This essay is one of more than 20 nominations for SI's 2014 Sportsman of the Year. You can see all of this year's nominees here.
Maybe you noticed. Maybe you didn’t. The summer went by without a significant sports movie. Which was in keeping with the times.
From, say, the mid-80s to the mid-90s, Hollywood was in love with sports. Season after season, the tastemakers pumped out classics: Karate Kid, Hoosiers, Major League, Jerry Maguire, Bull Durham, Field of Dreams, Rudy, League of Their Own, The Natural, assorted Rockys. Even objectively bad sports movies had enduring cult appeal.
Today, it’s hard to get any sports movie greenlit. And usually those few that do get made are adaptations of books (Blind Side, Seabiscuit), star vehicles (The Fighter, the unwatchable Trouble With the Curve), or both (Brad Pitt in Moneyball.)
The given reason for this slowdown: sports don’t translate to the foreign market. Notre Dame walk-ons; the mystique of Indiana basketball; ghost baseball players in Iowa cornfields… they don’t sell tickets and DVDs (remember DVDs?) and downloads in Dubai, Mumbai, and Shanghai
But the suspicion here is that something else is going on: Sports already provide so much organic drama, who needs the inorganic variety?
My Sportsman of the Year isn’t a sportsman (or woman) at all. It’s an abstract concept -- we’ll call it theatrics. It’s the great underpinning of sports. And it was thrown into particularly sharp relief in 2014.
Want to know why sports are immune to the DVR, a major reason rights fees continue to escalate? Want to know why, at a time of relentless media and entertainment options, sports play such a prominent role in our culture, more popular than ever? Want to know why sports are ideal for social media? Theatrics.
Theatrics means two-out and the bases loaded in the bottom of the ninth. It means overtime, World Cup penalty shoot-outs and tiebreakers in the fifth set. But it also means tension and drama and sinuous plot lines. It means crimes that don’t fit punishments. It means heroes and villains and figures that transform themselves.
Name a theatrical premise and sports had it in 2014.
Themes of redemption and homecoming? Check.
The crusty authority figure who’s actually soft on the inside? Check.
Stranger-than-fiction storylines? Check. Wait a sec: the president of the Lakers is engaged to the president of the Knicks? Alex Rodriguez is coming back to the Yankees; and the man who pursued him is now the new baseball commissioner?
The temptation is to ask: Who writes this stuff, anyway? But the answer, of course: no one.
Even the 2014 sports scandals were thoroughly theatrical. Regardless of your level of outrage, we can probably find agreement here: the current NFL crisis makes for gripping cinema. Hypocrisy, scapegoating, powerful institutions shaken to their foundations. A cover-up and a clandestine videotape? Subthemes of race and misogyny? Usually we pay $12 to watch this sort of stuff -- and we’re out in two hours.
Last month, Roger Goodell gave that disastrous press conference. At a moment that called for leadership and substance, he betrayed neither. But go back and read the criticism on social media -- much of it issued by NFL players -- and, more than anything, it was inauthenticity that was so rankling to so many.
He learned the hard way what Hollywood already knew. Contemporary sports resist scripting. They are naturally theatrical, which is why we love them so.