How Sports Movies Taught Me to Stop Being a Snob and Love the Game
I used to hate sports.
I’d walk by a sports bar and roll my eyes. I’d scoff when people would choose to attend a game instead of doing something real like go to the movies. Growing up just outside San Antonio, Texas, I managed to attend my fair share of Spurs basketball games, but the bug never bit me. When Tim Duncan and his team were at the height of their powers, I was busy watching movies and re-reading my tattered copy of Roger Ebert’s ‘The Great Movies’ and explaining to everyone I knew how superior my taste was (I was a huge, awful jerk).
Little did I know that the the media I embraced would be the thing that would turn me around on the entire issue of sports. Like something out of a science fiction movie, movies would inject me while I wasn’t looking, transforming me into a sports fan.
I went to college. I graduated. I stumbled through retail while I tried to make the whole “writer” thing happen. Along the way, I watched a lot of great movies, read a lot of great books and discovered that yes, there actually has been good music produced since the ’70s (huge, awful jerk, part two). And, yet I would still shake my head when my friends made plans to watch a football game. I’d shoot glares at people who cheered in bars when their team scored. Desperate to officially leave behind my Huge, Awful Jerk phase, I tried my best to never condescend, but I knew deep down that all of my sports-loving friends and family members were complete and total morons.
And, then I started watching ‘Friday Night Lights’ and everything started to change. Now I can admit that NBC drama is the best network television show ever made that’s not called ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer,’ but when I hit play on the first episode, I was ready to play defense. I was ready to let everyone who had recommended it to me know that I wasn’t impressed. Surely a show about a small town Texas football team wasn’t fit to tango with the likes of ‘Breaking Bad’ and ‘Mad Men.’
The great trick ‘Friday Night Lights’ pulls off in its first few episodes is how it’s not really about football, but rather about the town of Dillon’s obsession with with football. In a number of ways, the show is critical of the team, the players and the culture it creates. When quarterback Jason Street is paralyzed mid-game towards the end of the pilot episode, it’s a damning indictment of football culture. Of course that happened. Because football is for idiots.
So, I stuck around. I’m not entirely sure when I decided that it was one of the best TV shows ever made, but it must have been at some point in the first season, around when I started getting really into the football sequences. How could I not? They were crafted with the intensity of a major action set piece and since the show made sure you knew the personal stakes of every character on the field, they mattered beyond simply rooting for the good guys to win. That’s the great accomplishment of ‘Friday Night Lights’ – it makes high school football (and the doors it can open) so vital to its vividly drawn characters that even someone with no interest in sports can get invested in what’s going on. I started to care about these fictional football games because Coach Taylor and Matt Saracen and the rest of the cast cared. They were important to them, so they became important to me.
If ‘Friday Night Lights’ was some kind of sports Trojan Horse, ‘Moneyball’ was the actual ambush. A film about baseball statistics has no right being good, let alone a Best Picture Oscar nominee, so it was shocking when Bennett Miller’s hugely entertaining film became comfort food for me. The value of ‘Moneyball’ goes beyond its sheer entertainment value (few films are as rewatchable). For the first time, it presented sports in a way that clicked with my specific (i.e., dorky) sensibilities: knowing what makes a baseball team click was like knowing how a great movie works. Suddenly, people obsessing over stats and players and tracking every little detail made sense. I do the same thing with my stupid obsessions, so who am I to cast aspersions on the people who do it with professional sports?
From there, one more floodgate was waiting to be opened. With ‘Friday Night Lights’ finished and ‘Moneyball’ a mainstay in my Blu-ray player, I found myself wanting to know more about the sports industry. I wasn’t prepared to start watching actual games or reading sports blogs, but I felt like I was missing a significant portion of my cultural education and that it was time to fix that. There’s a reason fellow nerds are into sports in the same way others are into ‘Star Wars‘ or Marvel comics. There’s a reason why you can build an entire drama series around high school football and the stakes that come with it.
And that’s when I started sampling ESPN’s ’30 For 30′ documentary series on Netflix and the final pieces fell into place. In these non-fiction films, I found what typical sports movies were always lacking. Even the most competent football, baseball and basketball movies follow a template, with most of them hitting identical beats. In the messy, imperfect and brutally unfair “real world” of the documentary format, sports legends could really come to life. It was a smorgasbord of great drama: victories that would be outrageous in a fictional film, characters filled with infuriating and fascinating contradictions, and twists that defy every Hollywood screenwriting rule.
I stopped looking at sports as simple competitions and started looking at them as improvised movies. There are heroes and villains. There are long-running rivalries and plot-threads. For every astonishing win, there’s an agonizing defeat. To watch sports is to watch the ultimate soap opera, where obsessing over the details allow you to predict future storylines and see which supporting characters will step up to the front. And thanks to ‘Friday Night Lights,’ my interest in the people on the field evolved from disinterest to empathy. Every pain and triumph started to feel so personal.
I’m still a changed man. I watch games now. I get excited. I get caught up in the moment and cheer and scream and treat it like the big show that it is. There’s such a thin line separating every kind of entertainment and I was doing myself a massive disservice by pretending that sports and movies/TV were two completely separate things. Great movies and shows have taught me and changed me more than any other art form — they’ve opened my eyes to being a more accepting, a more grounded and a more well-rounded person. How could I properly talk and write about art in the first place when I was willingly ignoring something that is so important to so many people all over the world?
A few years ago, I would have avoided movies like the upcoming ‘Draft Day’ like the plague. But now, I look at the poster and nod approvingly. Baby steps? Yeah, but it’s a start.