On today’s episode of the 5 Things podcast:
USA Today’s James Brown and Film Critic Brian Truitt talk about what makes a good sports movie and the elements of them that so many of us love. We cover Friday Night Lights, Field of Dreams, We are Marshall, Rocky IV, King Richard, Draft Day, I Tonya, The Cutting Edge, Moneyball, The Bad News Bears among others. To follow James Brown on Twitter click here. To follow Brian Truitt on Twitter click here. For Brian’s updated top 25 football films click here. For more on USA TODAY’S Ad meter click here.
Hit play on the player above to hear the podcast and follow along with the transcript below. This transcript was automatically generated, and then edited for clarity in its current form. There may be some differences between the audio and the text.
James Brown: Hi, I’m James Brown and welcome to Five Things. Thanks for joining me. It’s Super Bowl Sunday, February 13th, 2022. Go Bengals.
On Sundays, we do things a bit differently, focusing on one topic or so instead of five. In this week, we’re talking about sports movies. At USA Today, we’re flooded with sports stories right now, from the NBA trade deadline to the Super Bowl and the ongoing Olympic Games in China. With the Oscar nominations also announced this week, the team at Five Things started thinking about how sports are depicted in movies, from the thrill of victory to the agony of defeat, and all the good and bad in between. We’ll go there in just a few moments with USA Today film critic, Brian Truitt.
But first, what do you do on Super Bowl Sunday? I almost always watch the big game. I’m a huge sports fan, but many people I know watch for the spectacle or even just the commercials. No matter why you’re watching, USA Today has you covered with in-depth sports coverage and our ad meter. You can watch and rank 63 Super Bowl ads at AdMeter.USAToday.com right now. And tomorrow, February 14th, my colleague, Ralphie Aversa will talk Super Bowl traditions with retired New York Giants quarterback, Eli Manning, and tennis legend Serena Williams. Don’t miss out. Now, here’s my conversation with Brian Truitt about sports movies. I love Friday Night Lights.
Billy Bob Thorn…: Now, if you want to win state, you’re going to have to beat a team of giants, a team of monsters over in Dallas that outweigh you about 30 pounds a man. This is real sincere warfare.
James Brown: The Billy Bob Thornton film, it gets overshadowed. Everybody thinks about the TV show because it was kind of a niche, weird phenomenon, but I absolutely adore that movie. I watch clips from it often, and one of my favorite moments in it, it’s down the stretch of the movie. And there’s this speech that Billy Bob Thornton gives to the team about being perfect.
Billy Bob Thorn…: To me, being perfect is not about that scoreboard out there. It’s not about winning. It’s about you and your relationship to yourself and your family and your friends. Being perfect is about being able to look your friends in the eye and know that you didn’t let them down because you told them the truth. And that truth is, is that you did everything that you could there. There wasn’t one more thing that you could have done. Can you live in that moment as best you can with clear eyes and love in your heart, with joy in your heart? If you can do that, gentlemen, then you’re perfect.
James Brown: And it’s one of those moments that I see in movies that give me chills every time I see it. And it’s acted so well, it’s performed so well, and actual emotion in the scene. And some films, great films, have that where you actually feel drawn into the moment. And for me, that’s one that I think about. A, it feels true. And B, there’s lots of emotion. Is there something about sports films where those things are inherent?
Brian Truitt: Yeah, I think there’s a few things that’s inherent about sports films. The underdog thing is definitely a big thing. The sports movies that we most love are underdog tales. Sometimes are true, like Rudy, sometimes they’re fictional like Rocky, but they all kind of have that same sort of thing where it’s just… We sometimes know they’re reach the championship. Sometimes we don’t, sometimes they lose, and the big game or the big match or whatever, but I feel like it is about living, living through a defeat or persisting through something that gets in your way and finding the gumption to keep going. And I think that’s inherent in sports films that we all love.
It’s interesting, you mentioned Friday Night Lights. I’m more of a fan of the TV show myself than the movie, but similarly like Varsity Blues, which is kind of like Friday Night Lights, but it’s the kind of the edgier teen movie version of that.
Speaker 4: This game is 48 minutes. For the next 48 years of your life, [inaudible 00:04:38]. This is your opportunity. For you, playing football at West Community may have been the opportunity of your lifetime.
