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30 for 30 reviews: Pony Excess

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Pony Excess tells a story I didn't already know, that of the corruption at Southern Methodist University's football program back in the 1980s.  They eventually ended up getting the "Death Penalty" under NCAA rules, when they caught caught so many times in quick succession that their program was deemed so corrupt that it needed to be shut down for a year.  The program was forced to shut down for a year, and chose to stay shut down for an additional year when they couldn't play any home games by NCAA sanctions.  This ruined the football program, and is still the harshest penalty ever given out for recruiting violations.

Everybody knows that Division I college football is corrupt. Everyone has heard the stories, including the recent stories at OSU and at Miami.  And everyone knows this corruption is not a new thing, but that it goes way, way back.  As an aside, you can check out one of the earliest allegations of corruption that I know of by reading Out of Their League by Dave Meggyesy (my review is here).  But I didn't realize how overt it could be until I saw this movie.  The blatant violations that some of these Texas schools were getting away with was just ridiculous.  Eric Dickerson got a gold sports car and no reporters followed up on this? 

The film is a little bit jumpy, and a little bit overeager to make quick cuts and dynamic shots, but the content is very strong.  I'm pretty jaded for tales of corruption in college football, and this was still salacious enough for me to have my jaw on the floor for the first half of the movie.

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30 for 30 reviews: The Birth of Big Air

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This is right in the sweet spot for these ESPN 30 for 30 documentaries.  Matt Hoffman, the father of modern BMX trick riding, is the perfect combination of marginally famous, but very influential.  His impact on his sport, and on sports in general, is significant.

The craft of the documentary is not particularly amazing.  Much of the film subsists on interviews, and unfortunately, the documentary maker doesn't seem to have great interview skills.  Unlike some of the best of the series, like Winning Time, the interviewees seem a little bit stiff.  This documentary does compensate by having some pretty great backyard footage, and seems to have very thoroughly gone through film and television archives for items like Hoffman's appearance on Wide World of Sports, as well as several jumps from early competitions.

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30 for 30 reviews: House of Steinbrenner

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House of Steinbrenner is the first outright bad movie I've seen in the 30 for 30 series.  It's very clear that the director, Barbara Kopple, is from New York and thinks that it's really unique to like the Yankees a lot.  And then she created a one hour documentary about the Yankees, because everybody likes the Yankees, right?  Blech!

House of Steinbrenner is supposedly about George Steinbrenner and the job he did to reinvent the Yankees as a dominant sports franchise, but it comes across as rampant boosterism.  We get to experience the trauma and heartbreak that the Yankees felt when their last season didn't culminate in a World Series victory.  Poooooor Yankees.  But then we got to experience the redemption when they won a World Series in the first year at their new stadium.  Gosh, aren't they lucky?

Yankees fans are so spoiled, and they seem to have an endless appetite for being told how special they are.  Meanwhile, to most of the rest of baseball, the Yankees are a good example of just what is wrong with baseball, specifically that they are able to outspend everybody else, and win a ton of championships as a result.  Sure, they have some prospects come up through their system, but they are also able to get the number one free agent, year after year, as well as retain all of their current stars.  It'd be easy for any team to win championships under those conditions.

The film is pretty nauseating.  If you're not a Yankees fan, it's intolerably New York-centric, and just not worth the time it takes to watch it.

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30 for 30 reviews: Unmatched

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Unmatched is an adequate, but kinda boring documentary about the rivalry between Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova in women's tennis in the 70s and 80s.  It does that thing that some mediocre documentaries do, which is to make it clear that there's an interesting story here somewhere, but that this documentary couldn't find it.

Tennis isn't always the most riveting sport, but there's some good material in this rivalry.  Evert and Navratilova faced each other in the finals so many times that it's absurd.  The length of their rivalry makes Nadal/Federer look pedestrian.  This documentary's schtick is to find them both and put them together, ask them to talk through their old rivalry.

It turns out that these two are very familiar with each other already, acquaintances and probably friends as well.  They clearly already have a lot of post-career history.  But the chemistry between them doesn't always work.  Chris spends a lot of the movie talking, much much more than Martina.  It felt like this was Chris' movie, Martina just happened to be in it for some of the time.

Add in a dose of schmaltz with the choice of "Thank You" by Natalie Merchant thrown in, as well as the shots of them driving around in a convertible in the forests of Northern California, and it just is all a bit too much.  I learned more about Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova, but I found myself thinking that I didn't think that I needed to know this much.

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30 for 30 reviews: Run, Ricky, Run

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Ricky Williams is an enigma, for sure.  There are very, very few professional athletes who walk away from their sport before the sport is finished with them.  The vast majority of professional athletes are cut in favor of somebody younger, somebody with more potential, or somebody more talented.  Those few athletes who do walk away from the game on their own terms are the superstars of the league, the ones who have long, illustrious careers and finally call it quits when reality sets in.  But very, very rarely do players retire while they are still at the peak of their game.  Barry Sanders is one.  Pat Tillman is arguably one, although he didn't so much desire to quit football as he desired to join the military and serve some sort of duty to country.  Ricky Williams is another.  He led the league in rushing, failed a drug test, and walked away from the NFL while he was arguably the best running back alive.

