Examining American football and its flaws through film

Meagan Elizabeth García, Arts & Culture Editor

“Colin in Black & White” follows football quarterback and American civil rights activist Colin Kaepernick and his experiences with racism that occurred in his personal and professional life. Photo courtesy of Netflix Press Release.

According to a History article and a recent Gallup poll, American football is the number one sport in the United States and has been since the mid 1960s. Whether people are watching from the stands or streaming from their devices at home, football is the most widely broadcast sport in the country.  

Despite this, the National Football League (NFL) continues to lose viewership and ratings as more is revealed about the organization and the sport itself. Presenting any film or print criticism on American football can be incredibly difficult considering the sheer corporate size and power of the NFL and its mass following. 

Still, there are creators who care about football, its players and the community’s general culture and work hard to produce pieces of work that constructively criticize certain aspects or foundations of the sport.  

From racism and sexism to homophobia and physical and mental health issues, here are some of the best documentaries, series and TV specials that investigate discrimination and neglect within American football at every level and within the NFL. 

A Football Life” is a documentary series that originally aired in 2011 on the NFL Network and was developed by NFL films. Each episode covers the lives of different players, coaches, teams and owners. Since the production and distribution of this content is provided by the NFL, the angle on certain stories can be more positively driven than the reality of the situation. 

Within this series there is one episode that covers the extremely successful but ultimately fear-ridden life of Washington Commanders’ tight end Jerry Smith.  

In season three, episode 21 of this documentary series, Smith’s achievements are highlighted but his struggles as a closeted gay man are discussed simultaneously. Smith played in a sport that is typically portrayed as homophobic. The show displayed how he worked hard to reach a successful point in his life but was in constant fear of the repercussions he could suffer should he be outed.  

He played for the Washington Commanders during a heavily intolerant period. The end of his time with the NFL directly coincided with the beginning of the AIDS epidemic, making coming out and wanting acceptance an incredibly difficult act. 

This episode of the documentary series presents a great reflection of how American football and the culture surrounding it can affect certain minorities working within the sport. This series is available to watch on the NFL Network. 

Colin in Black & White” is an autobiographical limited fictionalized drama that was released on Netflix in 2021. The show follows Colin Kaepernick from adolescence to adulthood and focuses on the racism that is prevalent on a personal and professional level in his life. 

The show should be watched with the context of what Kaepernick experienced in 2016 when he took a knee during the national anthem in a stance against police brutality and oppression in the U.S. This blatant act of protest brought an onslaught of anger from people within the NFL and the media on a national scale. 

This makes the show incredibly more impactful knowing that Kaepernick finally gets to speak on this issue that so deeply affected his career and personal life. 

While the drama mainly follows different instances of racial discrimination that Kaepernick endured throughout his childhood and in younger athletic environments, he highlights how the things he loved most were not created with his interest in mind as they were founded on the ideals of white supremacy.  

Kaepernick narrates significant moments in his life where he learns to love himself and persevere despite the standards and hurdles that have been set for marginalized groups, specifically Black Americans, in this country. 

The series is composed of six episodes that show Kaepernick’s struggle with racial discrimination but also the beauty and pride he feels for himself and his culture. 

A League of Denial: The NFL’s Concussion Crisis” is a documentary that came out in 2013 about how the NFL tried to conceal any trace of correlation between playing football and the impact of head trauma on athletes’ brain health. 

Throughout the length of this documentary, viewers are shown multiple interviews with retired players, coaches, agents and other big names in the American football industry who share their own opinions on the severity of the concussion crisis within the NFL. 

There are also interviews with experts in neuroscience and accredited neuropathologists who had first-hand experience in discovering and diagnosing former NFL players with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). 

Most notably though, there is an interview with Dr. Bennet Omalu, who was the first to publish his findings on CTE after performing an autopsy on Pittsburgh Steeler center Mike Webster. This is significant considering how ostracized and denounced Omalu was after his efforts to make NFL players aware of the adverse effects of repeated concussions and brain trauma. 

The documentary emphasizes that despite the incriminating evidence on the prevalence of CTE in these athletes, many people with powerful positions in the NFL completely refute these claims in the interest of continuing to capitalize on football. 

The entire piece highlights how this massive corporation still willfully puts people in harm’s way by manipulating information being released to the public because they hold fear that this knowledge will cause severe financial losses for them or bring down the sport altogether. This documentary is available to watch on pbs.org or on YouTube. 

American football is a sport that is culturally significant to many people across the country, but these pieces of media do a fantastic job of creating awareness and sparking conversations on the flaws within the sport itself and the corporations backing it. 

Meagan Garcia is the arts & culture editor and may be reached at [email protected]