Without ever playing a down in the pros, Steve Sabol got millions to fall hard for the NFL. The older you are, the more likely that is.
Before Sabol and his father, Ed, came along in the early 1960s, football looked lost on TV. The players seemed small and faceless, like cogs in a machine. All the histrionics on the sidelines between the plays seemed pointless. Neither the contact on the field nor the crowd in the background produced much above an audible hum. Watching was only slightly more entertaining than playing a board game popular at the time called “Electric Football.” It hummed a lot, too.
Then the Sabols hauled all those cameras and mics down to eye level and occasionally peeked behind the scenes. The modest father-son enterprise that became NFL Films made the game look and sound exactly like the messy, sometimes-noble human enterprise it was.
Just before the snap you heard coaches hollering instructions and often as not afterward, cursing their fate or pleading with the refs. In between, the players wrestled or flew around in a dizzying ballet and then collided, grunting and groaning all the while. By slowing down the action and cranking up the volume, the Sabols revealed a game that was faster, more graceful, much more violent and yet somehow more intricate than most of us imagined.
In lockstep with TV, the NFL began its steady climb to the top of the sports heap, rarely putting a foot down wrong. It merged with the rival AFL and Monday Night Football took off. Great teams and rivalries popped up in every corner of the country.
As word of Steve Sabol's death, at age 69 from brain cancer, reverberated across the league, evidence continued to roll in showing the NFL has never been more popular. Whether measured by revenues, fan interest or television ratings — viewership for the first two weeks of the season set records — the NFL's lead over its competitors is widening.
Yet Tuesday's news was dominated by discussions about the miserable performance of the replacement officials the night before and Commissioner Roger Goodell's running feud with several current and former New Orleans Saints about their role in a highly organized bounty scheme.
The first issue called into question the league's commitment to the integrity of the game and the safety of its players. The way the people in charge have handled the second matter — releasing evidence in piecemeal fashion, and only when forced to — they've only strengthened suspicions they have something to hide. In some ways, the game has rarely seemed more small-minded and distant from the myths Sabol painstakingly created.
As both an all-Rocky Mountain Conference running back and art history major at Colorado College, he seemed uniquely qualified for the work. Sabol wasn't blind to the terrible toll the game extracted, how it broke players' bodies and sometimes later in life, wiped away their memories and worse. He was put off by the commercialism, and troubled by the way players from the past were short-changed by the pension plan.
Mostly, though, he wanted people to see and hear what he did. Sabol would have been delighted to hear the way a friend described his life's work: “Baryshnikov had nothing on John Stallworth leaping for a pass in the end zone when you saw it through the lens of NFL Films.”
What's sad is how recent events have convinced so many people with a stake in the game to lower their gaze. The Ravens-Eagles game had barely ended Sunday before Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco invited a fine by questioning whether the league understood too much was at stake to continue using replacement officials. Earlier in that same game, one of those officials reportedly said to Eagles running back LeSean McCoy, “I need you for my fantasy team.”
By the end of Monday night's Denver-Atlanta game, the officiating was so bad that former quarterback and current ESPN analyst Steve Young tore into the league for locking out the regular officials in the first place and the tone-deaf way it's responded to the mounting criticism since.
“The NFL doesn't care what you think,” Young said more than once, explaining that was because the higher-ups knew fans would tune in to watch games — and money would continue to pour into the league's coffers — no matter who officiated them or how poorly.
That's precisely the kind of arrogance that, in the hands of a filmmaker with Sabol's consummate skill, would have foreshadowed a fall. Here's hoping that the league finds its bearings first, by remembering that no matter how big or complicated the game gets, it's still people that make it go.
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org and follow him at Twitter.com/JimLitke.