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5 Films About Real-Life Sporting Controversies

5 Films About Real-Life Sporting Controversies

It will surprise exactly no one to learn that few of us here at the Playlist ever sat at the jocks’ table in high school and only a very few of really count ourselves as major sports fans. However there are aspects of modern sporting culture that, whether or not we find ourselves transfixed by the swing of a bat or the call of a line judge, we can’t avoid becoming caught up in. With sportsmen and women become uber-celebrities off the pitch/field/court/lawn as well as on, there’s an unavoidable tendency to make them into mythic symbols of how talent and application can indeed bring everything our society defines as success: wealth, fame, respect and glory. But there’s just one problem when you take a sportsperson and make them a sporting hero: heroes fall. 

None has fallen quite so far or quite so hard in the last few years as Lance Armstrong, once upon a time a walking, pedaling one-man inspiration machine, lauded for attaining the highest level in his sport both before and after beating cancer (from which his doctors had once said he had less than a 40% chance of recovering). Amstrong is now a symbol of duplicity, underhandedness and dishonesty, everything that is the opposite of our ideal of sportsmanship. Armstrong’s spectacular and precipitous plummet from grace is explored in this week’s release “The Armstrong Lie” (our review is here) by Oscar-winning documentarian Alex Gibney, a film the director originally planned to be about Armstrong’s 2009 return from retirement to try for the Tour de France one more time. Instead, the allegations about doping that Armstrong had always strenuously denied or stonewalled, reached a tipping point, and he was exposed as a fraud and a cheat (and let’s be honest, kind of a prick by many who knew and worked with him). 

What fascinates us as non-diehard-cycling fans about this whole story is not what it means for cycling, or even what it means for sport, but what it means for American popular culture and those of us who consume it. How do we cope and what do we do when the heroes we make disappoint us and turn out to have feet of clay and veins full of corticosteroids instead? It’s not a new phenomenon either, so we’ve collected  five other films based on real-life sporting controversies that, to a greater or lesser extent, might shed a little light on that question.

Eight Men Out” (1988)
The pleasures of John Sayles’ loving recreation of the defining all-time baseball controversy, the notorious “Black Sox” scandal in which Chicago White Sox players conspired to throw the 1919 World Series, are manifold. Aside from the immaculate period detail, there’s the incredible cast, including David Strathairn, John Cusack, Charlie Sheen, Michael Rooker, John Mahoney, DB Sweeney, Christopher Lloyd and Sayles himself, lending his lugubrious presence to the role of sports journalist (and future blacklisted, Oscar-winning screenwriter) Ring Lardner, not to mention Michael Lerner, providing “Boardwalk Empire” fans with an alternate take on Arnold Rothstein. But really it’s a fascinating glimpse at a bygone era which on the one hand seems so much more innocent than now, with flat-capped ragamuffins (“Say it ain’t so, Joe!”) playing catch on stoops with their sporting heroes, but on the other hand rife with organized crime and the seaminess that lies just below the shiny surface of the american ideal of sportsmanship— a phenomenon that was in its relatively early days. Sayles’ movie is undoubtedly sympathetic toward the majority of the players involved, especially Bucky Weaver (Cusack) whose initial agreement to the deal evaporates during the first thrown game but who doesn’t rat on his teammates out of loyalty; and also “Shoeless” Joe Jackson (Sweeney) who’s portrayed as a little more than an illiterate naif whose trusting nature and low IQ see him coerced into the tragic position of having the one thing he’s good at (and so very good at) taken away. In fact, the players are depicted as more or less exploited by the club’s owner, whose promised bonuses and pay rises never materialize, and who are disgruntled by the lack of respect they receive off the field despite clearly being the cash cows for so many lesser-talented men. It’s difficult, in these days of grotesquely inflated sports star salaries, not to see their gripes as justified no matter how disgraceful and disappointing their actions. And Sayles doesn’t lose sight of these personal stories amid the grandiosity of the scandal and the ensuing court case, neatly paralleling their individual falls from grace with the collective one. It’s one of the earliest examples in the sporting world of the truism that the more successful you become, the harder it is to stay pure, and that the loss of that purity is its own punishment. The choice to end it, therefore, on the relative high of the players’ acquittal on conspiracy changes before an epilogue in which we’re told the newly-minted Commissioner banned them all from baseball anyway, is the perfectly encapsulation of the film overall: ironic, regretful and bittersweet.

