Why Are Sports Movies So Bad?
And can we do anything about it?
As Avengers: Endgame continues its relentless march toward surpassing Avatar as the highest-grossing movie of all-time, one cannot help but notice the lack of sport films on the list of top-grossers. In fact, to find the first true sports film on the list, one would have to go all the way to movie #454, where they would find the maybe-a-little-racist-depending-on-how-you-look-at-it Sandra Bullock vehicle The Blind Side (2009). Nestled between classics like the Hunger Games knockoff Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials and Horton Hears a Who, The Blind Side won Bullock her first Academy Award — but few would cite it as the premier sports movie, or even as a particularly memorable one.
Cultural historian David Rowe suggested once “That fictional sports films can be expected to be popular because sports themselves are popular.” But despite the widespread appeal of sport in modern society, sports movies have rarely found widespread commercial success. Aside from Rocky (1976), no sports film has ever been the highest grossing movie in a given year. Even films that receive acclaim from critics and industry members fail to see that goodwill translate to the box office (see, for example I, Tonya (2017) or The Quiet Man (1952)). Too many data points exist to dismiss this trend as spurious. Too many high-end actors and directors have tried their hands at the genre and seen modest returns. What is it about sports movies that makes audiences not want to watch? In this article, I will argue that there is some aspect of sport that cannot be transposed onto the silver screen; something important is lost in translation.
Sport films have been around since the very earliest days of motion pictures. In fact, as historian Glen Jones argues, “Film-pioneer Edward Muybridge, in his quest to settle a bet by filming a galloping horse, directed the first film about horse racing in 1872! Two decades later, Thomas Edison used his kinetoscope at the Black Maria Studio in New Jersey to film famous strongman Eugene Sandow going through a posing routine.
Edison followed that up the next year by filming two men boxing in his studio. In 1896, British filmmaker Robert Raul filmed what may have been the first live sporting event, the Classic Derby. In 1897, the Lumiere brothers released Football, footage of a soccer game in London.
Many of these films were shown to audiences at expositions around the world, captivating them. The kinetic actions of the body proved to be a perfect text for this nascent technology. But as filming became more normalized, and the tools more advanced, sport quickly was displaced as the primary subject of this artform. But again, why?
That question, unfortunately, has yet to be sufficiently answered. Film as a medium has of course received its fair share of attention from academics. But sport films, in particular, are often shunted to the side, ignored. As sociologists Emma Poulton and Martin Roderick explain, “Despite its regularity as a central theme in motion picture, constructions and representations of sport and athletes have been marginalized in terms of serious analysis within the longstanding academic study of film and documentary.” We have not even come so far as to decide if sports movies exist as their own genre, or if they are simply parts of separate genres (comedy, drama, biopic, etc.) with similar subject matter. Two subjects regarding sports films have been sufficiently covered. First, we have many analyses of how purportedly ‘historical’ sport movies portray said history (hint: not accurately). Secondly, academics have thoroughly explained the ways that sport films reflect society, and how films will often reinforce the myth of sport as a panacea able to deliver us to some progressive, universalist future (think Remember the Titans). But books and articles that focus their attention on the actual practice of sport in said sports movies are few and far between. And that, I argue, is where we will find the answer to our problem.
To understand why what I will call ‘cinematic sport’ fails, we must first discuss what makes live sport special. As anyone who has watched sport can tell you, sport can be boring and ugly at times. But those times are interrupted by transcendent moments. As Poultin and Roderick explain, sport has an “extraordinary affective and connotative power, making many people feel deeply moved.” It is also, quite often, an event experienced with others, evoking Victor Turner’s phenomenon of communitas, “a ‘moment in and out of time,’ and in and out of secular social structure, which reveals, however fleetingly, some recognition (in symbol if not always in language) of generalized social bond” not fragmented by the traditional dividers of society. In a society averse to outward displays of emotion, sports have been designated one of the few spaces where it is acceptable to do so, specifically for men. Philosopher Andrew Fisher expands on the idea that much of the appeal of watching sport comes from doing it in conjunction with others. He puts forward the idea of “shared time,” which is simply the belief that many other people are watching an event at the same time we are, even when we cannot see them. As he explains, “We are significantly less interested in watching sport if not in shared time.” This holds even if we are alone as we watch: “What matters is not who you are watching the matches with, but who you believe is watching the matches when you are.”