Brian Truitt: There is a similar scene where at halftime, when the racist, overbearing coach kind of… he leaves and the students kind of take over the team themselves, James Van Der Beek’s character, Jonathan Mox, who again, it’s kind of like the Friday Night Lights TV show where it’s the backup quarterback that didn’t think he was ever going to do anything.
Jonathan Mox: Let’s go out there and we’ll play the next 24 minutes for the next 24 minutes and we’ll leave it all out on the field. We got the rest of our lives to do mediocre, but we have the opportunity to play like gods for the next half of football, but we can’t be afraid to lose. There’s no room for fear in this game.
Brian Truitt: It’s a more over the top way of saying what you’re saying, but it’s a similar thing where it’s just, “You have this time in your life, and you may not have the same success and the obstacles and everything. Who knows what the rest of your life’s going to look like? But right now you give it your all, and then you persist.”
James Brown: I wonder, is that a trope that we all sort of would like, in the middle of our work day, to have someone have that half time and have someone come in and give you a big pep talk?
Brian Truitt: That’s what a coffee is. That’s when you get your 3:00 or 4:00 coffee. For me, at least. I don’t know how it is for the rest of the world, but that’s my coffee time.
James Brown: I love that idea. In terms of sports films, are there ones that miss the mark entirely that come to mind?
Brian Truitt: Inherently, I think all sports movies try to be a sports movie. You think like the recent Home Team, that’s the Kevin James and Sean Payton movie that just hit Netflix, which is kind of… It is trying to be like every other sports movie that we’ve ever… replacements and everything else where it’s kind of… the Bad News Bears where you have the misfit youngsters, you can’t get their team straight, they can’t win.
Speaker 6: There is no limit to what some men will do for money, especially a man like Morris Buttermaker.
Whitewood: No, I really appreciate this. It’s just a damn shame that none of the fathers have the time for it. God knows if I wasn’t so busy down at City Hall-
Speaker 8: You got my check, Whitewood?
Speaker 6: Even if it meant coaching an unlikely group called The Bad News Bears.
Brian Truitt: There’s talent somewhere probably, but they need that one person to kick him in the butt and be like, “Here, this is what you need to do to succeed.” Which again, that’s inherent in life. Sometimes, when you’re just kind of aimless, you need one person to kind of right your ship a little bit. But with home team, it just kind of takes all these tropes and everything. And it just throws them in a blender. It’s kind of… there’s a little bit of Rocky, Rudy and Bad News Bears. There’s just nothing unique about it
Speaker 9: Coach Payton is going to be our new offensive coordinator.
Speaker 10: Our defense sucks too.
Brian Truitt: But I think the ones that really stand out find a way to do interesting things with that. Like We Are Marshall. We Are Marshall is one of my favorite football films. Not because it’s about the big game, but it is about literally picking up the pieces of something that has been destroyed.
Speaker 11: What’s happened?
Speaker 12: All 75 people are dead in the greatest disaster in college sports history.
Brian Truitt: This accident destroyed these people’s lives, the family lives, but also lives of young people who growing to go on to, maybe not professional football, but to be doctors or firefighters, it cut the life short of all these young people. And then Matthew McConaughey’s character is the new coach who has to come… He has to resurrect the football team, but it’s not just about the football team. He’s got to save this town. He’s got to save the people in this town. He’s got to be there for the people who lost people because of this accident.
Speaker 13: I want to talk about our opponent this afternoon. They’re bigger, faster, stronger, more experienced. And on paper, they’re just better. And they know it too. I want to tell you something that they don’t know. They don’t know your heart. I do. I’ve seen it. You have shown it to me. You have shown this coaching staff, your teammates, you have shown yourselves just exactly who you are in here.
When you take that field today, you’ve got to lay that heart on the line, man. From the soles of your feet, with every ounce of blood you’ve got in your body, lay it on the line until the final whistle blows. And if you do that, if you do that, we cannot lose.
Brian Truitt: That movie just kind of calculates what we love about sports movies, kind of in a bigger sense, because it’s not about just kind of getting to the big game. It’s about the big game of life. And it’s about finding what’s important and bringing people together so you can move on with your life after something horrendous happens.
James Brown: I want to step back to something you said a few moments ago about all these movies being essentially the same. It makes me think of the hero’s journey, and it also makes me think of just tropes in general. And I know films are generally heavy on tropes and they’re either playing off tropes or built on tropes. Can we walk through a few of the tropes that reoccur in films? I know the halftime speech that you described it also… the coach that’s as this sort of not messianic, but sort of character that brings together this disparate group of misfits usually.
