Ghosts of Empire, a feature-length documentary essay (in-progress), unpacks the romanticized past of American football to explore its current moment of crisis. The film juxtaposes an analysis of the game’s heroic treatment in the narrative documentaries of NFL Films with a reflection on football’s concussion epidemic and its fallout. It interweaves testimonies of former pros suffering from degenerative brain disease with images and accounts of adolescents playing football today.
We’re myth-makers. We help quench the public’s thirst for heroes.
– Steve Sabol, former NFL Films President
If I could go back, I wouldn’t [play football].
– Antwaan Randle El, retired NFL player
Is the end of football a speculative fiction or an inevitable fact? Ghosts of Empire addresses the existential threat that football’s concussion crisis poses to one of America’s most lucrative entertainment industries, an industry that is almost completely white-owned and administered while relying on a 70% Black workforce. The 2002 discovery of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), the degenerative brain disorder linked to playing football, and the suicides of NFL stars like Junior Seau, who deliberately shot himself in the chest to preserve his brain for medical research, have resulted in more and more players withdrawing from the sport prematurely. Early voluntary retirements are becoming the norm: over the past few seasons dozens of players in their early-to-mid 20s have walked away from the NFL due to mental health concerns. Former players are now speaking out about the traumatic symptoms they’ve experienced in the years after their careers ended. These symptoms include cognitive impairment, impulsive behavior, fits of anger, suicidal thoughts, depression, emotional instability, and memory loss.
Consequently, participation at the youth level is also in decline, as parents steer their children into safer sports. And yet, despite all this professional football remains a wildly popular spectator sport. Most of the highest rated TV programs of 2017 were NFL telecasts. An estimated 103 million Americans tuned into the Super Bowl this past February. 80 million people now participate in fantasy football on an annual basis. Fewer kids are playing the sport – primarily because their parents won’t allow them to – but will Americans ever stop consuming football, even now that we can more fully evaluate the game’s grave costs and health risks? If not, why not? And what are the implications of football’s dwindling middle class participant base? In other words, who will be left to fulfill America’s insatiable desire for football, and what does this reveal about the economic and racial structures of the National League Football?
Answering these questions requires an assessment of the historical and contemporary conditions that produce and govern football’s central place within the American cultural imagination. Using the documentary production outfit NFL Films as a lens, Ghosts of Empire unravels the crafting of American football mythology through a dissection of the company’s pioneering techniques and formula; demonstrating through annotated and remediated film clips how NFL Films’ rhetoric and formal vocabulary have served to obscure the real-life violence of the game. This analysis reveals how NFL Films transformed the brutal reality of football into pure simulation through aestheticization and narrativization, and through the creation of an iconography of superhero-like hypermasculinity, compliant virility, and racial stereotypes that persist today. Contrasted with a deconstruction of the NFL as mediated spectacle, which censors players’ subjectivity and speech (for example, the blackballing of Colin Kaepernick) and suppresses information about the reality of the game’s violence, this film centers the testimonies of those who are most impacted: the players.
The Pittsburgh Foundation and The Heinz Endowments
University of California, Santa Cruz
ghosts.of.empire.film at gmail.com