The rise of the sports management movie

In Hollywood, management has become a spectator sport

April 27, 2014 3:15AM ET
Kevin Costner in the movie “Draft Day.”
Summit Entertainment / Everett Collection

The American sports movie always proceeds in the same fashion. A ragtag group of misfits and nitwits come together, put aside their personal problems and form a team. There will be a mandatory training montage, a romantic entanglement, a moment of great doubt and a coach who really believes. Together they prove, somehow, to be much more than the sum of their parts — and, reliably, the joint solution to all of their personal problems. Finally, we see the big game, which our heroes win against all odds.

There are variations on this narrative. Perhaps the movie concerns an individual sport such as boxing or tennis, so there’s only one misfit; sometimes an assistant coach can’t actually overcome his drinking problem; sometimes the romance falls apart. But the basic structure is rarely violated. Sports movies deploy the communal values of teamwork and the pseudo-democratic ideal that hard work can get you anywhere to tell that most beautiful Hollywood story: America is a nation of underdogs who persevere and ultimately overcome.

This is pure ideology, of course. But it’s quickly growing outdated. There’s a new breed of sports movie in town, one that does away with all that pesky team building and ersatz democracy. These films celebrate the real heroes of sports, the real heroes of any workplace: the bosses. 

Wheeling and dealing

Draft Day, released by Lionsgate on April 11, has the dubious honor of being a sports movie that includes maybe one minute of sports actually being played. Instead, it is made up almost entirely of shots of white people in suits talking on the phone. “Draft Day” is basically sports management “24,” taking place entirely within one 12-hour workday (on-screen ticker included) in the life of (fictional) Cleveland Browns General Manager Sonny Weaver Jr.

But this isn’t just any day; it’s NFL Draft Day — the day when NFL teams select the best talent from college football to join their rosters — and we watch Weaver (Kevin Costner) wheel and deal for an amazing series of acquisitions. Along the way, he has to contend with an intransigent coaching staff, the ever-looming salary cap (seriously) and a host of other long-suffering football franchises in need of a big win. We are also told that Cleveland doesn’t have anything going for it except its sports teams and that the whole city is relying on Weaver to be a hero.

Employee surveillance, deal making, giving orders: These are the epic fourth-down conversions and Hail Mary passes of ‘Draft Day.’

When Weaver’s not clinching deals with other GMs, he’s heroically keeping his employees in line — in particular, butting heads with the new hot-shot coach and looking after the comic-relief-in-the-form-of-an-unpaid-intern who is having a rough first day — and evaluating all the data available about prospective draft picks. Employee surveillance, deal making, giving orders: These are the epic fourth-down conversions and Hail Mary passes of “Draft Day.”

Fan culture

“Draft Day” is just an extreme example of this new breed of films — a subgenre that has been occasionally visible in the past 20-odd years of sports movies, but that has become much more prevalent of late. From “Jerry Maguire” to “Moneyball,” from “Coach Carter” to “Two for the Money,” the central narrative of the sports movie is being displaced from the feats of the actual athletes to the “struggles” of the manager, the coach, the publicist, the agent. Rather than being underdogs because they’re quirky and don’t play by the rules, these bosses are underdogs because the front office has less money to play with — like the Browns, or “Moneyball’s” Oakland A’s. Even today’s more traditional ragtag sports movies — “The Miracle,” “Remember the Titans,” “Any Given Sunday” or “Friday Night Lights” feature the coach, not a player, as the protagonist.

The evolution of sports movies reflects a shift in general sports fan-culture. When the subgenre’s ur-text, “Jerry Maguire,” came out, Tom Cruise’s idealistic sports agent could genuinely claim, in an introductory voice-over: “I’m the guy you don’t usually see. I’m the guy behind the scenes. I’m the sports agent.” But since that film, the business side of sports has become ubiquitous. The NFL draft is a major annual event that football fans tailgate for. Lebron James’ press conference about his free agency was made into must-see sports television. And millions of fans play at being the managers of their own sports teams, crunching the numbers in fantasy leagues.

Why the shift? One major function of the sports management movie is racial reappropriation. How do you give white people credit for the exploits of the mostly black and Latino athletes who fill today’s professional sports rosters? Celebrate the managers, of course.

The sports management movie performs the important ideological operation of shifting our sympathies from workers to management.
Brad Pitt in “Moneyball.”
Columbia Pictures / Everett Collection

The upcoming film “Million Dollar Arm, which looks to be “Slumdog Millionaire” meets “Bull Durham,” promises to make many of these racialized undercurrents explicit. In the film, a failing sports agent played by Jon Hamm goes to India to recruit cricket bowlers and bring them back to America as Major League Baseball pitchers. In the process, he begins to think of these Indian prospects as his sons, and learns a valuable lesson (at the expense of their lives being totally uprooted) about family. The film’s on-the-sleeve racism, which it can’t even resist displaying in the trailer — we watch one of these Indian professional athletes wave his hand in wonder at the automatic sensors in an elevator door — shows exactly how lionizing sports businessmen can be used to downplay, even mock, the achievements of nonwhite athletes.

The sports management movie performs another important ideological function: the transfer of popular sympathies from workers to management. Americans are loath to think of athletes as exploited — after all, they get paid so well! — but the fact is that big league athletes not at the very top of the heap get five, maybe 10 years of pay, after which they often find themselves unskilled, jobless and saddled with the debts and expenses that can come from having had an incredibly high income and then suddenly losing it. To say nothing of potentially suffering lifelong physical or mental injuries. Within two years of retirement, 78 percent of NFL players are broke, while more than 60 percent of NBA players are broke within five.

Sports management films come down very clearly in the debate around athlete pay and exploitation: athletes work for the boss, period. At best they can be loyal and hardworking employees, at worst ungrateful divas. Sometimes, rather than employees, they are treated as commodities or chess pieces for the hero to play with. But they are always objects, not subjects, of their own destinies, even sometimes of their own games.

Ideological games

In “Moneyball” — perhaps the most ideologically aggressive of the entire genre — one of the key bonding experiences between GM Billy Beane and new Assistant GM Peter Brand involves Beane teaching Brand how to fire a ballplayer. The entire film celebrates the transition in front office strategy from an “old-fashioned” focus on the skills of particular athletes (as symbolized by the geriatric talent scouts, one of whom objects, “This is not about statistics, it’s about people!”) to the new acronym-laden data-focused baseball-management “science” called sabermetrics.

What happens when fans start to think like owners, to dream of firing baseball players rather than joining them on the field?

This transition, from a star- and skill-focused appreciation of the game, its teamwork and its intangibles to the purely statistical production of victories by management, represents not just a move within the sports film genre itself but also the shift from traditional production-driven economies to just-in-time, logistics-driven service economies. Such a succinct romanticization of massive economic and ideological developments is certainly worth a best-picture nod.

The traditional sports movie spins a myth that’s deeply important to America’s self-image: that it is a nation of underdogs, of the scrappiest and hardest-working, built on equality of opportunity, out of teamwork built by competition. That’s why, year in and year out, the same story is told with minor variations.

So what does it mean when even this tale starts to fray, when the movies stop even pretending that it’s the team that matters and instead celebrate the boss at its head? What happens when fans start to think like owners, to dream of firing baseball players rather than joining them on the field? Such dreams have consequences well outside the movie theater, and far beyond the nosebleeds.

Willie Osterweil is a writer and an editor at The New Inquiry and the frontman of the punk band Vulture Shit.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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