The League

Emil Steiner
Editor and Blogger

Emil Steiner

The author of NFL Crime Watch and Founding Editor of The League.

A Match Made in Hell


Why can't America's most popular sport and America's most popular art form work together? We love football and we love motion pictures, but typically when the two mate their offspring come out looking like Necessary Roughness or worse still, Air Bud.

Sports Illustrated's 50 Greatest Sports Movies of All-Time has only one football flick in its top 15 - Fred C. Newmeyer's 1925 classic The Freshman (what you missed it?). It's at number 14, sandwiched between The Endless Summer, a documentary about surfing and "A League of Their Own" a comedy about women's baseball. Two ahead, in 12th place, is "Dogtown and Z-Boys" - a documentary about skateboarding. ESPN's list is hardly better, with only one pigskin film in its Top 10, "The Longest Yard" in 10th right behind "The Hustler"-- a classic, but still a movie about pool.

So why are football and film so incompatible? Conspiracy theorists might claim that Hollywood's elite are avenging the NFL's refusal to give L.A. a pro-franchise. In reality though, the two are about as well suited for each other Gloria Steinem and Al Bundy.

First of all, football players wear helmets when they play. Helmets these days have facemasks and with apologies to Jason, it's pretty hard to act behind a mask. Second, the pacing in football goes terribly with dialogue. A 35 second game clock hardly lends itself to insightful commentary in the booth let alone on the field. Third, a single NFL team has 53 players and dozens of staff working behind the scenes; a whole movie cast rarely breaks 50. When a feature film has to quickly familiarize its audience with so many players the script inevitably has to rely on stock characters -- "there's Bubba, the only thing bigger than his blocking is his heart."

Fundamentally, though, movies and football are about two different things. The greatest football stories are team driven, the greatest movies are character driven. Take a look at SI's list again. There are three boxing movies in the top 10, Rocky, Raging Bull and When We Were Kings. Individual sports just fit the story telling dynamic more easily. Even movies about teams Bull Durham and Slap Shot focus on a single protagonist (in both cases an over-the-hill minor leaguer (did I just parallel Paul Newman and Kevin Costner?)) and are reliant on a gang of interesting characters.

Although it is possible to make a decent team-centered movie, the greatest being Hoosiers, more often than not nuance is lost in the cliché of group over individual and "let's get 'em" speeches. This problem is compounded in football movies Q.E.D. The resulting product tends to be a campy collection of familiar misfits led by an overly strict coach who they all hate at first but then come to love after the death of Big Hearted Bubba (see above) unites them as team and together they triumph in the final seconds.

There are exceptions, but they are rare -- movies like Rudy or Jerry McGuire which use football as prop more than the driving force, or NFL Films which aren't movies but documentaries. Ultimately, certain forms of entertainment don't mix well (basketball and video games is another example). Due to their uniquely incompatible natures football and motion pictures are seldom at their best when married. It's no one's fault, it just rarely succeeds.

By Emil Steiner  |  June 15, 2009; 11:31 AM ET  | Category:  Emil Steiner , NFL Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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Absolutely right. The character/crowd problem and the cliches are the heart of the problem. How about taking this further and choose the absolute WORST football movies. I nominate "Radio" (see ref. "Tropical Thunder") as so bad even Ed Harris couldn't save it. "Leatherheads" is a close second.

Posted by: joebanks | June 15, 2009 2:37 PM

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