While his argument is not really based on empirical evidence, a thought experiment is enough to prove his point: if you were to miss an episode of your favorite network drama, it would be a simple, normal thing to go watch it online the next day. But if you miss a sporting event, only the most fanatical would do this same thing. Most of us would simply look up the final score (but notice, you would never think of just looking up a synopsis of your favorite show). Additionally, Fisher points out that it is normal enough for people to go to certain lengths to be able to watch a sporting event as it happens, while rearranging your schedule for a movie or recorded television show would seem strange. He believes this all goes back to emotion, to that idea of communitas. What makes shared time significant, why we want to watch at the same time as others, is to be able to react emotionally at the same time as them. As he wrote, “I believe that others experience euphoria at Beckham’s last-minute goal, so I am licensed to experience euphoria at Beckham’s last-minute goal.” Our experiences are heightened by having them happen in concert with others.
Notice this is not the case for sports in sport films. Assuming you most often watch movies at home, you’re under no illusion that there is some unseen community watching along with you. Even if seen in theaters, you are watching something with a few dozen other people at most, the shared time vanished. Thus, what is one of the largest appeals of sport does not carry over.
But there are other reasons for the failures of sport in sports films. One prominent one is the lack of authenticity in the practice of sport on-screen. If we go back to the early examples of sport film, we see that, whether the subject was the British soccer team or Eugene Sandow or a horse, they were always authentically performing some feat. Today, that is rarely the case. Sports sequences are often over-edited, removing any illusion that they are being authentically performed. As communications expert Sebastian Byrne wrote, filmmakers often have to “compensate for the actor’s lack of sporting prowess by creating movement and rhythm through the mobile camera and rapid editing, in order to enhance their performance;” rather than engaging visually with the body, it must be disguised. Sayre suggests that this is why “many fictional sports sequences are reduced to montage.” Directors are often, per filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard, “looking for the glory of the event,” with little interest in capturing the physical reality from which that glory comes. This problem is compounded by the fact that the audience for most of these films is sports fans, the people who would be the most discerning viewers of such things. As Byrne wrote, sports in movies “Often fail to be believable in the eyes of the skilled viewer, because of an inability to capture a sense of realism in its imitation of real-life sport.” Those familiar with a sport can often see technical failures of actors “in terms of how they execute strokes or movements, or [in] the ways in which their body operates in relation to other bodies.” The objective of a sports film is never really the sport itself. It is always secondary, a tool in service to some larger goings-on (hence the debates about the existence of a sports film genre or not). On-field scenes in sports movies are often used as plot points that further the narrative. But having to fit certain specific actions or dialogue into the on-field movements of players can detract “from a realist representation of sport.” Thus, if we reject what is likely the cinematic and narrative high point of the film, it is unlikely that the rest will be salvageable; or as Jones puts it, “our acceptance of the plausibility of a film’s protagonists, perhaps the whole film, becomes splintered.”
Filmmakers look to create transcendent sport moments, but in addition to being hamstrung back lacking true athletes on the field, they miss that those transcendent moments only exist when contrasted with the mundanity that pervades sport the rest of the time. This makes the cinematic transcendent moment a false, inferior one to the one found in live sports. It is, to bastardize the arguments of Jean Baudrillard, a simulacrum of that real sports moment. The ‘reality’ of sports is copied in the movies, becoming a vacuous, empty reflection of the real thing. Of course, the tension here is that the difference between the ‘real’ and the copy is too noticeable in the medium of film, which is the opposite of what he argued would happen. But then again, maybe that I’m complaining about being able to pick up on the difference is proving his point.
Especially in our world of constant sports coverage, there is a wealth of opportunities to consume live sport. This is what makes cinematic sport difference from other ‘physical’ acts that are taped, namely singing, dancing, and martial arts. Any of those is much more likely to wow an audience, to be appreciated for its aesthetic achievements, than is cinematic sport. In the case of all three, we know that editing acts as a filter, removing any imperfections. But they do not depend on a contrasting mundanity to achieve their aesthetic peaks. Additionally, while we have access to live sport almost on demand, it is much less likely that we would be able to access live music, dancing, or fighting quite so easily. And when filmed, musicals and martial arts films are much more likely to use actual practitioners of their arts than sports films seem to be. This makes these actions much more authentic on the screen. As Brown, Jennings, and Leladaki wrote on the matter of martial arts movies, “Gesture, martial muscularity, body posture, use of specific techniques in social space and time, combative and ceremonial styles, precise qualities of movement, types of (il)legitimate emotional content, constitute deeply engrained skills and dispositions embedded in the real body.” To visualize what they’re writing about, watch the recent Indonesian action film, The Night Comes For Us (2018). You will notice that fight scenes contain few cuts, and each motion can be seen clearly. Editing and cinematography are not used to cover up for actors’ limitations, because the actors are all able to perform the movements required of their characters. This offers legitimacy and authority to these movies that sports films consistently lack.
