“Athletes have the power to create social change”

by Mia Rossi

April 4, 2018

Retired NFL Films producer Dave Plaut on his career telling the stories behind the games

A photo of David Plaut
David Plaut Hanna Benavides

“[Athletes are] more than just jocks,” said Olivia Stomski, director of the Newhouse Sports Media Center, as she interviewed retired NFL Films producer Dave Plaut. Plaut spoke with a room of Newhouse students about his career documenting football, why the sport’s history intrigued him and how sports have always been an impetus for social change.

Plaut, a radio, television, and film graduate of Northwestern University, recently retired from NFL Films after 42 years with the production company.

“I always loved telling stories and I always loved sports. I probably watched too many movies and too much TV, but it’s what interested me as a career,” he said. “NFL Films was an opportunity to consolidate movies and sports. It seemed like a natural fit.”

Early on in his career Plaut realized the stories that interested him the most were the stories that delved into the history of the game. “When you’re older, you’re able to look back on things in a nuanced way,” he said. “I like interviewing athletes years after a particular game or event because they can look back on it and be more philosophical, and if it was a bad memory, it doesn’t hurt as much to look back on years later.”

Plaut said he often tried to tie his NFL Films projects to events. “As I became more established I would pitch ideas, or there would be some obvious anniversary or something that happened currently that you could tie to something historical,” he said. “There were also people who would come to us and tell us that they wanted us to do a story on a certain player, game or event, and I would get assigned to it.”

However, producing historical pieces meant that Plaut often had to get creative with how to tell the story since it had been told many times before. “The penultimate film that I worked on before retiring was about the Ice Bowl (the coldest game in NFL history). I had done a show about the Ice Bowl 20 years earlier, but who wants to do the same thing twice?” he said. “Creatively, you want to get to it differently. The second time around I partnered with the son of the losing quarterback who turned 50 the same year the game turned 50. We told the story through his eyes. It was a completely different film than the one that aired 20 years earlier.”

Plaut also said that there are many similarities between how football players have impacted social change historically and how they are impacting social change today. He shared clips from films he had worked on that documented these moments. The first clip from “Full Color Football,” for which Plaut was the show runner, documented African-American football players’ boycott of the American Football League’s all-star game in New Orleans after they experienced racism in the city.

“The boycott led to many positive resolutions later on. Within two years there were laws in Louisiana that helped to end discrimination in the workplace,” Plaut said.

Plaut played a segment from “The Timeline,” a series that included episodes about football coach Vince Lombardi’s acceptance of his gay team members and football players’ protests against the Vietnam War, as well as a clip from “A Football Life,” the story of how African-American NFL player Alan Page went from being a defensive tackle for the Minnesota Vikings to working as an associate justice on the Minnesota Supreme Court.

“In times like today, when people are telling athletes to ‘shut up and dribble,’ it’s important to hear these stories that show how they have the power to make social change,” said senior television, radio and film (TRF) major Erik Benjamin, who attended the event. “Even as a football fan, these were stories I had never heard of, but I think are important to be told.”

Plaut, whose daughter is a senior TRF major at the Newhouse school, also noted the importance of having a career you love. He said he was lucky enough to have this experience at NFL Films. “The greatest thing I could wish for everybody is to get up every morning and be excited about work,” he said. “It’s work. It’s going to be challenging, but it has to be something you are excited about.”

Mia Rossi is a senior broadcast and digital journalism major at the Newhouse School.