Of course, this is just one of the many puzzling choices that Williams has made over his career.  He hired an entertainer with no experience in sports to negotiate his contract, a contract that is one of the most one-sided deals in history.  He conducted most of his first interviews wearing his helmet.  He converted to Hinduism in a sport that doesn't usually take to spiritual journeys of finding oneself.

And this movie made me love him for it.  I knew Ricky Williams had some quirks, but I never actually had them all laid out in front of me.  There's also some genuinely intimate footage of Williams, when he is out of football for a year.  I found that I really empathized with Williams.  He's iconoclastic enough to quit football, confident enough to buck popular opinion.  He's willing to take time for himself, in ways that much of society doesn't want to understand.  Perhaps I'm projecting a bit, but it feels like the classic twentysomething's conundrum, Williams just had to take care of it under the glare of a national media.

The craft of this documentary is nothing special, but the content is really fascinating.  It caused me to change my views on Williams, and portrays an athlete at his most vulnerable.  It's a rare treat to see this kind of glimpse behind the smoke and mirrors of the NFL.

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A primer on the NFL's labor stoppage, and why the players are in the right.

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If you're a sports fan and not living under a rock, you know that the NFL owners have locked out the players. Of course, labor is complicated, and, let's be honest, it is way beyond most of the mouth-breathing sports media out there to explain it in any coherent fashion. 

So that's where I come in.  I'm not going to claim to be a world-renowned expert on sports labor, but I do keep an eye on it as kind of an amateur hobby.  Here's the basics of the current situation, neatly distilled for your consumption.

Way back in 1993, the owners and the players agreed to a way to share revenue and establish business relations that has undergone minor revisions every few years, but has mostly stayed consistent.  This established free agency as well as the salary cap, and also set revenue sharing in the current state it is in.

Fast forward to 2006.  In 11th hour talks between then-commissioner Paul Tagliabue and then-players union head Gene Upshaw, the players and the owners agreed to, well, keep things operating at the status quo, which seemed to be working out well as the NFL was experiencing record growth and bringing in more and more money every year.

The owners didn't so much like this, as for whatever reason, they felt like they deserved a larger slice of the revenue.  So they decided to plan ahead.  They made sure that there was a contract in the TV deal that paid them, even in the event of a work stoppage, even if they were the ones who initiated it.  The TV stations, knowing that they essentially have to take the deal that the NFL offers them, signed the contract.  Then, the owners promptly waited for the first moment they could opt out of their current labor deal, did so, and waited for the cash to pour in for a service that they cancelled in the first place.

Luckily, courts have ruled that this deal violates antitrust laws, so the owners aren't getting that money.  But don't you think that's a move in pretty bad faith?  Negotiating to get money for something you know you aren't going to deliver, and then using that money to fund a work stoppage of any significant length is deliberately using the system in a way that proves bad intentions.  Ick.

But let's get past that for a moment.  The owners say they deserve a larger slice of the television revenue.  Let's look at what the owners do.

1) Own a franchise in one of the most exclusive businesses the world knows.
2) Interface with the community (and the community just looooooves the owners, don't they?)
3) Pony up a large amount of money that is an almost guaranteed return on investment as the value of an NFL franchise hasn't dropped since the NFL was formed way back in the 1920s.

Tell me again, why is that so difficult?  I'm really struggling to figure out what value the owners really provide to the NFL.  I mean, really, if we got 32 different billionaires to run the teams, do we really think that the output of the NFL would be worse?  Not that I wish bad things for these 32 guys, but are they really that essential as individuals?

Meanwhile, let's look at what the players do.

1) They sacifice their physical well-being for years of their lives for the sake of playing football.
2) They are culled through intensive training for their entire lives to get to pro football.  Only the best of the best of the best make it to the NFL, and only the best of those manage to stick around for more than a couple years.

Can you imagine football without the players?  Do you think these guys are replaceable?  Do you think that, just maybe, they might be a little more integral to the game that the owners?

But the owners want more money.  Why?  Their big reason seems to be... get this... because they have output too much money building all the new stadiums, and they are in difficult straits.  These are the same stadiums that are largely funded through public contributions.  You know, the ones that taxpayers get coerced into paying for when the teams threaten that they will move if they don't get their stadium.  And this is the real kicker: guess who gets ALL of the revenue for these stadiums?  The owners.  The players don't see any of that revenue, and the cities are also snubbed except for a very few cases where they take a slice of concessions or application of a tax on tickets.  So all the additional value that these stadiums generate?  It is ALL going to the owners. 

Is it possible that these stadiums, despite the public funding for the initial building costs, and despite all the revenue they make, are still not profitable for the owners?  If that's true, the owners sure have a funny way of learning their lesson.  Owners continue to clamor for new stadiums in places like here in Minnesota and in St. Louis.  Why would they want to poison public opinion against them and generate a huge amount of ill-will by threatening to move in order to get a stadium that will be a financial burden on the franchise?  They don't.  They gain ill-will to increase profits.  The dirty secret that the owners don't want you to think about is that these stadiums are swindles on a citywide scale, which use public funds to line the pockets of some of the richest individuals in the country.

