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Somebody made a movie about Jackie Robinson.  It's got Harrison Ford playing Branch Rickey.  It's okay.

This reminds me of that somewhat inexplicable burst of baseball movies in the 1990s, typified by movies like A League of Their Own, The Babe, and Sandlot.  Like those movies, 42 hearkens back to the golden age of baseball, and uses baseball as a lens to midcentury America.  It's sweet, verging on saccharine, and has a significant amount of "The Way We Were" about it.  It's also clearly supposed to be palatable for both adults and kids, something that, in this movie at least, takes away some of the effectiveness.

There are better civil rights movies, and better baseball movies.  Jackie Robinson was great, but there's better, more nuanced ways to learn his story.  Give this one a miss.

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30 for 30: Hawaiian: The Legend of Eddie Aikau

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It might be hard to believe here in the middle of the continent, but surfing is a sport too, and is the focus of one of ESPN's 30 for 30 series, The Legend of Eddie Aikau.

Aikau was a surfer from a young age.  He was a native Hawaiian, and he traced his cultural lineage directly to the native peoples who invented surfing, long before it got popularized into what we know it as now in the 50s and 60s.  Aikau is now a mythic individual, a real person who is more than his biography, and is now a folk hero and a symbol.  He was the prototypical Hawaiian -- not only was he a surfer, but he lived the prototypical poor, aloof, and water-based life of the displaced native Hawaiian.  American power-hungry domineering grated on native Hawaiians, with good reason.  Native Hawaiians still smarted from profit-driven American businessmen taking over the sovereignty of the Hawaiians in a coup, as well as the statehood subsequently granted to Hawaii.  In this filter, it doesn't take much to find insult in a bunch of white-as-snow Californians appropriating the sport of surfing with no regard to native Hawaiians.  As the film documents, for many of the first big tournaments that took place once surfing hit the big-time, not a single native Hawaiian was even invited to compete.  It is no wonder that Aikau, the first native Hawaiian to compete in those large tournaments, has come to be a stand-in for Hawaiian culture.

The irony here is that white culture is well familiar with the hero sticking up for culture and principle against long odds.  It's not hard to find it in the myths we tell ourselves, whether it be Washington at the Potomac or Jim Bowie at the Alamo.  For us to find ourselves looking at the story from the other side is an unsettling transmogrification.

The coda to the Aikau story is his senseless death.  The movie does its best to play it off as yet more myth, but it really is a stupid, stupid risk.  Aikau, continuing his role as the public figure stand-in for native Hawaii, was taking off with the Hōkūleʻa, a vessel built in the Polynesian style that was built to provide proof-of-concept that it was possible to make long-distance sea voyages using methods known to ancient Polynesians, to refute historians that short-sightedly claimed that no native peoples could have possibly made the voyage.  The Hōkūleʻa got caught in a storm on the first day out to sea, and it capsized and quickly became useless.  The boat was outside of the normal shipping lanes and flight paths, and so rescue was less likely.  So, Aikau decided to try to swim 12-15 miles to shore.  Aikau, already fatigued from lack of water and sun exposure, died in the attempt, while the rest of the crew was rescued when they were spotted by a passing plane.  Setting aside the high-risk trip, the decision to send Aikau alone to swim to Hawaii was a foolish one.  It did, however, give Aikau a hero's death, and solidified his larger-than-life symbolism.

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League of Denial

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By now, everyone knows about the NFL's shoddy record with concussions and the do-not-look-behind-the-curtain act the NFL has been pulling for quite some time in the face of mounting evidence.  Even my mother, a football skeptic from way back, knows about it.

However, the release of this new documentary on the head injury history of the NFL is still a watershed moment.  This is the first place I've seen to definitively find a smoking gun.  This establishes the pattern of the NFL of actively covering up and suppressing evidence, rather than merely pretending it doesn't exist.  It was the first organization to make strides in this area, and then when the news started getting bad, it was the first to actively try to suppress it.  It's pretty damning.

The documentary is not without its faults.  It's got some excellent reporting, and the movie could stand just fine on the strength of that alone, but it cheapens it a bit by appealing a little bit too desperately to emotion.  But it has a strong case to make, and it makes it well.  Worth a watch if you want to know just what all this head injury stuff is all about.  And hey, it's free online as of the time I'm writing this.

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30 for 30: The Fab Five

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Chalk this movie up to opening my eyes to something as a much more fascinating topic than I realized.  The hook: "Five freshmen came to Michigan to play basketball in 1991, and they comprised one of the best recruiting classes in basketball."  Ho hum, sounds like the kind of story that's been told thousands of time before any time an announcer wants to tell me that THIS sporting event is truly simple.

But these guys weren't just an amazing recruiting class.  These guys were a cultural symbol that transformed hoops from the culturally boring and lily-white hoops of Hoosiers to the black and much more entertaining sport that it is today.  These guys were enormously influential, and they were a big step in race politics of college.  

