Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Sports Movies Are Terrible

It should be quite apparent that I'm a pretty huge sports fan. My fall weekends are filled with football first and life second. My homepage is Yahoo! Sports. I use the majority of my coat hangers on jerseys. It would seem to follow naturally that my favorite genre of film would be sports movies. Nothing could be further from the truth. I hate almost all sports movies and don't understand why any real sports fans waste their times with them.

Before I get into it, there are a couple of exceptions to my sports movie ire. First, kids sports movies are awesome. The Sandlot and The Might Ducks movies are classics and should be seen by every sports fan ever. As a kid, these movies help develop our interest in sports. They're inspiring, funny, and entertaining. They have many of the same faults I will be listing later on, but they are given a pass because as a child, our passion for real sports is not as developed as it is as an adult. When you're seven years old, your emotional attachment to a fictional sports team can be stronger than your attachment to your hometown team. This is because the fake team is filled with kids your age and with awesome characters like Benny Rodriguez and Charlie Conway. As a kid, professional sports and theatrical sports are both a distant reality. The use of children in movies allows the movie to be more accessible as youngsters and make enjoyment of these movies perfectly acceptable.

Also, there are sports documentaries. These rule. I have a lot of gripes with ESPN, but their "ESPN Films" series is second to none. Documentaries are supplements to professional sports, not an alternate means of entertainment. They provide additional, behind-the-scenes looks rather than try to falsely imitate sports. TV and movie theaters need more of that. What they don't need more of, however, is all other types of sports movies. They are a waste of time and an insult to the actual sports themselves.

A major reason sports movies almost always fail to live up to their real counterparts is their inability to make me truly care about the "good" team. Hollywood typically tries to get you on the side of the home team by using the underdog narrative. Maybe it's a set of underachieving athletes who were never given a fair chance (The Replacements) or an aging competitor who is looking to prove to the youngsters that he still has it (Rocky Balboa). Typically the only reason I'm given not to cheer for the opposite team is their players look mean, are from a scary far-away place (Iceland, Russia, etc.), and are dressed in dark jerseys. This is not all of Hollywood's fault. They only have 60 minutes to convince you which team is worth rooting for. Reality gives you a lifetime.*

Just consider the storyline of the Detroit Lions. The first act is the 1950s: the successful years. Championships were had, quarterbacks were making Pro Bowls, life was good. However, the second act was filled with terrible, terrible tragedy. For fifty years, the Lions were down on their luck, stuck in a seemingly endless spiral downwards, finally hitting rock bottom in 2008. And there are a multitude of stories like this around the sports universe. You've got the Chicago Cubs, Buffalo Bills, and the entire city of Cleveland. But, unlike movies, you're never quite sure when that third act will kick in; when your team will turn the corner and triumph against all odds. Hell, you're actually never guaranteed to reach that point. But when it happens, it's impossible not to get sucked in by the moment. Even if they weren't your team, it was hard not to root for the New Orleans Saints when they won the Super Bowl in 2009 or when the Florida Marlins took down the Yankees in 2003. Heck, even when the women's US soccer team loss to the Japanese national team months after the tsunami, I couldn't help but be a little happy for Japan.

But sports can just as effectively create villains as well; whether it is the superhero who turned his back on a city or an evil empire led by a hooded monster. Perhaps the best part about sports' ability to create storylines is that it's all subjective. You aren't forced to root for one team. Reality is much less black and white and much more gray. One person, one team, can be the most heinous villain or most honorable hero. Exhibit A:

Reality does a great job creating storylines and their resolutions can happen spontaneously, which brings me to my next point...