Brian Truitt: Right. And like Miracle. We talk about the Olympics. Miracle has that kind of coach.
Speaker 14: When you pull on that jersey, the name on the front is more important than the one on the back. Michael Eruzione, who do you play for?
Michael Eruzion…: I play for the United States of America.
Speaker 14: Welcome to the Olympics, gentlemen.
Brian Truitt: Sometimes it’s the coach, sometimes it’s the savior quarterback. Replacements, Keanu Reeves as Shane Falco had the worst Sugar Bowl of all time. And that was taking barnacles off boats. But when there’s an NFL strike, he gets the chance to be the champion he never was in college or in life. The trope of the big game or the big championship match, there’s always got to be that contest at the end that that makes everything happen. My favorite movie of all time is Field of Dream. It is not quite a sports movie, it kind of does hit on some of the tropes without hitting on some of the tropes.
Speaker 16: The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America’s ruled by like an army of steam rollers. It’s been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game, it’s a part of our past, Ray. It reminds us of all it once was good and it could be again. People will come, Ray. People will most definitely come.
Brian Truitt: There is a big game at the end, but it’s not really like a competitive game where somebody needs a win or lose. It’s about these ghost players, and an Iowa baseball field is what brings everything to a concluding chapter, where people have to get up past their past. They have to understand the power of baseball. There’s a little lot of things going on, but it kind of again, happens at final chapter sports moment. So, that’s an interesting thing about that movie.
But yeah, the big game or the Rocky match. Every Rocky movie’s got to have that big boxing match at the end. Rocky IV just happens to have the Cold Wars at stake. It’s not just the championship match. It’s the entire Cold Wars at stake.
Speaker 17: Devil is the most perfectly planned athlete ever. Whatever he hits, he destroys.
Brian Truitt: Even the Russians can’t stop the power of Rocky in that moment. Yeah. Again, some of these tropes are just… When you think about them and you talk about them, you’re just, “Oh Jesus. They’re just so out there and earnest and kind of cheesy.” But yet, they work every time. I think there’s something really interesting about sports movies, where the most cheesy stuff that you know is going to happen and it always does happen, but there’s a macaroni and cheese, baked potato comfort food thing of that, where you know it’s going to happen, but you let it happen because that’s what you want, because that’s why you go to a sports movie is you want that kind of satisfaction of either success or defeat. But even in defeat, there is something more, it’s not just a loss. It’s like you gain from the loss, like King Richard, that is now up for a best picture.
And again, it’s very much a sports drama. It’s not just a sports drama because it also talks about the Williams sisters and their dad. It’s more than just sports. It’s about a Black family that comes out of Compton to make something and to have this journey in a prominently white sport, that’s never happened before. And hasn’t happened since then.
Speaker 18: You’re not going to just be representing you. You’re going to be representing every little Black girl on Earth.
Speaker 19: I’m not going to let you doubt.
Speaker 18: I couldn’t. This world ain’t never had no respect for Richard Williams, but they’re going to respect y’all.
Brian Truitt: Venus Williams doesn’t win in the end. She gets beat by Arantxa Sánchez Vicario during the first tournament. But the ending is very much about, even though she lost, she won. We know she went on to win Wimbledon a bunch of times, her sister went on to win Wimbledon a bunch of times. But we have to have that kind of cathartic moment of a match or a game at the end to kind of get to that place where we’re like, “Okay, win or lose. We’re going to be okay.”
James Brown: Well, with sports films, as you said, there’s this cathartic moment at the end. And that’s something that that’s not automatically inherent in other types of movies. It depends, as I see them, some on the genre itself, some on just the story. So, it makes me wonder, in terms of things like a claim, in terms of things like quality, where are sports films thought of in terms of the larger Pantheon of movies?
Brian Truitt: It’s an interesting question and something I was thinking about, because when King Richard was nominated for best picture, and I got to think about, there’s been some sports films that have been nominated for best picture, but not a lot have won. Rocky immediately comes to mind because that’s kind of the one that won. There’s been a lot that have been nominated, but haven’t won. So there’s a crowd pleasing nature to them.
But when they’re compared to other great movies, and Field of Dreams was nominated too. But when the rubber hits the road and they’re compared to other movies, I do wonder if Oscar voters and sometimes general public, how do they look at sports films, even though there’s very much a comfort food factor. When done well, they’re really great. But when you compare them to some other great film, how do they match up? Do you accept the comfort food… Is the comfort food factor enough to make them better than Schindler’s List or Star Wars?