For the exception that proves the rule, look to the recent documentary Free Solo (2018). The film was a minor phenomenon, launching into the top 20-grossing documentaries all-time, and winning an Academy Award. Free Solo follows climber Alex Honnold in his attempt to summit El Capitan without the use of pins or ropes. But unlike most sports films, nothing inauthentic exists in Free Solo. Even Baudrillard would have to be impressed with their commitment to reality, as filmmakers debate on-screen what to do in the not-unlikely event that Honnold falls to his death. The athletic performance by Honnold is as real as it gets, and viewers who can stomach the vertigo-inducing visuals are rewarded with that sought-after transcendent moment. As film critic Richard Lawson wrote, “I left the theater invigorated and rattled, in awe of this charismatic man’s accomplishment but scared that it will inspire others to attempt the same.” Lawson’s reaction much more closely approximates that of a viewer at a live sporting event than it does a viewer of a sports film, and that is no coincidence. Free Solo’s cultural impact showed that there was space, even desire, for sports films, but that filmmakers were going about it totally wrong. As a contrasting example to Free Solo, look at Coach Carter. Here, the sport is still accurately performed. Each player knew how to play before filming. As Jones notes, “They show a number of highly developed techniques and skills, [and] have good athleticism.” But these action sequences were all choreographed, practiced, and likely spliced together from multiple takes. And while this film does better than most in making the sports scenes believable, maintaining the ‘expectation of verisimilitude,’ the beauty of the sport comes from it being done in real time, in reaction to the moves of the opponents. That, again, is all lost in translation, and is something no amount of practice or athleticism could bring back.
Philosopher Stephen Mumford, in his influential Watching Sport, argued that sport fans fall along a spectrum where one end is the domain of the partisan and the other that of the purist. A partisan, he explained, “is a fan of one particular team.” Their interest in the game is mostly emotional, watched primarily in the hopes of seeing a victory for the home team. How said victory is achieved is usually of little concern. A purist, on the other hand, is much more process-oriented, and cares little about which side ends up with the lead at the end. As Mumford defines it, “A purist is a fan of a sport, and may love deeply the sport concerned, but has no allegiance to any particular team.” Where the partisan hopes for victory, the purist simply hopes to witness physical brilliance. Where the partisan would be pleased to see the opposing team underperform, the purist wants to bear witness to the fulfilled athletic potential of all participants. One could say that the purist is invested in philosopher Robert Simon’s concept of the ‘mutual quest of excellence.’ This decentralizes competition in pursuit of “an instant of complete coherence.”
But of these two groups, I argue that it is more likely for a purist to attend a sports film than a partisan. If you follow sports simply to see the success of your home team, it seems that you would have less interest in the historical or dramatic stories told by filmmakers, even when those stories contain the sport you follow, if they do not pertain to your favored team. As sociologist Gary Crawford wrote, partisanship largely allows “fans to apply their own individual interpretations and readings to the team/club they support.” Franchises are for the most part amorphous and malleable enough to fit neatly into any personal narrative or ideology. But in film, that agency is stripped away as the will of the filmmaker becomes canon. This leaves your average sports film as undesirable to the typical partisan.
As long as sport films continue to put the importance of the filmed sport only in service to that of the larger narrative, sports films will continue to fail in their attempts to create transcendent moments on the screen.
But sports films are almost designed to be inhospitable to the purist’s way of viewing events as well. It is a rare movie that viewers can watch without getting drawn into supporting a specific side, given the viewpoints and narrative beats with which we are presented. Additionally, as mentioned earlier, the sports themselves become empty husks, devoid of aesthetic value and impossible to invest in emotionally. What the purist goes to see in a live event has little chance of appearing in a typical sports film. As sociologist Murray Pomerance wrote, when watching a sports film, it is typical to observe with dispassion when we see ﬁctional running backs smeared by tackles onscreen, batters hit by pitches, or hoop dreamers slammed to the ﬂoor, needing to feel no genuine anxiety for their physical health since these are, after all, not athletes pushing themselves to the limit but unionized actors who spent the morning break gobbling croissants and brie from the catering table.
With this lack of investment in the on-screen happenings, and with little hope of witnessing a transcendent aesthetic experience, there seems little reason that a purist would want to sit through a sports film either. Thus, despite sport being immensely popular in the United States and around the world, films are currently constructed in such a way that there is no natural constituency for them.
As Byrne wrote, the objective of most sports films “is to draw the viewer more towards the design of the drama, and the interiority of the character, than to the design of the sport being dramatized.” And viewers are discerning enough consumers to notice the differences. Pomerance explained, “Fictional players of onscreen games are not read by viewers as being truly in the throes of their travails, they are normally taken to be mere actors merely simulating athletic exertion for the lens.” Thus, as long as sport films continue to put the importance of the filmed sport only in service to that of the larger narrative, sports films will continue to fail in their attempts to create transcendent moments on the screen. As Free Solo showed, the task itself is not impossible, but it requires filmmakers to center the bodily action rather than the story or the characters.