Sports Films

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Sports Films


Since the start of the motion picture industry in the United States, sports have been a frequent subject for the movies. Hollywood has produced hundreds of films about sports for the same reason that synergistic ties have been established between American movies and other cultural forms, including theater, literature, fashion, television, advertising, and toys. From the documentary-style "news films" of major prizefights and the World Series that were an important part of the early film industry to recent blockbusters such as Space Jam (1996), Jerry Maguire (1996), The Waterboy (1998), The Rookie (2002), and Friday Night Lights (2004), collaboration with sports has helped sell the movies.

Sports are rule-governed contests of physical skill in which humans compete against one another. In the sports film such athletic contests play a central role in defining the main characters. The Hollywood sports film in particular has two more important conventions: a utopian view of the world which assumes that anyone who works hard, is determined, and plays by the rules will succeed; and a need for plausibility based on resemblance to the actual sports world that qualifies its utopian outlook with the complexities of social difference. Put more simply, in their attempt to portray plausible athletes and sporting events, Hollywood films often include historical forces that complicate their narratives, which are otherwise focused on individual characters as causal agents.


Knute Rockne—All American (1942) offers an example of this combination of utopian simplicity and historical complexity. In keeping with the patriotic tone of many Hollywood films made during World War II, Rockne's life is shown as representative of the social mobility possible in America: even a boy from a working-class, immigrant family can grow up to become a national sports hero. Yet while Knute Rockne—All American ostensibly offers the biography of the Notre Dame football coach as historical proof of the American dream, it inadvertently makes reference to the selective nature of this social mobility.

The film unintentionally shows that such opportunity did not extend to African Americans. Blacks appear only as minor characters in most sports films prior to the early 1950s, a marginalization which reflects their exclusion, until just before that time, from the highest levels of most commercial sports. Despite their brief appearance in the film, the two black characters in Knute Rockne—All American qualify its affirmation of the American Dream. In an early scene, when young Knute plays football for the first time in a sandlot game, an African American boy running the ball for the other team knocks him flat. The only other appearance of an African American character comes much later in the film, when Rockne, now the famous football coach at Notre Dame, returns to South Bend on the train after a tough loss. A black porter stops at the door of his compartment and asks Rockne if he would like his suit brushed off before they arrive. The presence of the porter ironically recalls the boy who had run over little Knute in the football legend's first experience with the game that was to make him famous. The difference in social position between Rockne and the porter suggests why the experience of the African American boy appears nowhere but in the one early scene. The promise of equal opportunity, which both blacks and whites were called upon to defend in the war, extended to some parts of American society and not others.

Despite the attempt in Hollywood sports films to leave out issues such as racism, sexism, class difference, homophobia, and even the physical limits on athletic productivity brought on by injury, illness, or age, the need to plausibly resemble the real sports world requires some representation of these influences on individual performance. Yet, even when sports films must acknowledge impediments to individual achievement, self-reliance is generally held up as the only way to overcome such barriers. In this regard the influence of the Hollywood sports film can be seen on films about athletics made outside the United States such as Chariots of Fire (1981) and Bend It Like Beckham (2002), which also follow this pattern of showing how a strong faith in individual achievement overcomes larger social forces.

Feature films about sports are especially fond of the idea that history is made by individuals. Only eleven feature films about sports history are not biography films (biopics): The Harlem Globetrotters (1951), The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars and Motor Kings (1976), Miracle on Ice (1981), Hoosiers (1986), Eight Men Out (1988), A League of Their Own (1992), When We Were Kings (1996), Soul of the Game (1996), Remember the Titans (2000), Friday Night Lights, and Glory Road (2006)—and even these focus primarily on two or three main characters. Just as biopics promote the concept of self-reliance, media portrayal of sports in general also gives the greatest recognition to star performance, regardless of any gestures they might make to teamwork, fair play, and fan communities.

Even when teamwork figures prominently in media narratives about athletics, it doesn't reduce the value placed on individual performance. Rather, like the middle-class nuclear family, the team operates as a social structure to foster the development of self-reliant individuals; self-effacing play therefore subordinates itself to the more recognized actions of the star. Hoosiers offers a good example of this privileging of star performance. Although much of the film is a nostalgic parable involving a big-city basketball coach who learns the importance of teamwork and community in a small Indiana town, that thematic emphasis is subordinated in the film's climactic scene to the individual heroism of a game-winning basket by a star player.

As part of their affirmation of the idea of meritocracy, media representation of professional sports continually remind us of the standard of living which star players achieve. While reports of seven- and eight-figure annual salaries create the fan resentment one hears expressed on sports-talk radio and finds in a film such as The Replacements (2000), they also reinforce the belief that opportunity for economic advancement exists in American society. The blockbuster Jerry Maguire makes this optimistic interpretation of big contracts its central theme.