When you start comparing sports film to other films, how do they compare? And it’s an interesting question because I feel like we haven’t had that many sports films win a best picture Oscar because even though we love them and even though we respect them and they make us feel good and everything, at the end of the day, do we feel like something else is better because it’s maybe doing something different or it’s not telling a story we don’t know? Something I’ve started thinking about just because of the Oscar nominations this week and everything.
It’s a good question because I think some people just live for sports movies. Some people, that’s all they want because they like the fact that they know what’s going to happen. They take comfort in that. They don’t want to be surprised by things. And yet, other folks, maybe they like the surprise better. And maybe even though something like a Rudy or Rocky is really well made, does the fact of they kind of know what might happen, do they not maybe think it’s as good as something else?
James Brown: Comfort food is an interesting analogy in that, whether it’s french fries or a soup, versus something like a filet mignon or something more complex to make, french fries and soup aren’t going to get the kind of a claim that those other things would, even though I’ve had plenty of bad french fries, you could screw it up.
Brian Truitt: Yes. Wow. Yes. There’s some bad soup out there. Yeah.
James Brown: Yeah, totally. Absolutely. I’ve had watery soup that’s just salty and had no taste at all. So, I wonder if they’re discounted because of that.
Brian Truitt: There’s something to that. I don’t think they get a Rudy or even a Draft Day. I love Draft Day. I think there’s a lot of stuff that sports movies, again, they hit that kind of comfort food factor thing, but I don’t think they get the respect that they should. There is a moment in Draft Day, it means more because we lost him. But Chadwick Boseman stars in that. A lot of people don’t know Chadwick Boseman stars in that movie.
Speaker 20: That boy you want to take, that there’s a mistake. Callahan. Callahan’s a poser.
Sonny: Yeah. And what do you know that every scout and coach on earth does not?
Speaker 20: I know he got sacked 12 times last year.
Sonny: No, it was 11. It was 11 times.
Speaker 20: Yeah. Well, four were mine.
Brian Truitt: It’s a football movie but they don’t have a lot of football in it. And Kevin Costner’s a GM preparing… It all takes place in the day of the NFL draft, and Kevin Costner’s got… he’s wheeling and dealing to get the right picks.
Tom: What the hell’s going on, Sonny?
Sonny: Everyone thinks there’s something wrong with the kid, but you don’t right. You’ve done your due diligence. You’re about to pull off the move of the century, but you need my pick to do it. So, make me an offer.
Tom: You’ve gone rogue. You’ve gone renegade.
Sonny: Yeah. That’s right. That’s exactly right. I could have gotten Vonte at seven, but instead I trade up with you just so I can get him at one. Jesus Christ. You were right about me, Tom. I am a crazy man. So come on, take advantage of it. What are you waiting for?
Brian Truitt: And Chadwick Boseman plays in Ohio State, I believe he’s a linebacker, an edge rush. I can’t remember, or a defensive event, but he’s on Twitter a lot and he’s kind of a hot head. A lot of people don’t like him because he says what he thinks a lot. He’s not, in the realm of football power players, he’s not well thought of because of that.
But Kevin Costner’s character knows really what that guy is made of and really likes what that guy is made of just off the field. He knows he’s a good person. And there’s a thought if he doesn’t get drafted by in pick 15, then he might go to the second round. He might be Tom Brady and get drafted way down the line, who knows? And when you first… I’m probably going to spoil it for somebody who maybe hasn’t watch that movie.
But we get to the draft night and he’s the first person picked, and it gives me chills just because Chadwick Boseman’s face in that scene just… There is surprise, there is utter happiness because I mean, he just lost his sister and he’s now the guardian of his nephews. There is so much just in his demeanor. It’s so awesome to watch just because again, it’s not a big game. Nothing’s really happening that’s competitive. But they’ve found a way in this movie to encapsulate every emotion that you would have in a big game about just the cathartic release and the fact of he knows everything’s going to be okay. It’s what sports movies do. But it’s done in a different way that we’ve seen before. I’m not sure that movie gets as much credit for that, but it has moments like that. And you look for moments like that. I, Tonya has, I don’t know if it’s really a sports movie, but it takes different parts of the tropes and upends them.
Tonya Harding: I’m not some monster. I’m trying to do the best with what I know how to, and you’re giving me… it’s like you’re giving me a life sentence if you do that. You can’t do that.
