There’s been a lot of buzz over the new film “The Express” about the life and death of Ernie Davis, the first African-American to win the Heisman Trophy. I have no doubt it will be a heartwarming film and will probably do pretty well at the box office. And Ernie Davis’ story is certainly one that deserves to be told.
But I’ll probably wait until it comes out on video if I see it at all.
Why? Well, I’ve grown quite annoyed with the predictability and cleaned-up nature of most of the sports movies that Hollywood produces these days. Time and time again, we see movies supposedly designed to depict real life in major sports, but these films are annoyingly devoid of the true raw, gritty nature of professional or collegiate athletics. Its always about athletes striving to achieve their dreams, overcoming obstacles and then doing the right thing, like going back to their wives and kids. Unlike most other genres of film, sports movies have been dumbed down so much that they are never realistic. If we can have rough-and-tumble movies about cops, soldiers and doctors, why can’t we have them about athletes, too?
The sports leagues themselves are largely to blame for this. The fact is that the top pro leagues will not allow their name and logo to be associated with any film that doesn’t paint the most flattering picture. So, any film that tries to portray things like steroid or drug use is shot down. Any movie with womanizing athletes can’t get the green light. Any film that shows the reality of gruesome injuries never sees the light of day. Even movies with athletes using excessive profanity can’t get made. So we’re left with movies about athletes that don’t cheat, don’t swear and never get seriously hurt.
Now, I’m not saying all sports movies should highlight all these negative things, nor am I suggesting that all athletes are bad. But any film that depicts life as a pro or college athlete should be more nuanced in its approach. It’s just a lot more interesting that way.
I wrote about this topic two years ago, when the NFL approved production of the film “Invincible,” about former Eagles special teamer Vince Papale. It was the first movie approved by the NFL since Jerry Maguire in 1996. That’s a ten-year span.
In my article (sorry, I can’t find an active link) I interviewed USC film professor Todd Boyd, who said that he prefers movies like Olver Stone’s “Any Given Sunday” or the former ESPN series “Playmakers” which depict a more well-rounded image of pro football. “Any Given Sunday” was produced using fictional teams and uniforms after the NFL rejected the script because of some unflattering elements. “Playmakers” also used a fictional football league.
“In those, you get a series of different representations,” Boyd said. “In fact, they’re the representations you read about. The representations you see in ‘Any Given Sunday’ are more complex. That film, to me, is actually more compelling.”