The realism of sports films increases their historical complexity, but it can also support their endorsement of self-reliance. This realistic style figures most prominently in action scenes involving footage of actual contests, or set in stadia filled with crowds of extras, employing authentic uniforms and equipment and, often, real athletes. These cinematic contests are frequently narrated by announcers in the style of television or radio coverage and shown with a continuity-editing style that makes the sequence of shots seem motivated by the logic of the events rather than choices made by the filmmakers. For sports films this representational style has special resonance because it recalls real events in sports "history": athletic contests that the audience has witnessed in the past. Heightened realism in scenes in which the star competes is especially important in validating a belief that individual performance in these situations counts most in the achievement of success.


More Hollywood films have been made about boxing than any other sport. The most common narrative for the prizefight film involves the boxer's quick rise from disadvantage to the title, followed by a fall from grace usually due to the seduction of wealth and fame, and some form of redemption in the third act. The heroic triumph over long odds implied in such a bare-bones plot summary explains in part why so many boxing films have been made, and also probably why some of the biggest male stars in the movies have played boxers, including James Cagney, John Garfield, Errol Flynn, Kirk Douglas, Burt Lancaster, Paul Newman, Tony Curtis, Elvis Presley, James Earl Jones, Robert DeNiro, Tom Cruise, Antonio Banderas, Denzel Washington, and the biggest box-office boxer of all time, Sylvester Stallone.

While boxing films frequently emphasize self-determination, the historical record again intrudes on many of these stories. Historical contextualization appears in the form of the economic exploitation of desperate and inexperienced boxers by those who run prizefighting, and through the fighters' own handicaps, which are due to their backgrounds of deprivation. Some boxing films therefore take the position that the most effective strategy for a working-class fighter to overcome these barriers requires the support of family and community.

Hollywood boxing movies can be classified into three groups. The first, made during the Depression years, serves as a metaphor for the society at large, attempting to resolve a contradiction between the values of rugged individualism and the values of community. Boxing films of the 1930s such as Winner Take All (1932), Golden Boy (1939), and They Made Me a Criminal (1939) celebrate a working-class hero who tries to beat the odds to escape the urban jungle and the exploitation of the fight game. In the spirit of the New Deal, however, these pictures also stress the importance of group support to help the protagonist succeed.

A second cycle of boxing films includes seven movies released between 1947 and 1956. Three of these, Body and Soul (1947), The Set-Up (1949), and The Champion (1949), use a combination of noir and neorealist styles to criticize the exploitation of working-class fighters. In reaction to the political repression of the McCarthy-era blacklists and the increasingly nonwhite makeup of prize-fighting, films from the 1950s such as The Ring (1952), The Joe Louis Story (1953), The Harder They Fall (1956), and Somebody Up There Likes Me (1956) shifted their focus to liberal models of assimilation as the best response to class and racial disadvantage.

The third cycle, which started in 1976 and is ongoing, is the most diverse. Rocky (1976) and Raging Bull (1980) feature protagonists who passionately believe in their ability to single-handedly overcome social identities defined by class and gender. Sylvester Stallone's character in the first film realizes that goal, while Robert DeNiro's Jake LaMotta character in the latter movie achieves a kind of Christian transcendence for finally accepting its impossibility. Several of these third-cycle films, including Rocky, When We Were Kings, and Only in America: The Don King Story (1998), represent Muhammad Ali, either to support his politics of anticolonialism and black unity or to discredit his critique of white privilege in order to support the idea of a self-reliant individualism. Finally, several of the most recent boxing films, including The Great White Hype (1996), The Hurricane (1999), Girlfight (2000), Play It to the Bone (2000), and Undefeated (2003), illustrate that issues of class, race, and gender are best understood by recognizing their tensions and interdependence.


With the exception of two 1930s films, Spirit of Youth (1938) and Keep Punching (1939), which were made for black audiences, African Americans appeared only as secondary characters (if at all) in feature-length sports movies from the coming of sound through the beginning of the civil rights movement. Until the 1950s most of the infrequent appearances by black characters were in films about prizefighting, such as Golden Boy and Body and Soul, probably because it was the least exclusionary professional sport for reasons of race. Similar to the representation of women in classic Hollywood films, blacks functioned in these narratives of white, male self-definition through athletic competition as either supportive—but self-negating—helpers, or occasionally (along with Mexican or Chicano characters) as opponents: obstacles which the protagonists overcome in order to realize their heroic identities. A cycle of Hollywood films in the early 1950s, including The Jackie Robinson Story (1950), The Harlem Globetrotters (1951), and The Joe Louis Story (1953), featured black athletes and followed closely on the opening of previously all-white professional sports to African Americans just after World War II, but these were stories of self-reliance and white paternalism that attempted to deemphasize social determinants of racial identity.

In the 1980s and 1990s the National Basketball Association (NBA) became an important part of an increasingly spectacular, globalized, and racialized American popular culture. Broadcast revenues for the league rose 1,000 percent between 1986 and 1998 as the NBA's bursts of action highlighted by dunks and three-point shots fit smoothly into the fast-paced flow of spectacle that has come to dominate television and increasingly the movies. During this period Michael Jordan replaced Muhammad Ali as the best known American athlete worldwide. A big part of the NBA's greater appeal both in the United States and abroad came from its spectacle of black style, headlined for most of this period by Jordan; because more than 80 percent of the players are African American, the league exemplifies how cultural difference has become a hot commodity.

