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30 for 30: The Dotted Line

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30 for 30 brings on one of the heavy hitters with The Dotted Line in Morgan Spurlock, he of Super Size Me.  Spurlock here takes on the world of sports agents.

It shows that Spurlock has a lot of documentary making under his belt, as this is one of the most polished entries in the 30 for 30 series.  It's particularly interesting in light of the documentary 2 Days in April, which I recently watched and reviewed.  After all, much of the movie follows a young agent as he tries to land potential draftees, and the waiting tensely for the draft numbers to be called is particularly reminiscent of the other film.  Spurlock, however, manages to do that scene much better.  You care about the draftees much more, and for all that the agent never quite is completely sympathetic, you do feel for him regardless.

This documentary doesn't say a whole lot that savvy sports fans don't already know.  The NCAA doesn't adequately police agent relationship and agents are a necessary cog in the sports machines that look out for the well-being of the athlete.  But the way that it is said is a pretty compelling argument.  Spurlock is clearly a talented interviewer, as the personality of all of the interview subjects comes through very well.

This is one of the best 30 for 30 out there, and I would suggest watching it for anybody who likes the series.

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Sports media that doesn't suck

Hi, my name is Paul, and I am a sports fan.

It may seem odd to word that as a confessional, but the pervasive culture of sports is one of talking heads, empty non-analysis, pining for the old days that never actually happened, and casual misogyny.  I am proud of none of these things, and yet I like sports.  Why?  Partially because I love the competition, spectacle, and physical wonder of it all, but also in large part because I can tune out a lot of the really terrible sports media.

The thing about sports media is that it's not all bad, it's just that the easiest stuff to find is bad.  Almost everything on ESPN is atrocious, in-game commentary is usually full of platitudes, and the commercial culture surrounding sporting events is mostly a competition by advertisers to sell the best substitute for manhood manifested as beer, trucks, or hardware.  But the thing about sports media is that there's so much of it, that if you dig a little bit, you can find intelligent commentary and analysis.  I know when I started looking for this type of stuff, I despaired of ever finding it.  Here's hoping this list will save some people some time.

 

Hang Up and Listen
My favorite source of sports analysis, by far, is a weekly podcast put out by Slate.  It's run by a Slate Editor, a longform writer (who'll make another appearance in this list), and a contributor to NPR.  This is the best source I've found for focusing on sports as a lens for society.  There's frank discussion of race and gender, as well as plenty of harsh critique for sports media when they revert to peddling the same stale storylines.  If you track down one thing from this article, make it an episode of Hang Up and Listen.

Sports Illustrated
The august old sportsweekly is still one of the best sources for analysis of sports news.  While the internet has stolen some of the thunder of breaking news, SI has gracefully made the move to editorial voice and investigative reporting.  The Scorecard section is a wonderful summary of the past week's events that you may have missed, along with some great contextualization of those events.  The feature story at the end of the magazine, too, is almost always worth reading.  While not focused on current events, the writings of Gary Smith, S.L. Price, Grant Wahl, and others tends to be some of the smoothest writing out there.

A Whole Different Ball Game by Marvin Miller
I can't overstate how much change this single book brought to my viewpoint of sports.  Marvin Miller was the leader of the Major League Baseball Players' Association, and he was the driving force in the change of sports labor, and had a huge role in creating sports as we know them today.  He was also the man who had the nerve to rock the boat and point out that sports were business, and that the owners were pocketing all of the profits and stifling innovation.

Ball Four by Jim Bouton
A Few Seconds of Panic by Stefan Fatsis
Out of Their League by Dave Meggyesy
North Dallas Forty
It never fails to amaze me how much the athlete is treated simultaneously as hero and commodity.  These three books and one movie each talk about what it means to be a professional athlete.  It's easy to forget how hard you have to work to be a professional athlete, and it's easy not to realize how merciless it is as a profession.