Bigger, Faster, Stronger” (2008)
We’re not quite sure why it took us so long to catch up with this terrifically entertaining, and unexpectedly moving 2008 documentary about steroid culture in America, but we’re glad we finally got the chance. Director Christopher Bell (no relation, we believe, to our own beloved contributor of the same name) is both onscreen and off throughout this probing and wide ranging documentary, but part of the film’s strength is what an unusual presenter he is: the middle of three wrestling/weightlifting obsessed brothers all of whom at some point have used steroids (the other two still do), he is the short, pumped voice of reason, or at least of compassionate incomprehension, in a world of contradiction. The picture he presents aims to and largely succeeds in stripping away a great deal of the hysterical mythos that has sprung up around steroid use (including clips from a 30-minute TV issues drama which stars Ben Affleck as the tweaking, roid enraged teen), and from this non-judgmental position he follows seemingly every lead that occurs to him; from a clearly uncomfortable encounter with a father who’s convinced his son’s suicide is directly attributable to steroid use, to the man living with AIDS who credits steroids with keeping him alive for the past 25 years. Doctors, pundits, friends in the bodybuilding community, athletes like both Ben Johnson and Carl Lewis, and even a congressman central to the hearings about steroid use (who turns out to be rather a buffoon), are all interviewed for their perspectives, but amid all of this chatter Bell never loses sight of the human interest angle that his own family provides. And so the film emerges not just as an expose of the hypocrisy and media hype around the issue, but also a rather beautiful portrait of an unusual but ordinary, loving family and the lies they tell each other and themselves. Contending with both the personal and very public aspects of the steroid debate, the film goes further still, though, in shining a rare and thought-provoking light on the underlying reasons for the attraction of our great sportsmen to performance enhancing drugs, and the endless cycle of rising to greatness and falling from grace that seems to have started as soon as these drugs appeared. Ultimately, Bell relates it (quite fearlessly) to a fundamental contradiction about America, concluding: “there is a clash in America between doing the right thing and being the best.” And not just a clash, we’d call it an unresolvable impasse in a society that equates moral rectitude with winning at all costs. What happens, the film asks, when the only way to attain the American Dream of wholesomely earned, wholly deserved success, is by ‘cheating’?

Moneyball” (2011)
If all had gone to plan, as of this week, we’d have had another Bennett Miller movie to feature on this list, but of course “Foxcatcher,” the director’s account of the 1996 murder of Olympic wrestling champion Dave Schultz, has been moved to a release date sometime next year. So we’ll make do with his last account of a controversial incident in American sporting history, his adaptation of the bestselling Michael Lewis book, “Moneyball.” A retelling of the pivotal role that the then relatively untrusted sabermetrics system played in the success of the Oakland A’s in 2002, the film is necessarily less comprehensive than the book but still presents a compelling picture of the game at a pivotal moment of change. What’s most impressive, though is that Miller and his excellent cast, including a career-best Brad Pitt, Jonah Hill, Philip Seymour Hoffmann and Chris Pratt, take what should by rights be an undramatic story (that actually works in reverse from the more standard sports picture by having its real agent of change be a nerdy guy who’s read a book or two and is handy with a calculator) and makes it, thanks to an absolutely excellent, Oscar-nominated script, into something gripping. Since the book’s publication, the term “Moneyball” has entered baseball lexicon and many of the bigger teams have hired sabermetric analysts. But what’s so fascinating about the period detailed, and what is so well captured in the film is the resistance that baseball traditionalists had, and still have, to the system. Despite its success in allowing a team with a much smaller budget to compete at a much higher level (a kind of playing-field-leveler that you might think the old guard might embrace) there was some resistance to it as an overly mathematical, “accounting” way of looking at stats and crunching numbers that somehow diminished the beauty and the mystery of the sport. Of course the competitive advantage that the Oakland A’s attained during that season has been largely eroded by sabermetrics’ more widespread acceptance since then, but what “Moneyball” does, in a skillful and glossy manner is take a grown-up look at the world of baseball away from the pitcher’s mound and the jumbotron. In the back room deals and telephone conversations about VORP and TPI and other acronyms the film reveals what most of us in our heart of hearts already know about the professional sports we love: that the actual business of the Nation’s Favorite Pastime is a numbers game. Where traditional baseball pictures tend to build up the mythos and mystery around the sport “Moneyball” strips a great deal of that away to show the working joints and sinews beneath. And if that makes it all fractionally less mysterious, it doesn’t necessarily follow that the game is any less beautiful as a result.