It's misleading to say that the shift was because of them.  Instead, they were part of a larger cultural shift, but because they were so good and willing to be just ever-so--slightly transgressive, they happened to be the focal point.  So many issues are still the subject of hand wringing NCAA apologists wishing for the way it [never] was.  They were paid against NCAA rules.  The university profited enormously from sales of licensed merchandise without them getting a dime.  They left school early. They wore baggy shorts.  Why, clearly they represent the downfall of society, can't you see that Doris?

The movie's pretty good too.  They're an amazingly media savvy bunch, with Juwan Howard and Jalen Rose providing great interviews.  The director subtly points the story where he wants it to go, and it's quite convincing.  One of the best of the 30 for 30 films.

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Going Big

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It's been so long since I've seen some of these things that I've forgotten what some of them even are.  I had to look up this movie to even remember what it was about, and the recollection, when it came, was foggy.

Sam Bowie was drafted one pick before Michael Jordan.  He went on to have a quite respectable career.  However, because people are irrational assholes, he was branded a failure because he wasn't as good as Jordan.  This is... stupid.  The movie is plenty watchable, but it obviously doesn't make much of an impression.  Pass.

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30 for 30: You Don't Know Bo

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Nobody really knows Bo Jackson, or at least, nobody knows who Bo could have been.  Bo is legendary.  Not only was he the subject of an incredibly influential Nike campaign during his heyday, but he also was incredibly physically gifted, the kind of pure athlete that comes along approximately once per century.  It sounds like hyperbole to compare him to Jim Thorpe, but there was nobody else (with the possible exception of Babe Didrikson Zaharias) who rose so meteorically to the pinnacle of multiple sports. 

There is a place in our culture for the documentary that tells a well-known tale, but tells it with such crystalline structure that you fall in love with the subject all over again, a la the documentaries of Ken Burns.  This is a good example of one of these documentaries.  The exploits of Bo are so incredible that they become almost legendary.  It's no coincidence that Paul Bunyan comes up multiple times in this documentary.  To have them lovingly compiled and present in one exceptionally well-crafted documentary is a treat.

This is one of the best of the series.

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30 for 30: Catching Hell

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Once, back in 2003, it looked like the Cubs were going to win the World Series.  Then, they choked in a playoff game, and it all got blamed on one fan: Steve Bartman.

The act was simple.  The Cubs led the Marlins in the National League Championship Series 3 games to 2, and they led the game 3-0 with five outs left to go.  Then, they allowed a double, and then the next batter hit a long foul ball toward the third base side.  Steve Bartman, an unassuming Cubs fan sitting in the front row, reached out for the ball, along with several other fans.  Bartman deflected it enough the Moises Alou, reaching into the stands, couldn't catch it for the second out.  The Marlins, then hung 8 runs on the Cubs, who went on to lose the game, as well as the following game and then the series.  And so died the most recent good hope of winning a World Series.

Chicagoans have fixated on Bartman as the reason that the Cubs lost that night.  Never mind that Alou was reaching into the stands, where it's allowed by the rules for the fans to catch the ball.  Never mind that Bartman was one of five or so fans reaching for the ball, one of which doubtlessly would have knocked away the ball if Bartman hadn't.  Never mind that the catch was a difficult one, and there's no guarantee that Alou would have caught it.  Never mind that the Cubs pitchers had already allowed a double that inning, or that they couldn't get two outs before giving up eight runs, or that the best-fielding shortstop in the league muffed an inning-ending double play.  Never mind that the Cubs flubbed their chance to win game 7, or that they had already lost two games earlier in the season.

No, this was clearly Steve Bartman's fault, and Chicago let him know it.  This is a shaming moment in the history of sports fandom, not for Bartman, but for everybody who blamed him.  For the people who threw beer and concessions on and at him.  For every one of the thousands of fans who chanted "Asshole, asshole, asshole" that night in the stadium.  For the people who leaked his name and address and forced him to get police protection.  This was a symbol of just how badly things can go wrong when individuals start acting under the mob mentality.

As for the documentary, it does an excellent job telling a very compelling story.  As the director is a Red Sox fan, he compares the incident with Bill Buckner's infamous error in the 1986 World Series.  The connection is apt.  As Buckner's life was ruined, so was Bartman's, though the same vileness and sense of revenge.  This documentary made me feel, and that's a rare thing.

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30 for 30: There's No Place Like Home

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Uh, yeah.  James Naismith invented basketball in Massachusetts.  Then he went to Kansas and started the basketball program, where he coached for 8 years and posted a losing record.

Fast-forward more than a hundred years, and Naismith's great grandson decides he wants to sell the original rules that Naismith typed up.  A Kansas fan hears that this is the case and makes it his personal goal that Kansas should have the rules.  Never mind that they should probably be in Springfield, where the game was actually invented, if you want to stick with historical fidelity.

