The Dark Side of Sports on Film: A Roundtable Discussion


    In observance of this week’s wider release of Bennett Miller’s hotly anticipated Foxcatcher, a few of our writers got together to talk the politics and larger implications of the American sports movie.

    Dominick Mayer (DM): Foxcatcher is coming out at a weird, completely appropriate moment in pop culture. Scrutiny against organized sports and the social mentalities they engender is at a years-long high right now. In context of incidents like the Ray Rice tape and the continuing steroid trials in baseball, it feels appropriate that a true-life story about the seedy side of Olympic wrestling would hit theaters. And it doesn’t hurt that Foxcatcher touches explicitly on the “manifest destiny” mentality held high by sports culture, one that’s prevailed for … well, centuries.

    There’s a sequence early in the film in which Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) gives the most hollow speech imaginable to an auditorium roughly a third full of disinterested grade school students, all full of half-cooked nationalistic idealism. It’s a movie that’s stuck with me for weeks now, in part because of how current it feels for a mid-’80s period piece. So, hey, while we’re on the topic: What are some of your favorite depictions of sports at its nastiest and most cinematically dissected?


    Blake Goble (BG): Man, Foxcatcher sounds like a beautiful bummer. What’s also interesting about it is that it’s an outright cynical film that acts as a sort of sports film devil to Bennett Miller’s reluctant angel, Moneyball.

    I have to share this. My brother’s been a lifelong Michigan college football fan. So was my former roommate, and he played cornerback for years (not at U of M). Me? Whatever. (Go Bears.) Both of them are about ready to pack it in after this current season, not just because of the team’s record, but because in watching a young Michigan athlete get put back out on the field with a concussion last month, they finally found their last straw with the gladiator sport. It saddens me that they can’t enjoy the game the same way they used to, but 2014’s been a watershed moment for the gridiron. “We gotta get it right”? Nice try, Goodell. The movies have been getting it right for years.

    Sports flicks can be inspirational and moving at their best. They can also reflect on the sad truths that come with our favorite games. Sports are easily capable of being vicious, aggressive, shameless, and above all, lucrative. The Set-Up taught me the sad truths of how easy it is to rig and narrativize a bout. Friday Night Lights (book, movie, even that soapy show) illustrated the economic and educational implications of football. Spike Lee’s He Got Game showed how shady recruiting is and what the business of college looks like. And of course, the nastiest sports film I know? Oh, definitely Slap Shot for me, with its throwing punches before the game even starts and tin-foiling knuckles. At least it’s funny in that it mocks bloodsport. Sports are full of goons and crooks if any of these flicks are any indication.


    Gone are the Invincible and Remember the Titans representations of football. For example, Ridley Scott’s Scott Free production company is in the process of developing a film about the NFL’s head injury problem (complete with Will Smith attached and Luke Wilson starring as Roger Goodell). I’ll be curious to see what it has to say about modern athleticism at any cost.

    Justin Gerber (JG): My desire to see Any Given Sunday arose due to my then-love for Oliver Stone, as well as my curiosity about seeing Al Pacino play the head coach of an in-all-but-name NFL team. It was closer to Natural Born Killers than Platoon from an editing standpoint, but I don’t think I fully appreciated just how ahead of its time the movie truly was. For example, the montage in which “Steamin’” Willie Beamen adorns the cover of Sports Illustrated a couple weeks into being named a starter for the Miami Dolphins … err … Sharks. I remember my confusion over the film’s timeline and how ridiculous it seemed that he would have gained such fame and recognition so fast. Cut to over a decade later when then-Knicks point guard Jeremy Lin was on the cover of Sports Illustrated not once, but twice! No one knew who he was at the beginning of that NBA season, but he’s proven to be just an adequate point guard in the league.

    It was an indictment not only of sports journalism, but journalism in general – hoping to be the first to latch onto potential despite the real fact that such potential may have peaked before you went to print. Other scandals the film picks up on went as widely unnoticed then as steroids in baseball did near the turn of the century. There are scenes featuring concussion repercussions, wild off-field behavior, and questionable medical decisions by team doctors. These have been covered in greater detail over the past decade than they were in the century preceding Any Given Sunday. It shows that Stone can be great when he sticks to the facts instead of questioning them ad nauseum.


    As for the quality of the movie, I still enjoy it quite a bit. Again, I’m partial to the game of football and thought the in-game direction did a great job of putting you right in the middle of the action. It ended up launching Jamie Foxx’s dramatic career, had a great score, and included one of my favorite pep talks/rallying cries in all of movies: “Inches”, scored by The Band’s Robbie Robertson. “There’s six inches in front of your face!” Dom, to circle back to you, what’s a nasty-sports film favorite of yours?

