Between the nerve-wracking baseball playoffs and the beginning of the football season, not to mention the uniquely exciting Summer Olympics, sports have been on my brain more than usual lately. Additionally, I’m in the throes of developing a script about a former boxer and I’ve grown obsessed with the most throughly research, yet down-to-Earth internet writing out there, on Grantland – primarily a sports blog. I’ve taken this sports-mindedness as an opportunity to finally dive headlong into ESPN’s Emmy-winning documentary series ’30 for 30′. I’ve seen a number of these already, but there’s a wealth of creative storytelling out there that I was yet to get to.
My impressions of the beginning of the series were pretty mixed. Mostly, the filmmaking seems scattered, if stylistically off-putting. Often, I’m struck by the inconsistency of tone and the lackluster cinematography. However, as stories go, these pieces are solidly told. They are emotionally serious and bring light to just how important sports are to a nation with multitudes. Many topics are explored such as the aging of the human body, the bond of communities, and the worship of idols and teams. Yet, there’s only one real constant that appears in each iteration of ’30 for 30′. Put simply, this topic has to do with how predominately white businessmen make decisions that affect entire generations of communities and cities because of the bottom line. There’s a disconnect between the emotional prowess that sports can bring to places that are otherwise down and the needs of corporate ownership who see the team as just another product.
When the Oilers sent Gretzky to the Kings, they did so because they were not going to be able to afford to pay the greatest player in the history of the game and still turn a satisfying profit. When an aged Muhammed Ali was sent out to be beaten into meat loaf by a far stronger (and younger) Larry Holmes, there was still profit to be had for Ali’s name on the fight card, so any thought to call it off was blinded by money. Now, it’s easy to get glassy-eyed about people losing something that bonded fathers and sons, economical-busted American towns, and brought peace to a divided nation, without seeing the big picture. If you run a business then your job is to make as much profit as possible within the legal means provided you as the owner. The real sadness of the first ’30 for 30′ films is how hamstrung players, coaches, and fans alike are to standing up for themselves and personalizing their own brand. It seems the real tragedy is that these people see themselves as voiceless products just like the owners do, thus handing over all the power to the those who control them. After wading through the half-dozen films that start the series, I finally came to the one that strikes me as an exemplary shift in tone and overall purpose.
Enter the Miami Hurricanes. From their aptly titled theme song, ‘It’s All About the U” sung by 2 Live Crew to their smoke-filled entrances to their mid-drift jerseys to smack-talking and fistfighting, Miami laughed in the face of fight songs and button-down suits. And they did it to the tune of four national championships in less than a decade. The U argues quite convincingly that Miami single-handedly changed the landscape of sports, and perhaps entertainment, forever. One might argue that Reggie Jackson and the Bronx Zoo had a hand in the craziness, but that was far too white collar a problem, with the owner too close to trigger to count in the same way. No surprise that The U is the highest rated documentary ever to appear on ESPN. With a fairly straight-forward narrative and the kinds of bells-and-whistles visual effects you’d expect to see on The History Channel, The U slyly tells the story of a marked change in the history of our sports.
Coinciding with the emergence of Hip Hop as a profitable and personal art form, the University of Miami recruited in its poorest surrounding neighborhoods. Untethered to the moral high ground of traditional scouting, the Miami staff unabashedly packed their team with the toughest talents they could find. This isn’t the kind story where black kids happily get an opportunity to come out of the ghetto and play in the white man’s world. The U’s about a group of kids who were frustrated, had chips on their shoulders, and wanted to channel everything that they were into the national profile of the game they played.
I can’t really remember a time where sports were less a form of performance art and more pure sportsmanship. As far as I can think back, there’s been Dennis Rodman, The Late Show, McGwire/Sosa, The Lebron James Parade and many, many other stories that felt like they belonged as much on Page 6 as the back page of the NY Post. What The U really illuminates is how, in the past three decades, cultures have collided in the entertainment arena, whether it be sports or otherwise, with conservative thinking being usurped by the precarious creators (or players). The desperate control to instill mindless rules like no dancing in the end zone or no smack talk have done little to dampen the extreme popularity of sports led by outspoken athletes.
After The U’s said and done, the sad legacy of the momentarily great school left me wondering if the inmates really do run the asylum nowadays, or if the money-machines have just learned to monetize different cultural concepts in different ways. After all, these young athletes are still being plucked from poor neighborhoods, put on display like gladiators without any pay, and then shipped away, either to the NFL or the hospital.
The concept of entertainment in sports may have been born out of personal expression by the likes of the University of Miami and other young men who truly believed that the game needed them more then they need the game, but has the entertainment aspect now allowed it to be controlled even more? With ad revenue pouring in at alarming rates, seeing as live sporting events are the only television broadcasts networks can actually count on for ratings, the corporate power has pacified players by throwing money at them, and keeping their mind off the fact that most of them are still just a UPC number. Especially in football, where the pay does little to rectify the lasting torment to the body for most players. There seems to be another form of Roman sport going on, with us as viewers grinning and nodding along. Only now the ones who don’t get eaten by lions get to drive Bentleys until they turn turn into vegetables.
The U is a brilliant documentary because of how it fits within the larger series and because of what it says about the growing cultural splinters of a fame-based society. Everything in the film, down to its gaudy graphic designs, works to comment on the power of entertainment-sports in a culture that pays far too much for what it doesn’t need and lets a lot of people take financial advantage of what it does.