What the NFL Won't Show You

Understanding the biggest controversy of this pro football season



This NFL season a new controversy has emerged among pro football fans: a growing resentment over the content the NFL and the networks won't share with the television audience. Call it the great All 22 Controversy of 2011. Media as varied as the Wall Street Journal, major sports blogs like Deadspin, even social commentary sites like the Good Men Project, and untold numbers of bloggers and commenters have all weighed in on this issue. But whether the NFL should or shouldn't allow fans to see certain footage is secondary to why they aren't showing it and what this says about us. So, what is All 22?

When we watch football on TV, the networks tend to follow the ball, showing us only the immediate action around it. There are brief "establishing" shots of a larger area of the field, usually just before the ball is snapped, but mostly we are treated to a variety of medium and tight shots from various tracking cameras. With this footage we get to see stunning acts of athleticism up close, and feel the intensity and speed of the action around the ball. What we don't get to see is much of the game itself. "All 22," on the other hand, is the term for the game tape created by cameras in fixed positions perched high enough in the rafters of stadiums to show all 22 football players on the field at the same time. The players look tiny, you can't see expressions on their faces, and you really have to pay attention to follow where the ball is. But because it enables you to see every player on every play it's incredibly valuable footage to anyone interested in the complex gamesmanship of an NFL contest. Every man on the field, on every single play, has specific choreographed assignments that he's following based on the play called.

Coaches rely on this footage so they can see who got open, who didn't, who blew their assignments, who made a spectacular block down field - in short, nearly everything not seen by the TV audience. The All 22 is valuable to serious fans as well because it generally provides the reason why the ball goes where it goes—it gives context to the main narrative we're shown at home. As the Journal piece quotes coaching legend Bill Parcells, "'I don't think you can get a full understanding without watching the entirety of the game,' The zoomed-in footage on TV broadcasts, he says, only shows a 'fragment' of what happens on the field."

If you're a casual fan you won't likely care about this context. But if you're a fanatic, the way an indie film buff clamors for the director's cut, you want to see this footage. This analogy brings us to the crux of the issue about why football aficionados are upset that they are not able to see the All 22 footage, and more interestingly, why the NFL (thus far) has refused to release it.

When Reed Albergotti of the Journal asked the league if he could see the All 22, NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy replied tersely, "NO ONE gets that." Another league spokesman noted that the footage "is regarded at this point as proprietary NFL coaching information." In our release everything era of Wikileaks, bands giving songs for free, and shows like Real Time with Bill Maher promoting their extended versions online, the NFL is hoarding this content. Why? One speculation, made in the Journal piece, is that it would open the players and teams up to more criticism by ill-informed pseudo experts: "Charley Casserly, a former general manager who was a member of the NFL's competition committee, says he voted against releasing All 22 footage because he worried that if fans had access, it would open players and teams up to a level of criticism far beyond the current hum of talk radio. Casserly believed fans would jump to conclusions after watching one or two games in the All 22, without knowing the full story." This argument positions the coaches and few other insiders with access to the All 22 as a group of Nietzschean ubermenschen, the only beings capable of possessing this powerful truth.

A second speculation too assumes the NFL fears a cottage industry of critics, though it approaches this position from the opposite side. As Aaron Gordon in the Good Men piece notes, rather than pseudo experts, "We would all be experts. . . The networks extract a lot of value from airing live games, but they extract even more from all the programming they air about the games." Gordon goes on to mention the countless hours of coverage not only of football but about football on the endless sports shows aired on ESPN and the networks. His point is that the networks' and the NFL's interest is in keeping us ignorant so we'll keep tuning in to the experts to explain everything to us. While coming from different angles, both speculations, however, do hit on the NFL's mission of maintaining control. Though, I argue, this desire for control has little to do with a fear of creating an ill- or over-informed army of critical fans.

Here is the main reason they don't release the All 22: The NFL and the networks don't want us to experience football as a game, but as a hyper-real production of a game, in the way war movies are hyper-real versions of war. In a (non-documentary) war or military movie, while there may be a few establishing shots of the battle-field, more often than not the camera is tight on the soldiers' faces, on the guns, or there are medium shots of a handful or less of men. Can you imagine watching a ten-minute battle scene all done from a zoomed-out fixed camera on a crane? No. It's not done because what tends to really grip us as viewers are the people and individual, easily observable physical acts and dramas. Pearl Harbor, Braveheart, Saving Private Ryan: not one of these blockbusters would work without all those tight shots on the leading men's faces and close or medium shots of the action in the sea, on the field or in the air.