    DM: For me, I want to jump ship from real sports to “fake” sports for just a second. If you’ve ever met me online or in real life, it probably doesn’t take all that long to figure out that I’m a huge professional wrestling fan, as entertainment and as a storytelling/artistic medium alike. It’s as physical a contest in its own way as any organized sport, and thus when I’m talking about the dark side of sports, I’d be remiss if I didn’t land on Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler. Setting aside Mickey Rourke’s once-in-a-lifetime performance as Randy “The Ram” Robinson, the film is most powerful when it’s chronicling the lives we don’t get to see from our athletes, the ones they have to live when they’ve been at it since they were old enough to choose it and are starting to break down. It’s haunting, watching Robinson struggle to ably complete his day job or wrestle a gymnasium circuit match without collapsing and dying on the spot.

    But to me, like the best sports films do, The Wrestler simultaneously shows esteem for the thing it’s chronicling and doesn’t flinch at the darker underpinnings of its industry. And that’s true even when there’s quite a bit of the latter on display. If the NFL is a circus, professional wrestling is a carnival, an industry still predominantly run by hucksters of various kinds to this day. The Wrestler highlights just how little there is for somebody who makes their livelihood in such a niche profession after their prime days are over and how hard it is for them to let it go. Consider the heartbreaking scene in which Robinson has a young neighbor over to play NES games and how bored and disinterested the kid ends up being in what were and likely will remain the long-gone, halcyon days of his life. It’s something you hear about constantly: broken-down athletes working the baseball card circuit to make ends meet and be looked at as heroes, for even a few more minutes.


    Another thing I really admire about The Wrestler is the raw physicality of it. When Robinson ends up doing CZW deathmatches, Aronofsky forces you into the ring and lingers over every thumbtack embedded in his body. And even when he does a nostalgia appearance for Ring of Honor near the end, one that needs him to do little more than preen for the crowd and hit his famous spots, he can barely muster the energy to stand upright, and every slap or pulled punch is agonizing to watch from an audience perspective. But that’s the thing about the movies we’re talking about: They chronicle the side of sports we don’t see, the one where we just cheer for the larger-than-life heroes before us.

    BG: Dom, I also found The Wrestler really touching for all the same reasons you did, and yeah, Rourke, giving that total, physical performance just makes you want to break down. Rourke’s casting even added that little bit of real-life context, what with his failed boxing career in the ‘90s. And I totally agree! It may have a hard-edged, barb-wired, indie-cold veneer, but beneath it all is a misshapen and strongly beating heart. The Wrestler knows all the horrors of the sport, yet “The Ram” endures. That’s its secret weapon: overcoming the odds. Yes, that could be said of every single sports flick ever made, but when an athlete takes on the meanest odds. I’m not talking about the damn Cobra Kai or your generic black-and-hued pee-wee team of rich kids. Forget teamwork or discipline or any of that Disney shit. I’m talking about the guys who face off against the system (Hoop Dreams, Million Dollar Baby), who struggle with ego and pride (Raging Bull, This Sporting Life), who are looking to prove something, regardless of how selfish or naïve their dreams may be (Breaking Away). Despite the inspirational cues of sports as a film genre, it’s rooted in base urges, yet the genre’s special in how we can ignore much of that come the final game/match/whatever.

    Perhaps one of my favorite sports films, which embraces all of that, is Robert Wise’s The Set-Up. Rooted in ‘40s noir, the movie comes on mean and ends swinging. Robert Ryan plays Stoker, a boxer, and more recognizably, a fall guy. He’s an over-the-hill patsy taking dives for money, a grown loser. Yet the guy, despite being a bit of a bum, knows he can still win. He’s got something left, and he’s tired of being the butt of everyone’s jokes. Wise brilliantly sets the film up as a crime story about a dubious guy desperate for dough, yet when he comes on in the last act … it resembles every other sports film, but it arrives amidst such degenerates and desperation that you really believe in sport as an art of vindication and redemption. You get knocked out by this guy’s struggles, and forget that boxing is a head-damaging prize fight for a brief moment.


    JG: So far we’ve discussed films that highlight the less-than-family-friendly stories of athletes both during and after the prime of their careers. I’d like to discuss a film whose producers actually marketed it as family-friendly, light years away from Rourke’s beaten face or Ryan’s desperation. The film I wish to discuss, gentlemen, features no drugs, no gambling, no strippers, no blood, but is based around an idea so dark that we as adults could never see it. Only a 13-year-old boy could. The film in question … is 1994’s Angels in the Outfield.