Suspense in sports movies doesn't even come close to the real thrill of sports. Chuck Klosterman wrote a very interesting article over at Grantland explaining why he thinks DVRing a sporting event pretty much ruins the viewing experience. One of his better points is that watching after the actual event takes place removes the user from the actual experience. Klosterman explains:
The same thing happens with sports. If you watch a game in person, you're forced to connect with it emotionally (even if you don't want to be there). If you watch it live on television, the network airing the game tries to compensate for your physical distance by maximizing the pertinent details — they shoot the game from the best possible vantage point, they show replays from different perspectives, and they hire announcers to contextualize what you're already seeing. But here's what the networks can't do: They can't make you forget what time it is. They can't trick you into believing that this game is still happening. They can't make you forget that the outcome of the game has been established and that what you're now seeing has been scripted by the rotation of the earth. You know this, and you can't unlearn it.
Obviously, this point goes double for a sports movie. Not only is the game you are watching in a movie already "over", but its entire creation was scripted by a screenwriter. No matter how hard you try, this is an unavoidable truth and has a devastating affect on a movie's ability to create "real" drama. I may not exactly know the outcome of a sports movie, but I'm fairly certain there will be some sort of resolution at the end. And while that doesn't always mean the good team will prevail, it usually means that the good team will succeed in something. Watching a live sporting event, you are not guaranteed that comfort, and that experience alone is exhilarating. Every single game is an adventure where the conclusion is not foregone. This creates an event that is compelling at every turn, knowing that any outcome is a possibility, but also makes a win more satisfying, knowing that success is never guaranteed and always fleeting.

However, there is a genre of sports movies that doesn't really focus on the thrill of the game but rather the moments they exemplify. These are highly regarded as the "best" sports movies. These are your Remember the Titans, The Blind Side, and Bull Durham type of movies. I'm not going to argue that these movies are terrible, rather that they aren't really sports movies.** Sports are just a backdrop to a larger story. Remember the Titans is about racial equality, The Wrestler is about a man trying to find his way in life after the world he knows has been taken from him. These movies are as much about sports as Citizen Kane is about sledding or Taxi Driver is about driving an actual taxi.

This isn't to say you shouldn't enjoy any of these movies, they just aren't for me. Many of these movies aren't even targeted to the devoted sports fan, but rather a more general, broader audience who are likely casual sports fans or not even sports fans at all (see: The Blind Side). Still, every now and then I hear the die-hards debating their favorite silver screen adaptation of the athletic arts. I can never see myself jumping into that argument. I'll take any given Sunday over Any Given Sunday.

*This goes back to my point about children. They have yet to experience the entire history of an organization. They've yet to feel the sting of a terrible loss or the indescribable euphoria of an amazing comeback. They've yet to develop a true emotional attachment to their team. As you get older, you go through more of these emotional events, creating a tighter and tighter bond with the team. 

**This point can also be used for comedic sports movies. Again, sports act as only the background to what makes these movies great. Caddyshack isn't great because it makes golf exciting, it's because Rodney Dangerfield is a genius. One of my favorite comedies of all time, Slap Shot, is great because of it's edginess. In fact, much of the comedy comes from how dull the actual sports action is. 


  1. I read this expecting to have to school you for hating on the Mighty Ducks (greatest sports movie ever. I still make references to it in everyday life). Thankfully, you have common sense.

  2. Yeah, when I saw the pic of Benny Rodriguez under the title sports movies are terrible I almost had a hernia. The sandlot is a truly great movie with lots of good messages that every kid should see.

    My problem with your point is that all the great sports movies fall under the categories you make exceptions for like comedic sports movies or sports movies with a theme larger than story of the team/sport itself. They are often examples of how sports can play a larger role in individual and social progress. They are still sports movies though. It just seems like you are saying sports movies suck, except the really good ones...

  3. I get your point, Anon, but what I don't think I made clear was, while many of the "great" sports movies were good, the actual sports aspects of those movies were not entertaining. I almost always find myself scoffing at the ridiculous portrayal of sports action in movies. It's either overly violent (because, of course, that's the only reason we enjoy watching football) or just plain bad-looking (just watch Keanu Reeves throw a football). That's why movies that focus a lot on the actual game playing, like Any Given Sunday, are typically panned by most people. Movies cannot create the environment and thrill of a sporting event.

  4. I enjoyed your post and I appreciated it. You did a good job. Big thanks for sharing.