But the owners persist that they are in difficult financial straits, despite revenue continuing to go up, and franchise value also increasing.  The players are suspicious of this, and so they ask the owners to open up their books.  The owners have, after much coercion, offered to reveal team-by-team profit/loss figures, but only to an independent auditor agreed upon by both sides.  Did you catch that?  The owners, in essence, provide some very hazy figures, the type which are easy to manipulate to showing larger or smaller profit, the type which large corporations massage all the time in order to maniuplate their quarterly statements.  And then these numbers are not shown to the players, but rather to an independent auditor.  Call me cynical, but it seems very, very difficult for the players to verify anything about the owners' revenue when there's several layers of smoke and mirrors.

It's really quite simple.  If the owners really are in difficult straits, the players should be expected to give something up.  But its difficult to figure that, in a time when revenues continue to increase, and the values of franchises continue to skyrocket, that owners really aren't making enough money.  If the owners want to change the status quo on revenue sharing, they owe it to the players to prove that they are legitimately not doing well.  I'm not going to have much sympathy for a cabal of 32 of the richest people in America until that happens.

30 for 30 reviews: The 16th Man

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Most recent in the 30 for 30 series that I've watched is The 16th Man, the documentary on the South African rugby team's 1995 win in the Rugby World Cup.  Many of you will probably be familiar with this plot from the fictionalized account starring Matt Damon and Morgan Freeman titled Invictus, but I've never seen that film, and thus can't compare it.

16th Man is a movie I really should like, but don't.  It covers the intersection of sports and society in a way that I usually find compelling.  Mandela was a great man, and what he did in South Africa to unite a heavily divided country was masterwork.  But I just couldn't get interested.  I found my mind wandering, and overall, I kept wondering why I wasn't just watching Invictus instead.  The film isn't overtly bad, it's just not particularly interesting.  Not the best in the series.

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30 for 30 reviews: Silly Little Game

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Silly Little Game is a silly little movie.  It's about the genesis of fantasy baseball, the granddad of fantasy sports.  And it has all the trappings of a microhobby documentary, those documentaries about a small group of people who are really obsessed with something that is a niche hobby.  You've seen this sort of movie if you've seen King of Kong or Word Freak.

As with all of these types of movies, the result is a sort of celebration of the common Joe, and comes across as half fascinated reverence and half 'look at the crazy dorks."  It's a good formula, and like in the other movies, it works.  It's fascinating to see these microcelebrities thrown into the spotlight, as well as all their idiosynchracies.  They, after all, were obsessed enough with baseball to not only follow the game, but to decide that they wanted to invent a whole new game to obsess over it.  And they have their moments of oddity, as well as their moments of genius and absolute unabashed passion.

These guys also are revealed to be proto-hipsters.  They met in the worst restaurant they could find in New York, named this new game after it (which is why it was called 'Rotisserie' baseball), and then got together and promptly turned into absolute ridiculous nerds about a very specific subject -- baseball in this case.  You can see the reflection of the urban youth of today in these old guys and girl.  Perhaps hipster in its modern incarnation is older than I gave it credit for.

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30 for 30 reviews: The Guru of Go

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The 30 for 30 saga continues.  This was the one of only a few films in the series which covered a subject which I had never even heard of.  Well, really it had two subjects.  It was the bio of Paul Westhead, a pro and college basketball coach who implemented an offensive strategy simply called "The System," and the story of Hank Gathers, a talented star who played for Westhead at Loyola Marymount, and who tragically died on the court.

Somebody needs to tell ESPN that they don't need two films in one series on basically the same thing.  I already reviewed Without Bias, the earlier entry about a college phenom who tragically died before getting a chance to play in the NBA.  Sure, the cause of death was similar, but the ground they cover is very, very similar.  I just watched a family getting emotional about the untimely death of their basketball-playing son.  I just saw many people say how the death shocked them.  It just doesn't have the same ring seeing the same general narrative a second time.

The thing that is supposed to set this film apart from Without Bias is Westhead's story.  He's the actual Guru of Go, the title character.  He's portrayed as an iconoclast, a coach who bucked the common wisdom to create this revolutionary system.  True, his teams scored a lot of points, and he had some success, particularly when he had great players, but he also had some pretty bad times.  This is a guy who got three tries in the NBA, as well as three tries at major basketball powerhouses.  He always seems to get some kind of good coaching job, and he usually does... well, adequately.  Not great, but adequately.  Sometimes he's really bad.  I have a difficult time feeling bad for this guy, because although he seems to have gotten the shaft sometimes, he's also had a lot of success, and as far as head coaches go, he's had more chances than most.

So, you combine two not-particularly-compelling stories, and you get a mediocre mishmash.  Not the strongest entry in the series by any stretch.

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For those of you fascinated by Superbowl halftime shows

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I don't usually repost stuff I find around the web, but this video is just too much to ignore.

It has it all, including a pair of black people singing black people music.  Ouch.

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