Several movies about basketball made during the period of the NBA's ascendancy incorporate the new difference. Michael Jordan figures in several of these films, starring in Space Jam (1996), appearing in He Got Game (1998), and invoked by White Men Can't Jump (1992), Hoop Dreams (1994), and The Air Up There (1994). With Jordan leading the way, what sold the NBA and the basketball movies made during the 1980s and 1990s was what Nelson George calls an "African American aesthetic." (p. xv). This aesthetic features constructions of black masculinity that correspond roughly to traditional positions about identity in the African American community. On the one hand there is Jordan's creative improvisation, grounded in black cultural tradition, yet also distinctive in the degree of its crossover appeal and in its use as proof that (some) blacks have access to the American dream. Almost as widely commodified, but with a less sanguine view of race in America, has been its flip side, the hypermasculine menace and intimidation represented in professional basketball by Charles Barkley, Shaquille O'Neal, and others, their "gangsta" personae overlapping to some degree with those of certain rap performers. Basketball films that portray this latter version of black manhood include White Men Can't Jump, Space Jam, and Above the Rim (1994).


Within the utopian narrative typical of American sports films, the heroic individual who overcomes obstacles and achieves success through determination, self-reliance, and hard work is most often male. The primary notion of masculinity in sports films is that this male protagonist defines and proves himself through free and fair competition modeled on American society, which promises rewards to the most deserving individuals. The competitive opportunities offered to male athletes in most sports films justify patriarchal authority by naturalizing the idea of men as more assertive and determining, while women generally appear in the secondary roles of fans and dependent supporters. Differences in social position are therefore naturalized as evolutionary rather than depicted as a result of a lack of competitive opportunities. The competition involving men that sports movies generally showcase provides an opportunity to validate assumptions of male superiority. These films seldom acknowledge that women have not had as much access to sports. When gender discrimination comes up, in the few films about female athletes such as Pat and Mike (1952), Personal Best (1982), Pumping Iron II (1985), and A League of Their Own (1992), it is often portrayed not as a systemic flaw in sports competition or American society, but rather as just another ad hoc challenge that the strong and resourceful individual will overcome.

Because they so often feature male athletes, sports films provide a useful site for the analysis of dominant ideas of masculinity, yet they also show how it has been refigured over time in response to changes in American society. From the 1880s through the end of the twentieth century, the effects of industrialization, professionalization, deindustrialization, changing forms of media representation, and the increased assertion of women and nonwhite and gay men have forced dominant masculinity to define itself in new ways. In an attempt to portray athletic events in a realistic style, the makers of sports films have responded to these social changes in their depictions of masculinity—by demonstrating its strength through service to others (The Iron Major [1943], The Rookie), by showing nonwhite men and women who embody its traits (Space Jam, Girlfight), even by presenting a white masculinity inflected with qualities associated with nonwhite athletes (White Men Can't Jump, Any Given Sunday [1999]).

A few sports films show assertive women, some of whom are athletes, pursuing a feminist desire for control of their careers and relationships; in Pat and Mike, Bull Durham (1987), and Tin Cup (1996) those strong women even verbally deconstruct masculinity. Several films about female athletes such as Personal Best, Pumping Iron II, and A League of Their Own present a disjuncture between scenes in which they demonstrate their ability to appropriate qualities associated with masculinity (especially physical strength and self-confidence) to perform in sports, and a narrative that pushes them toward compromise with conservative ideas of gender. Two more recent films, Girlfight and Love and Basketball (2000), take a step further by validating female athletes who can appropriate the positive traits of masculinity, without requiring they compromise the benefits that they realize from involvement in sports.

Despite the increased social equality shown in some recent films, most sports movies made in the last twenty-five years have continued to tell the stories of white, male protagonists, insisting on hard work and determination as the only ingredients that matter for athletic achievement. The success of Rocky in 1976 demonstrated a desire to dismiss the inequalities that the 1960s counter-culture had identified in American society, and gave new life to utopian sports movies such as The Natural (1984), Hoosiers, Field of Dreams (1989), Mr. Baseball (1992), Rudy (1993), Angels in the Outfield (1994), The Air Up There, and The Replacements. These nostalgic films not only remember the mythology of white male protagonists, but also reassert the old portrayals of nonwhites and women as either obstacles that define the hero or faithful supporters of his achievement.

SEE ALSO Class;Gender;Genre;Race and Ethnicity


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George, Nelson. Elevating the Game: Black Men and Basketball. New York: Harper Collins, 1992.

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Grindon, Leger. "Body and Soul: The Structure of Meaning in the Boxing Film Genre." Cinema Journal 35, no. 4 (1996): 54–69.

Streible, Dan. "A History of the Boxing Film, 1894–1915: Social Control and Social Reform in the Progressive Era." Film History 3, no. 3 (1989): 235–257.

Aaron Baker