SPORTS FILMS AND HISTORY
Knute Rockne—All American (1942) offers an example of this combination of utopian simplicity and historical complexity. In keeping with the patriotic tone of many Hollywood films made during World War II, Rockne's life is shown as representative of the social mobility possible in America: even a boy from a working-class, immigrant family can grow up to become a national sports hero. Yet while Knute Rockne—All American ostensibly offers the biography of the Notre Dame football coach as historical proof of the American dream, it inadvertently makes reference to the selective nature of this social mobility.
The film unintentionally shows that such opportunity did not extend to African Americans. Blacks appear only as minor characters in most sports films prior to the early 1950s, a marginalization which reflects their exclusion, until just before that time, from the highest levels of most commercial sports. Despite their brief appearance in the film, the two black characters in Knute Rockne—All American qualify its affirmation of the American Dream. In an early scene, when young Knute plays football for the first time in a sandlot game, an African American boy running the ball for the other team knocks him flat. The only other appearance of an African American character comes much later in the film, when Rockne, now the famous football coach at Notre Dame, returns to South Bend on the train after a tough loss. A black porter stops at the door of his compartment and asks Rockne if he would like his suit brushed off before they arrive. The presence of the porter ironically recalls the boy who had run over little Knute in the football legend's first experience with the game that was to make him famous. The difference in social position between Rockne and the porter suggests why the experience of the African American boy appears nowhere but in the one
Despite the attempt in Hollywood sports films to leave out issues such as racism, sexism, class difference, homophobia, and even the physical limits on athletic productivity brought on by injury, illness, or age, the need to plausibly resemble the real sports world requires some representation of these influences on individual performance. Yet, even when sports films must acknowledge impediments to individual achievement, self-reliance is generally held up as the only way to overcome such barriers. In this regard the influence of the Hollywood sports film can be seen on films about athletics made outside the United States such as Chariots of Fire (1981) and Bend It Like Beckham (2002), which also follow this pattern of showing how a strong faith in individual achievement overcomes larger social forces.
Feature films about sports are especially fond of the idea that history is made by individuals. Only eleven feature films about sports history are not biography films (biopics): The Harlem Globetrotters (1951), The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars and Motor Kings (1976), Miracle on Ice (1981), Hoosiers (1986), Eight Men Out (1988), A League of Their Own (1992), When We Were Kings (1996), Soul of the Game (1996), Remember the Titans (2000), Friday Night Lights , and Glory Road (2006)—and even these focus primarily on two or three main characters. Just as biopics promote the concept of self-reliance, media portrayal of sports in general also gives the greatest recognition to star performance, regardless of any gestures they might make to teamwork, fair play, and fan communities.
Even when teamwork figures prominently in media narratives about athletics, it doesn't reduce the value placed on individual performance. Rather, like the middle-class nuclear family, the team operates as a social structure to foster the development of self-reliant individuals; self-effacing play therefore subordinates itself to the more recognized actions of the star. Hoosiers offers a good example of this privileging of star performance. Although much of the film is a nostalgic parable involving a big-city basketball coach who learns the importance of teamwork and community in a small Indiana town, that thematic emphasis is subordinated in the film's climactic scene to the individual heroism of a game-winning basket by a star player.
As part of their affirmation of the idea of meritocracy, media representation of professional sports continually remind us of the standard of living which star players achieve. While reports of seven- and eight-figure annual salaries create the fan resentment one hears expressed on sports-talk radio and finds in a film such as The Replacements (2000), they also reinforce the belief that opportunity for economic advancement exists in American society. The blockbuster Jerry Maguire makes this optimistic interpretation of big contracts its central theme.
The realism of sports films increases their historical complexity, but it can also support their endorsement of self-reliance. This realistic style figures most prominently in action scenes involving footage of actual contests, or set in stadia filled with crowds of extras, employing authentic uniforms and equipment and, often, real athletes. These cinematic contests are frequently narrated by announcers in the style of television or radio coverage and shown with a continuity-editing style that makes the sequence of shots seem motivated by the logic of the events rather than choices made by the filmmakers. For sports films this representational style has special resonance because it recalls real events in sports "history": athletic contests that the audience has witnessed in the past. Heightened realism in scenes in which the star competes is especially important in validating a belief that individual performance in these situations counts most in the achievement of success.