The documentary may seem like its about the rules, but this is more about the farce that unchecked fandom can become.  Basically, it's amazing to see this fan just believe so strongly in this.  I mean, really, this guy invents a cause which he believes will mystically bring success to his team (or at least strongly implies it).  Then, he decides that, even when the school doesn't really seem to want them, he's going to do an end run and make sure that the school gets them for sure.

In the end, what has he accomplished?  He played on the emotions of an overly rich Kansas fan, who decides that the rules just maybe going to Duke would be a Fate Worse Than Death and that he's willing to bid, well, whatever it takes.  So a rich guy and this really dedicated, somewhat slimy-seeming guy get together and bring the rules to Kansas, where they will... sit under glass and high security for Kansas fans to pass and think about how great their program is.

I like sports, I like history, but this is just a farce.  It really shows just how ludicrously much money some people have, and how they're motivated by the same stupid crap the rest of us are, just that they have more money.  This is a few people displaying questionable judgement, and us watching them do so.  It's fascinating in that train-wreck kind of way, but it is not the earnest thing that the documentary wants it to be.

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30 for 30: Ghosts of Ole Miss

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This movie is an identity piece, on what it means to be a white Southerner.  This iteration specifically focuses on the year of 1962, when the University of Mississippi football team went undefeated, but more importantly, when it was forced to integrate.

I didn't know much about the integration story of Ole Miss. It was vaguely familiar, but it was always overshadowed in my mind by the earlier, though less violent, school integration in Little Rock.  For that reason alone, I'm glad I watched this movie.

The chronicle of the history is mostly well done.  

The story is written by and narrated by Wright Thompson, a sportswriter from Mississippi.  The main theme of the movie is Thompson confronting Mississippi's ugly past, and trying to find a line between taking pride in his heritage and not being racist.  There's struggle with accountability, such as whether we should try to hold those responsible for the riots accountable (yes, obviously), and how a culture scarred by prior insensitive behavior should move on.

Though it's clearly thought out, it comes across as mealy-mouthed.  Thompson grasps that the confederate flag is offensive, for instance, and doesn't make too much of a fuss about the loss of the Colonel Reb mascot, but he is less certain about the song Dixie.  This is classic Southern want-your-cake-and-eat-it-too attitude, the same stuff that leads to the offensive lost cause Civil War ideology.

I've said it before and I'll say it again.  The Confederacy was racist.  Economically, the South was dependent on slave labor, and was willing to come to arms rather than give up that system.  The states rights argument is very clearly flawed, as the Constitution of the Confederacy was identical to that of the Union, but for one clause that explicitly allowed slavery.  That, folks, is a one-issue war, about the subjugation of blacks by whites.

By extension, any symbol that is primarily a symbol of the Confederacy is racist.  That this isn't accepted is shameful.  Our culture understands that the hateful symbols of, say, Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany are offensive, but the symbols of the Civil War South are allowed to remain, in the name of some sort of back-asswards tolerance.

The movie is well-made, and there's clearly thought here, but I just can't excuse what is still a flawed premise: That there's value in the cultural heritage and symbolism of the Confederate States of America.

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30 for 30: 9.79*

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Once upon a time, there was a very fast Canadian man.  That Canadian man won a gold medal in the 100m in Seoul in 1988.  Then it was revealed that he tested positive for performance enhancing drugs, and his medal was taken away.

The documentary does its homework.  Not only does it feature interviews with Johnson and most of his cohort in the Seoul final, but it's also tracked down trainers, testers, and commentators of the era.  Everyone in this scandal who is still living is interviewed here, and several of the dead ones are represented in archival footage, quotes, and photos.

Ben Johnson's 1988 medal race occupies a very prominent place in the discussion of steroids and sport.  I'm not really sure why this is.  Perhaps this was the first famous athelete from an English-speaking nation to get caught?  Now, after Lyle Alzadothe baseball senate hearings, and Lance Armstrong, it doesn't seem to have the same kind of impact that it did then.  Now it feels like one in a long line of steroid scandals, and not particularly exceptional.

Perhaps because of this perspective, it's easy to sympathize with Johnson.  Protestations that everybody was taking the stuff seem much more valid.  Carl Lewis, the American who was elevated to gold after Johnson was disqualified, comes across (accurately, from my understanding) as self-aggrandizing and untrustworthy.  There's juicy stories about Lewis' camp contaminating the test results, incriminating-sounding quotes, and allegations by other runners about Lewis.

Clearly, there's fishy stuff that went on all over the sport.  Johnson participated in it, and he got caught.  Does the fact that the corruption seemed to be sport-wide mean that we should take it easier on Johnson?  That argument for Johnson is very similar to the argument for Lance Armstrong in cycling, and I have never been able to buy it in Armstrong's case.  That could be my own biases against Armstrong, or it could be because Johnson doesn't have the ruthlessness or the strident denial characteristic of Armstrong.

In a story as complex as this one, this documentary does a very good job of staying even-handed.  Highly recommended.

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