The broad context that the All 22 provides would detract from the narrative created by the shot choices and cuts chosen by the director of the televised coverage. Like their movie biz cousins, the network executives know that the most engaging entertainment for the vast majority of the audience is one centered not on strategy but on basic narrative - following the ball; spectacle—in your face hits and athletic prowess; and human connection—closeups on the players', coaches', even the fans' faces, none of which is aided by complexity. TV coverage takes another page from the movies playbook - special effects. From John Madden's introduction of thetelestrator in the 80s to the yellow virtual first-down line, while effects like these ostensibly are there to aid the viewer in understanding and following more of the game, ultimately they dazzle us with their technology, which is less about knowledge and more about amplifying the spectacle.

The networks haven't eliminated wide, static shots that show all the players, and the commentators, dating back to Madden's aforementioned telestrator, write on the screen periodically during the game to explain various schemes. They recognize that the intellectual component of the game is a big draw. But it's not the heart of what engages most of us on our most primal levels. I have no memory whatsoever of what the military conflict was about at the apex of Top Gun, but the image of Tom Cruise's eyes peering through his helmet's visor while inside the cockpit is indelible.

Though Gordon in his Good Men Project piece laments being kept in the dark from the "real, beautiful NFL," leaving out certain information is what keeps us, or at least many of us, engaged. Every film, every novel, every magazine feature has an editor trimming away extra information, that while possibly interesting, even enlightening, detracts from the narrative thrust. Making the All 22 available separately wouldn't alter the standard televised coverage but it would give us too much information that may eventually alter this carefully crafted and controlled experience of watching the game. Perhaps Gordon is right, the NFL does want to keep us ignorant but not because they fear we'll become overly critical but because they fear with too much knowledge we'll become bored with the whole enterprise.

Considering most NFL stadiums hold roughly 60,000 to 80,000 people and live broadcasts draw on average nearly 18 million viewers (not to mention the Giants' last playoff game, which drew 57 million), perhaps the real game isn't the live event on the field at all but the one experienced on TV screens. It's not unreasonable to think of football primarily as a mediated event, and secondarily as a live event for fans in the stands. In fact, this is how more of our lives are experienced now. Nearly all big events today that ostensibly exist as a live event are actually shows put on for a mediated audience. This of course is true for televised sporting events, but also for personal events like a child's play or the opening of presents Christmas morning. If the dad spends the whole time watching through the viewfinder or on LCD screen on the back of his camera, that is his experience the event. The children are reduced to actors in dad's production. Think not? What about when he asks his son to "repeat what you just said" or "do that again—I didn't get it on camera"? With cameras on phones that are always with us, and every mundane action a potential tweet or Facebook update, our lives are increasingly lived in service to the recorded versions of them. The fans in the audience of a football game are there experiencing the event, but they are also actors for the show. It's not an accident that a group of people staring blankly at the field or eating a hot dog or texting someone immediately smile and wave or belt out "We're number one!" if they notice the camera is on them. Intentioned or not, when you shell out $100 to sit in the stands you are paying to be an actor playing a fan. The next time you're at a game note how many people are watching the jumbo screens rather than the live action on the field itself. Fans at live games recognize the power of the close-ups and focused on-the-ball narrative the televised version offers. It's that version, that document, that feels more engaging, more real than the physical people on the field in front of them.

Just as a movie is ultimately a director's product more than the writer's, a football game is the network's production, not the players'. A scene that ends up on the cutting room floor is not part of the feature film; if the move a player makes isn't shown on screen, it's invisible to the audience and not part of the show, not part of the narrative.

The All 22 is a dialogue-heavy indie film, and the regular TV broadcast of a game is a Hollywood war epic. There will always be people who want the raw realism and complex layers of plot, but most people want the glitz and explosions of a summer blockbuster, easy storyline and all. And in crafting, controlling, and perpetuating this televised version, the NFL and the networks are in fact showing, whether some of us like it or not, the real game.