30 for 30
Much as I don't like ESPN, they are the genesis of the 30 for 30 series.  It was originally created to chronicle 30 important moments in the 30 year history of ESPN, though it has since gone into a second series.  If you follow this blog, you already know that I watch these a lot.  The nature of the series (different director and creative team on every film) leads to hit-or-miss filmmaking, but generally this series is worth watching.  There are some stories I know, some I don't, but most of them are more than just the regurgitation of the dominant myth.  There's more thought put into this than most sports media, and it shows.

Honorable mentions:
Grantland has a good mix of news and number crunching for the hardcore fan, despite the fact that it's owned by ESPN.
The Classical covers sports with a literary bent.
The Best American Sportwriting anthologizes great longform writing for the past century, and every year since, just in case you missed it.
Ghosts of Manila by Mark Kram did a lot to make me realize that my distaste for certain sports had more to do with my unfair biases and less to do with the sport itself.

30 for 30: Roll Tide/War Eagle

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I'm a big fan of the 30 for 30 series.  It has brought some of the freshest takes on sports journalism in a long, long time.  I recommend it to anyone who is interested in sports beyond the mouthbreather Skip Bayless level.

But sometimes the 30 for 30 series gets too interested in peddling the mythology of the thing it's supposed to be analyzing, and then it just feels like a longform sportscenter featurette.  The House of Steinbrenner and Four Days in October both fall into this trap, and now Roll Tide/War Eagle joins that ignominious parade.

This documentary is probably fun if you're an Auburn or Alabama fan.  For the rest of us, it's an examination of one particular brand of fandom.  The film's biggest reveal is that an overly enthusiastic fan poisoned some traditional trees to really sock it to his rival.  Though this story is horrifying, it's also been covered extensively, and done better elsewhere.

As a whole, this is another one to miss.

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30 for 30: Unguarded

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This is one of the rare 30 for 30 stories I knew nothing about, probably I have only a passing familiarity with basketball.  This is drugs as seen though sport, specifically viewed in the context of Chris Herren.

Herren is homegrown Boston hero who made good by playing for his local high school, his local college, and eventually even his local pro team, but who lost it all due to drugs.  It's a well-known story, and the documentary feels mostly like a regurgitation of the motivational speeches that Herren now gives professionally.  This is a story that needs to be told, for societal as well as personal growth, but it doesn't necessarily make it a particularly interesting story.  This marks the second time that 30 for 30 has tackled drug use via college basketball, with the first being Without Bias, but neither one is particularly striking.  Perhaps it's time to look elsewhere for inspiration.

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30 for 30: The Announcement

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The Announcement is slightly overblown, but educational.  It's easy to forget about Magic Johnson, as it's easy to forget about most retired atheletes, but Magic occupies a special place in our culture for being one of the first stars in our culture to come out publicly with HIV.

The documentary is okay.  This is well-trodden territory, and the meat of the story is one of inspiration, almost like a promotional video for Magic.  There's space for that, but mostly I feel like I get too much of the mainline story already in sports, and I craved the additional access, the minor stories, and the feeling of depth that I get out of the best of the 30 for 30 films

But it's hardly a complete waste.  I learned some things, and I internalized others in a new way.  Magic Johnson was a bigger deal than I realized.  I was too young and not into basketball to really remember much more about him besides the HIV saga depicted here, but the first part of the movie does a really good job of explaining why Magic vs. Bird was such a big deal, and what the Showtime Lakers meant to basketball, and hinting at the rivalry between Michael and Magic.  And, Magic has remarkable camera presence.  He's got a 1000 watt smile, and he's smart and funny.  That alone makes the movie entertaining. 

You can afford to give this one a miss.

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30 for 30: The Marinovich Project

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I've been getting back into the 30 for 30 series again.  This, along with Renee, has been my favorite of the series thusfar.  The story of Todd Marinovich in the public eye is pretty simple.  Kid quarterback has amazing talent but gets into trouble repeatedly, gets drafted by the Raiders anyway, doesn't focus on the game, and so is quickly out of football and is proclaimed as a giant draft bust.  Sounds like Jamarcus Russell, but 15 years earlier which says as much about the Raiders organization as it does about the players.

