How the NFL conquered America and why it matters

“After watching Behind the Shield, I now believe that you cannot understand this country without understanding NFL football. I will be showing this film in my classes FOR THE REST OF MY LIFE.”
— Robin D.G. Kelley, Professor and Chair of History, UCLA


Love it or hate it, there’s no denying the unrivalled popularity and staggering cultural influence of NFL football in the U.S.

Last week Nielsen released its annual TV ratings data, and NFL games accounted for an astounding 93 of the top 100 most-watched US broadcasts of 2023, including a mind-boggling 24 of the top 25 most-watched programs. Astonishingly, even as audiences across the rest of the media landscape have fragmented into ever-smaller demographic bubbles, the NFL has managed to command attention and widen and deepen its hold on the collective American imagination like no other cultural form.

The result is a multibillion-dollar corporate leviathan and brand behemoth that wields more cultural and political influence than perhaps any other media product in the nation – and in many ways has become synonymous with America itself.

If you’re an educator looking to help your students make sense of the cultural power and politics of the National Football League – especially as the NFL playoffs get set to kick off this weekend – be sure to check out our bestselling film Behind the Shield. In the film, acclaimed Nation magazine writer Dave Zirin excavates a stunning media archive that goes back decades to show how, at different points in U.S. history, the NFL has simultaneously reflected and shaped dominant ideas around everything from American militarism, war, and nationalism to manhood, gender, and power, to systemic racism and corporate greed. In this way, Behind the Shield is less a film about sports, football, or even the National Football League, than about how we see ourselves as a nation.

Behind the Shield is now streaming on Kanopy through university and public libraries. (See if your university has access to Kanopy here.) If you don’t have access to Kanopy, you can also get the film directly through MEF in multiple streaming formats and on DVD.



“Behind the Shield is about so much more than football – it is about us and where we are as a nation and what lies ahead. If you love football, watch this film. If you care about justice, watch this film!”
— Eddie S. Glaude Jr. | Head of African American Studies at Princeton University

Behind the Shield  is terrifying and brilliant. After watching it, I now believe that you cannot understand this country without understanding NFL football. I will be showing this film in my classes FOR THE REST OF MY LIFE.”
— Robin D.G. Kelley | Professor and Chair of History, UCLA

Behind the Shield convincingly demonstrates that football is indeed the most American sport, then deftly deconstructs just what that Americanness implies. There is the brutality of racism, violence, militarism, and hypermasculinity, but also the courageous resistance and unyielding commitment of those who love America enough to, as James Baldwin wrote, ‘insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.’”
— Melissa Harris-Perry | The Maya Angelou Presidential Chair at Wake Forest University

“Dave Zirin is one of the foremost thought leaders on the intersection between sports, race, and politics. In Behind the Shield, his thoughtful critiques of the most powerful brand in sports are both necessary and patriotic.”
— Jemele Hill | Sports Journalist, Contributing Writer, The Atlantic

“You may not care about football—but [this] riveting documentary reminds us that we have a stake in understanding how powerful the NFL is in shaping our country, culture, and politics. A must-watch.”
— Katrina vanden Heuvel | Editorial Director & Publisher, The Nation

“A provocative, eye-opening documentary that upends conventional wisdom. You may not agree with everything in [this film]. But it will compel you to ponder, deeply.”
— Ken Auletta | Media Critic for The New Yorker

“Provocative and unflinching, Behind the Shield is not just about the NFL, but about who we are as Americans. This documentary is long overdue.”
— Julie DiCaro | Sports Journalist, Author, Sidelined: Sports, Culture & Being a Woman in America

“Outstanding! Exposes the heart of the menacing partnership between the NFL and the military-industrial complex. Watch this documentary, and then share it. The stakes are too high not to.”
— Rory Fanning | Author, Former U.S. Army Ranger who served with Pat Tillman in Afghanistan

“An exceptional expose of why American football fans’ and the NFL’s demand that we shouldn’t insert ‘politics in sports’ is itself so political. A must-watch.”
— Soraya Chemaly | Author, Rage Becomes Her: The Power of Women’s Anger

Behind the Shield offers a stark portrait that compels viewers to consider the power, pitfalls, and possibilities of the NFL’s continued cultural impact.”
— Amira Rose Davis | Professor of African and African Diaspora Studies at the University of Texas-Austin, Co-host of the “Burn it All Down” podcast

“An indispensable educational resource for our perilous political times. Whether you love professional football or hate it, if you want your students to understand how the sports/entertainment industry shapes dominant ideology, this film is your new best friend.”
— Jackson Katz, Ph.D. | Author, Creator of the award-winning Tough Guise video series

“Don’t miss this grand documentary!! David Zirin is the most brilliant and courageous sports intellectual in America!”
— Dr. Cornel West | Author, Race Matters