    I can’t say that I’ve seen the original 1951 film (which follows a fan of the Pittsburgh Pirates), but I can only assume in that movie that God hates every team in the National League except for the Pirates. In 1994, a young boy prays to God for the Angels to win the American League pennant (mainly because that’s when his father says they’ll become a family again. Yeesh.). And guess what? God answers! Before you know it, the Angels are winning games left and right. Is this down to actual talent? Absolutely not. It’s all thanks to the ghost/angel of Christopher Lloyd’s Al and his long-dead buddies. They lift players a little higher to catch otherwise uncatchable fly balls. They push them to slide faster, hit harder, and even adjust foul poles to favor them.

    What have these other teams done to besmirch the name of God that would lead the man in the sky to rain losses and high scores upon them? Or are these “angels” a renegade group that was cast down from Heaven centuries ago and are setting out to ruin the great national pastime? After all, Lloyd’s eerie, grinning face shows up in a kid’s soda early on. Would you trust this angel or run shrieking to the stadium parking lot? I would go with the latter. Long story short, kids learn that praying real hard will compensate for a lack of talent and overrule good sportsmanship. Dark indeed.

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    BG: And here I was, all complacent about Doc Brown and Murtaugh havin’ a laugh at the expense of a young and confused Matthew McConaughey. But that’s interesting, Justin – divine intervention trumps talent, all in the name of a little kid that obtusely thinks it’ll bring his deadbeat dad back. Come to think of it, Field of Dreams is selfish too inasmuch as a dippy farmer enables his father to cheat death for a moment, all for a sentimental game of catch. Or what about God’s divine plan for Rudy Ruettiger to play for a quarter in his desperate need to be part of Notre Dame’s team of Touchdown Jesuses? (Jesi?) Let’s not get too far down this particular road, but faith-based productions like Facing the Giants or When the Game Stands Tall seem to imply that prayer means higher percentages at the end of the season. This isn’t meant to bash the cloth, but rather to question the over-simplification of sports, thematically. Winning and goals and self-satisfaction. The sports drama really asks us to overlook the more dubious messages.

    If pushed, I could argue that all sports films are about selfishness. The Blind Side can be viewed as nothing more than an absolution of white guilt. Million Dollar Arm, this past summer, was a glorified business deal about an opportunistic agent. The Natural is about Robert Redford’s messiah complex, but it took me a minute to realize that once I stopped humming Randy Newman’s all-American score.

    In the end, a sports movie needs to accomplish one of two things: it needs to say something non-obvious (“sports are hard and/or metaphors for life n’ stuff”) or earn audience enthusiasm for the sport being depicted with honest, well-founded strife. Case in point: I damn near break down in the last minutes of The Wrestler, because it’s a harrowing message about the ugly aspects of being a former pro, and you wind up hoping the Ram can regain a shred of dignity despite his many screwups. I feel like one of those old sports gambling machines on the local news from the ‘70s, formulating the perfect movie, but anyway, parting thoughts?


    DM: Well, I disagree about The Wrestler just a bit, because I’m in the camp that doesn’t think the Ram ever walks out of that ring. It’s just one Ram Jam too many. (It doesn’t help that I frequently consider whether Ric Flair may one day go out in similar fashion in real life.) But I think what we’ve touched on, whether it’s the Disney narrative or Scorsese’s in Raging Bull (a harrowing chronicle of exactly what kind of man it takes to hurt other men for a living and the toll it takes on the human mind, body, and soul alike), is this exceptionalist ideal. In all of these films, even the darker ones, there’s a running theme of the character overcoming. Even in a film like Any Given Sunday, there’s still a deep comprehension of how seductive the ideas of power that organized, professional sports confer really are. And it’s a perfectly domestic art form in that regard, because it reaffirms the core tenets of how we perceive the world from a relatively affluent perspective: that anybody can achieve greatness with enough work (or, more bleakly, a lack of caring about who you have to pass by to get there), that the noblest thing we can achieve is victory in whatever form, that physical and mental toil are positive sacrifices and not possible signs of madness.

    And I don’t mean to start thinkpiecing here. I’m an avid sports nut, particularly in the cases of wrestling (fake category) and football. But movies like Sunday or Foxcatcher ask audiences to do something that they often go out of their way to either justify against or avoid altogether: stop and consider the possible downsides of the thing they enjoy. It’s not a case of wagging fingers and passing judgment but rather a reminder that most any billion-dollar industry has a few skeletons buried somewhere. Now, the problem is that that turn of phrase is becoming ever more literal with each passing year, and nobody really knows what to do. And it’s a question that, regrettably, can’t simply be answered by Christopher Lloyd.

    JG: Yes, Dom. But did you see the sequels?

    Angels_in_the_Endzoneangels in the infield

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