23 March 2011

Because it was on TV: ESPN and the Significance of the Sports Documentary

On the Eve of the 2011 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament last week, ESPN aired a documentary directed by Jason Hehir called The Fab Five, concerning probably the greatest College Freshman Basketball Class ever recruited at a single school. The documentary was excellent and became the highest rated ESPN Film ever. This along with the channel's very critically and commercially successful 30 for 30 series got me thinking a bit more about the Old Boring Documentary. Are they making a comeback? Wait...are they making a...are they popular now?

Let's try a brief thought experiment. Imagine you're invited over to a friend's house to watch some great movie. You get there and it turns out it's a documentary. That's like thinking you're going to get ice cream that turns out to be prune flavoured. It's this bitter tease. Simply put, documentaries make you learn new interesting things. That's terrible. I want explosions, dammit. But these ESPN stories are different and that's the key right here - they're stories.

The 30 for 30 series explored History across all genders and Sports in honour of 30 years of ESPN. The best highlighted events that very interesting at the time but perhaps not well known today. I think that sometimes in the moment a sports season is actually too long to fully recognise what's happening. When the years-long story of a rise and fall of a program can be condensed into a 2-hour doc, it makes the events a bit more pertinent. We also get more angle to the story instead of simply reacting to news stories as we'd do on the outside. In ten or fifteen years we might see a LeBron Leaving Cleveland doc that shows a bit more of his perspective (this could equally damn and exonerate him) and a more rapid evaluation of events. Some of the best 30 for 30 Films are like this ("Straight Outta LA" concerning the Oakland Raiders' move to Los Angeles and "The U" concerning Miami University's success in the 1980s).

There are also films about great Sports controversies (You may also fill in LeBron here) that no one really knew the whole story with until a thorough documentary captured it. One of the most popular films, "Pony Excess," about the downfall of the SMU football program as well as "The Two Escobars" about the rise and influence of the Cocaine Industry on Colombia's Futbol Team fit this bill. It's not totally sports nor is it a boring style of documentary. They tell a sports story without Will Smith or Matthew McConaughey. It's stories over learning that hooks people in. Besides, it's also sports, so our culture doesn't it consider lame to watch. In fact, American Male Culture encourages a deep knowledge of Sports History and these Sports Docs give us a great opportunity to bolster that. This is all to say that documentaries are no longer that lame.

The Fab Five was excellent. As you can tell, this is really not just about sports. It's about cross-societal perception, culture war, race war and the trials of a handful of 18-year old kids who could play a hell of a game of ball that no one cared to give them credit for. It's the kind of documentary that traces the origin of many trends we see today in Modern Basketball and Modern Sports in general. There's the idea that The Fab Five was able to expose more of this newer Black Urban Culture to the Sports World (tho clearly not without stigmatization from the Culture at Large) and beyond that to that broader Culture (exactly why Cranky Whites were so afraid). I still hate Duke. Actually everyone hates Duke.

So, angry Duke tangents aside, there has been a rise in the past ten years actually of culturally influential documentaries, not always involving Sports that make for some good stories as well as boring educational fare. We're transitioning as a cutlrue away from the boring filmstrip to the flashy and edgy infographic-driven doc. Some of my favourite films have been documentaries such as Man on Wire (2008), Why We Fight (2005) and The Fog of War (2003) (yeah! War! And...and tightrope walking). Others have actually left a mark on culture the size of any major fictional picture. These include Super Size Me (2004), March of the Penguins (2005) and Exit Through the Gift Shop (2010). Finally, we've seen some very popular politically divisive docs such as Michael Moore's Bowling for Columbine (2002) and Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004) as well as Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth (2006). Have Documentaries become cool yet? I'd say they at least got a 50/50 shot now.

So go tape something. In twenty years that'll be excellent archive footage.

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