The film's emphasis is on Marinovich's upbringing.  This is a kid who had a father much like Earl Woods or Richard Williams, but he had the idea earlier.  His child was going to be a quarterback, and he was going to be raised to be one from a very early age.  Everything in Todd's childhood was geared toward becoming a quarterback.  He got professional position coaching, he practiced for hours every day, he minimized his other childhood activities.

As Marinovich grew older, he began to realize that being a quarterback was no longer his highest priority.  Now, suddenly, all these other things are as important, such as fitting in, getting to hang out with other kids, and having the typical high school and college experience.  However, he still feels compelled to be a quarterback, and the pressure starts getting to him.  He starts losing himself in drugs, and he flames out after a solid college career and a short NFL career.

His story is a fascinating one, because we spend so much time talking about Tiger Woods and the Williams sisters.  We wonder what kind of a toll it takes on a child, and Marinovich is a good example of what the other side can look like.  This is a compelling story about the intersection of sports and humanity, just what the 30 for 30 series is best at.

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Two Days in April

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The NFL draft is an orgiastic media frenzy.  We get Mel Kiper hyperanalyzing every selection, with day-by-day draft boards, and media making speculations based sometimes on nothing more concrete than other media speculations.  The NFL feeds into this by extending the draft out to two days.  Largely lost in this is the actual players.  This is a meat market, where players are measured, graded, and ranked.  It's the pinnacle of the NFL season's emphasis on quantification over humanity.

Two Days in April is not the first item of media to point this out, but it is one of the starkest, and most in-depth looks at it.  The idea behind the film is quite simple: Follow four draft prospects during their preparations and through draft day.  Think Hoop Dreams for the NFL draft and you'll have a pretty good idea.

The movie's most effective statement is one of basic humanity, where players are real people with real hopes.  The NFL draft is engineered to take these people, chew them up, and spit them out.  If you have a draft-following friend who is getting on your nerves with platitudes, this is a good wake-up call.

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Silver Linings Playbook

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Silver Linings Playbook is the movie that was written, created, and produced just for me.  It's an indie-style drama from a well-regarded director with themes of sports, mental illness, and dance.  Just one of those themes would be enough for me to see the movie, but the fact that the movie exists means that a) I'm somehow exactly the perfect microcosm of Hollywood's data mining operation, or b) there's an amazing coincidence.

The movie is good, though I admit it was such a trip for me to personally watch it that I had difficulty focusing on the movie and establishing any kind of objective view.  It was a very good movie, possibly even a great movie.

Relatedly, Hollywood has been on a roll lately.  Perhaps it's just the Oscar season coming to a head, but there's been a lot of good stuff.  Les Mis, The Hobbit, Lincoln, and this have all been winners, and I've gone to see more movies in the last two months than I have over the previous part of 2012.  I only hope that somehow this keeps up.  Maybe that data mining operation is real after all.

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MXP

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Somebody actually went out and made a movie called Most Extreme Primate.  I couldn't help myself.  I had to see if it was real.

It was.  I stopped watching after 20 minutes.

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30 for 30: 40 Minutes of Hell

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Another solid entry in the 30 for 30 series.  This is a pretty straightforward sports documentary, albeit a good one.  This is a version of the sports trope cycle of adversity, triumph, fall from grace, and eventual redemption.  This particular version comes in the form of the career of Nolan Richardson, the basketball coach at Arkansas.  Highlights of this particular film are seeing Bill Clinton, basketball-fan-in-chief, and the rather disgraceful "shut up about race" dismissal of a black coach by a white establishment.

It's pretty clear that the major sports storylines were those covered in the first season: O.J., Michael Jordan, The Yankees, etc.  Now we're starting to get into the lower tiers.  Sure, this was interesting, but it was still one season, well-covered, and there's not that much more to say about it other than what the mainstream media has already said.  This wasn't an idiosynchratic blip like Tarry Richards in Into the Wind, or a crazy film style reimaging of a well-told story like June 17th, 1994.  I'm not saying the series has jumped the shark.  No, this film is too good for it.  But it is clear that the series is evolving.  We'll still get films like Renee, but we're going to see some more playing to the crowd as well.

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