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Finally, a big thumbs up

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Some of the films showed too much violence. Others showed too much drug use, too much sex or even too much labor strife. Some just showed, well, too much of everything.

The NFL, always ultra-protective of its image, in the past shunned most films about pro football. The league now, however, has found a movie it can give a thumbs up.

The NFL has wrapped its muscular arms around "Invincible," a Disney-produced film based on the story of Vince Papale, a former bartender and substitute teacher who earned a spot on the Philadelphia Eagles roster in 1976.

"It's an inspirational movie that brings out the best aspects of the game of football," NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy said. "It's a story that a number of fans and players can identify with."

Such kind words for Hollywood from the league are a rarity.

The NFL had not given its seal of approval to a film since 1996's "Jerry Maguire" -- and that movie itself was an exception to many years of rejections. "Jerry Maguire" was a tough look at the world of agents and contract negotiations, but the film generally was not critical of the NFL itself.

"Brian's Song," a made-for-TV movie in 1971 about the friendship between Chicago Bears teammates Brian Piccolo and Gale Sayers, also received the league's approval, using the Bears name and logo and real game footage.

Other films, however, failed to gain league approval -- and the use of NFL team names, logos, game footage, stadiums and current players that approval brings -- because of their unflattering content.

"We're very protective of how our image is used by third parties," McCarthy said. "We're not going to participate in a movie just to get exposure."

Thus, director Oliver Stone in his 1999 epic "Any Given Sunday" was left to create a fictional league, the Associated Football Franchises of America, that included teams such as the Miami Sharks, New York Emperors and Chicago Rhinos.

The NFL refused to cooperate with Stone, citing concern about the film's depiction of violence, drug use, adultery and corruption.

The 2005 film "Two For the Money," starring Al Pacino and Matthew McConaughey, centered on gambling, point spreads and odds making.

Because the filmmakers did not get the cooperation of the league, they were forced to use old USFL footage as a stand-in for NFL games. Teams were referred to primarily by their city names rather than nicknames, and the copyrighted term "Super Bowl" never was used. The climax of the film instead came during "the big game."

The NFL also refused to allow commercials for the film to be shown during broadcasts of its games.

"The Replacements," starring Keanu Reeves, and last year's re-make of "The Longest Yard" with Adam Sandler, likewise did not get permission to use NFL logos.

The league publicly criticized "Playmakers," an original ESPN show that aired in 2003 and depicted drug and steroid use, adultery, domestic abuse and homosexuality among the players on its fictional teams.

ESPN, which broadcasts NFL games, canceled the series under pressure after 12 episodes.

"Invincible," however, is a much more pleasing tale for the NFL.

The league became involved in the film about four years ago, working with Disney to revise and rewrite portions of the script to ensure authenticity. The NFL is not entitled to a share of the film's proceeds but will earn a reported $600,000 up front from Disney.

The league and the Eagles also are heavily involved in promoting the film. They organized a premiere in Philadelphia last night with Papale, Eagles president Joe Banner and actor Mark Wahlberg, who plays Papale in the movie.

The Eagles showed a sneak preview of the film last night. On Sept. 12, the league plans to sponsor a series of screenings at which players will take children to see the movie.

"Our fans are so passionate, and I think that some of them are so moved by the history that this is just what the doctor ordered," Eagles spokeswoman Bonnie Grant said.

The NFL's involvement in "Invincible" underscores just how image-conscious the league has become.

Under commissioner Paul Tagliabue, the league instituted strict penalties for excessive end zone celebrations and revised its policies on halftime shows after an embarrassing "wardrobe malfunction" involving Janet Jackson at the 2004 Super Bowl.

The NFL also coaxed an apology out of ABC in 2004 after the network aired a racy pre-game segment featuring then-Eagles wide receiver Terrell Owens and "Desperate Housewives" actress Nicollette Sheridan.

Critics, however, say the league shouldn't endorse a feel-good movie like "Invincible" and eschew edgier films that, they argue, might provide a more well-rounded representation of the league and its players.

"I don't think the league should be involved," said Todd Boyd, a professor of critical studies at the University of Southern California's School of Cinema. "What the league does and what Hollywood does are two different things. The league doesn't ask Hollywood for help with its games on Sundays."

Boyd used as examples "Any Given Sunday" and "Playmakers," both of which drew the ire of the league for their content but quietly earned praise from some players for their accuracy.

"In those, you get a series of different representations," he said. "In fact, they're the representations you read about. The representations you see in 'Any Given Sunday' are more complex. That film, to me, is actually more compelling."

Still, no one denies the NFL has the right to control how its name and logo are used.

"The NFL has a right to be selective," said Paul Swangard, executive director of the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center at the University of Oregon. "They have more to lose if they put their brand in unfavorable light or outside its comfort zone.

"They've done a great job in the last couple decades building their brand, and they want to control its usage."

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