusing directly on Colin Kaepernick, "Through extensive interviews with high school and college students around the country, the bulk of The Kaepernick Effect is dedicated to understanding how young people were inspired to launch a social movement from below."

He is also co-authored, with former NFL player Michael Bennett, the New York Times bestseller Things That Make White People Uncomfortable.

" Zirin has brought his blend of sports and politics to multiple television programs including ESPN's Outside the Lines, MSNBC's Morning Joe, CNN, and Democracy Now! with Amy Goodman. He has also been on numerous national radio programs from sports radio to National Public Radio's Tell Me More, Talk of the Nation, and All Things Considered. Zirin has also been an advisor to filmmakers ranging from Ken Burns to Ang Lee and has appeared in a number of documentaries. He also produced a segment on the forthcoming Showtime documentary about Dr. Harry Edwards. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, the New York Daily News, New York Newsday, the Baltimore Sun, the Pittsburgh Courier, and many other publications."

As always, in a provocative and insite-ful manner, Zirin continues taking on Goliath.

Behind the Shield [Vimeo]