Though he is undergoing treatment for a brain tumor, Steve continues to work, with the help of the well-oiled machine he and his father built – up to 340 employees strong during football season, 240 during the down months. They produce 600-plus hours of original programming each year, including HBO's NFL reality series Hard Knocks, in addition to providing footage to more than 150 media outlets every week during the season. Several years ago, they branched into non-football entertainment, making commercials, feature-length films for the History Channel, even music videos.
Their rise to this level of success has not been without controversy, however. Despite – or perhaps because of – the Sabols' dedication to artistry, the company has recently come under some scrutiny, cited in a lawsuit filed last June by more than 2,500 former NFL players accusing the league of promoting violence that endangers players' health. The suit alleges, in part, that NFL Films "has created numerous highlight features that focus solely on the hardest hits that take place on the football field," and that such films "urge players at every level of the game to disregard the results of violent head impacts." (It's not an entirely new claim. As far back as 1999, Sports Illustrated called NFL Films "perhaps the most effective propaganda organ in the history of corporate America.") As the issue of concussions continues to plague the league, it's a charge that could gain momentum.
Both Sabols reject the idea that their films glorify brutality. "Football is a violent game, and anyone who says otherwise is falsifying what they like about it," says Ed, who retired to Phoenix in 1995 and was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2011.
"We've always believed in portraying football like Hollywood portrays fiction, with a dramatic flair," adds Steve. "To dramatize something doesn't mean that you're glorifying it."
Perhaps not, but NFL Films' particular style of dramatization has certainly led many of the league's legion fans to view their favorite sport with rose-colored glasses. ESPN anchor Chris Berman, who hosts the network's Sunday NFL Countdown, pinpoints the romantic appeal of NFL Films to its ability to make fans feel as though they're on the field. "Before NFL Films, TV was all shot from far away, essentially sitting in the upper deck of the stadium," Berman says. "Nobody had brought the sights and sounds, let alone the drama, of pro football right into living rooms like that. NFL Films brought the players and the action to life."
And while the game's ravages may harm players in the present day, the truth is that NFL Films preserves them in their glory – a fate some don't find so terrible. As John Madden once put it, "If you're in NFL Films, you're immortal."
[Editors' note: On Tuesday, September 18, 2012, Steve Sabol passed away in Morristown, New Jersey.]