Jim Thorpe—All-American” (1951)
The really controversial moment in the career of Jim Thorpe, a career beset by prejudice and personal tragedy, is given relatively little screen time in the Michael Curtiz’ biopic of the legendary Native American all-round athlete, but it is the pivotal moment around which the movie, and Thorpe’s life seemed to hinge. Portrayed by Burt Lancaster as more or less a physical force of nature, Thorpe was born to two half-Caucasian parents but was raised as an American Indian (the term at the time) on a reservation, at a time when not all Native Americans were even regarded as U.S. citizens. The film is constructed as an extended flashback which follows, in that breathlessly narrated style so typical of biopics of the time, the young Thorpe as he attends Carlisle Indian Industrial School where his athletic aptitude is soon noticed by coach Pop Warner, who persuades him to join the track team which in time comprises just him and one other guy—a long distance runner. He also joins and ends up leading the football team as his fame rises, before marrying and entering the 1912 Olympics. At that event he wins the decathlon and the pentathlon and it’s here that Curtiz’s rather by-the-numbers rise and fall story turns on its heel, with Thorpe thereafter being stripped of his medals for the seemingly minor infraction of having been paid a pittance to play baseball one summer. Despite his protestations of ignorance of the rule, he is deemed a “professional” and therefore disqualified from the Games he’d dominated. And while he pursues a successful professional career in both baseball and football afterwards, a bitterness sets in and, following the death of his beloved son, his life gradually falls apart as he gives in to drink and dissipation. He drives his wife away, leading to a nadir which shows him commentating on dance marathons dressed in a feathered headdress. Subtle it ain’t, and in some ways the picture is a strange time capsule in that its heart is clearly in the right place as regards the injustice of the prejudices that Thorpe faced all his life, but it still holds attitudes forged in the early ’50s, not a particularly reconstructed time to the modern eye. Still, Lancaster’s reliable brawny charisma and the glossiness of the filmmaking just about carry the story through, though just how much justice the broad strokes of any Hollywoodized version could do to the real man’s incredible achievements is debatable. The real Thorpe, however gained posthumous vindication when, thirty years after his death, his medals were reinstated. Warner Bros., in fact had been among the first to petition the return of the medals while planning the film (would have made for better bookending than the Oklahoma Hall Of Fame dinner!) but that return was consistently blocked by Avery Brundage, one of the competitors Thorpe had beaten, and subsequently the head of the International Olympic Committee. As to whether or not racism played any part in Thorpe’s disqualification, it’s hard to tell, but one stat seems remarkable: Thorpe was one of only three men ever to have his medals revoked for reasons other than drugs, and the other two were for gross misconduct.

Cobb” (1994)
The question, when approaching director Ron Shelton’s biopic/expose of the first-ever inductee into Baseball’s Hall of Fame, and to-this-day contender for the title of greatest baseball player of all time, Ty Cobb, is not “what’s the controversy?” it’s “which controversy?” The studs-sharpening? The match fixing? The acquittal from match fixing which was itself rumored to be because Cobb knew enough dirt on other players to bring the game down? The time he beat up a guy with no arms? The time he pistol-whipped a man in an alleyway and left him to die? The list of real and alleged infractions goes on, and the film, based on the kiss-and-tell book by Al Stump entitled “Cobb: A Biography,” tries to hit them all. Supposedly a warts-and-all-and-then-some-more-warts depiction of the ‘real’ man behind the legendary on-field warrior, it deals with Stump being hired by Cobb in his waning years to ghostwrite his autobiography, a hagiographic piece designed to portray Cobb as a prince among men. That book was actually published (“My Life in Baseball: The True Record”) and the film comes across as part mea culpa on the part of the writer (played by Robert Wuhl) for printing the legend, part desire to “set the record straight” and part wholehearted character assassination. Because as much as Shelton, the director of peerless baseball classic “Bull Durham” seems to want to deliver a nuanced piece that gets to the heart of the contradictions that made up this famous figure, here the script just isn’t up to the job and instead we get a longwinded and occasionally hokey portrait of an unrepentant racist, wife beating, child-neglecting, violent, possibly murderous, allegedly match-fixing megalomaniacal prick (with very little real screen time given to his actual accomplishments or skills). Perhaps part of the problem is the absolutely domineering, dominating performance by Tommy Lee Jones in the title role, one that many critics cite as massively underrated yet which we’ll confess to finding, in it’s ornery scenery-chewing and gun-toting slur-spouting just a bit broad and one-note. The occasional attempts at a kind of “Grumpy Old Men” tone also undercut the films darker impulses, as when Stump drives across several states with Cobb to a dinner in his honor, or in the misjudged scene, when Cobb’s humiliation and near-rape-at-gunpoint of a young cigarette girl (Lolita Davidovitch) culminates in a moment of light relief, when we discover he can’t get it up and instead wants to pay her to say that he was a great, priapic lover. It’s a lurching, oddly paced melodrama that fans of performances deemed ”titanic” will enjoy, but which overall left us with a sour taste in the mouth. Perhaps that’s why we were unsurprised to learn that the book on which the film was based has itself come in for controversy, with Stump being accused of at the very least sensationalizing and at worst fabricating the evidence, and the encounters, on which he based it.

With sporting films primarily being seen by Hollywood as opportunities for against-all-odds, never-say-die-style inspirational stories, there are few enough major productions that go into this seamier side of things. On TV, however, as well as many half-hour documentaries dedicated to everything from Rosie Ruiz (who cheated the Boston Marathon) to Ben Johnson (who had his 100m medal stripped due to doping) to Zola Budd (who famously “tripped” Mary Decker during the 1984 3000m Olympic final), we’ve had not one but two movies about the infamous Tonya Harding/Nancy Kerrigan affair, though it’s the fictionalized account, the Movie of the Week-sounding “Tonya & Nancy: The Inside Story” starring Heather Langenkamp, that we’re probably destined to end up catching on TV some wet Tuesday. How about you, have you any favorites that fit the bill?

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