Speaker 24: Ms. Harding, that’s enough.
Tonya Harding: You can’t, please, because… Just send me to jail and then I can still skate.
Brian Truitt: We go into sports movie wanting to root for the character and we go into I, Tonya… I mean, we know she’s villainized in real life. We come into it with a lot of baggage ourselves because we know of what’s happened, but it makes us think about, was she really a villain? Was she not? It complicates the big game of it all. And it complicates this person who should not be winning anything. And she’s like an underdog and she does win and she becomes very good. But instead of rooting for her, we don’t. There are more complicated emotions in regards to her. Again, it plays on tropes that we know a sports movie very much minds for a lot of emotion and everything and kind of subverts it and makes us think about the people we root for.
James Brown: Any questions for me?
Brian Truitt: What is your favorite sports movie other than Friday Night Lights?
James Brown: Other than Friday Night Lights. That’s tough. It’s a sports sub genre that I hadn’t asked you about. It’s a romantic comedy. Well, I think I call it romantic comedy. It’s The Cutting Edge.
Speaker 25: For both of them, the Olympics have become a far away dream [inaudible 00:22:58] until someone is a figure skate’s [inaudible 00:23:02] set up the ultimate blind date.
Speaker 26: Who the hell do you think you are?
Speaker 27: I’m a guy who came a long way for lunch.
Speaker 26: Please, don’t let me keep you from the trough.
James Brown: D.B. Sweeney is this hockey player, he gets kicked out of the NHL, I think. I think he made it to the NHL, I think. It’s been a long time. And he learns how to figure skate to do pair skating and they somehow make it all the way to the Olympics.
Brian Truitt: Of course they do because it’s a sports movie.
James Brown: I like it. I like the lighthearted nature of it. I like their chemistry.
Brian Truitt: But You bring up a new trope that we haven’t talked about is the bickering teammate or the like the McCartney and Lennon, hot and cold, yin yang. Again, a lot of these movies have that kind of tension. You look at Bull Durham, and the tension between Nuke and Crash, Tim Robbins’s hotheaded, rookie pitcher and Kevin Costner’s minor league [inaudible 00:23:54] catcher.
Speaker 27: Hey. Why you shaking me off?
Speaker 28: I want to bring the heater to announce my presence with authority.
Speaker 27: Announce your what?
Speaker 28: Announce my presence with authority.
Brian Truitt: These figures that have to… They do not get along and they’re like oil and water, but they have to get along for the team to find success or for them to have life success or to kind of like get beyond… Because usually in these movies, they meet at a time when usually their lives aren’t going very well and they need to kind of be there for each other, even though they don’t want to be. And there’s a friendship formed, or like The Cutting Edge, there’s a romance formed where, together, they find a way to move forward.
Major League’s the same way. The Major League is like that on a whole team scale where it is a whole bunch of people that, or a bunch of weirdos that… And again, it’s like the bad news bears formula too, where it’s just a whole bunch of misfits that should not be working. But like together they find a way to win. There are those movies where it is between two people and those two people have to figure a bunch of… hug it out metaphorically, sometimes literally, to kind of find a way to win, to get to that big game.
James Brown: And another one that comes to mind, I think fits in your formula there, it’s also one of my, I would say, is in my top three or four, would be Moneyball.
Speaker 29: You get on base, we win. You don’t, we lose. And I hate losing, Chave. I hate it. I hate losing more than I even want to win.
James Brown: Where you do have a bunch of misfits, intentionally picked misfits in that case, fit together, tension on the roster. At one point, I think of Brad Pitt marching into the clubhouse and then just destroying the stereo and calling them losers because they were dancing after a loss.
Speaker 29: Get out. Is losing fun? Is losing fun?
Speaker 30: No.
Speaker 29: What are you having fun for?
Brian Truitt: I love that movie because it’s got the very draft day element where it is about baseball, but there’s hardly any baseball in it, but it takes the trope of the two people. But it makes it interesting because it is about Brat Pitt’s character, but also Jonah Hill’s character. Billy Beane’s got to figure out a way to make the A’s win because nothing is working. So, he hires this guy who’s… He has nothing to do his sports. He’s a math guy.
Speaker 31: Baseball thinking is medieval. They are asking all the wrong questions. And if I say it to anybody, I’m ostracized. I’m a leper. So, that’s why I’m cagey about this with you. That’s why I respect you, Mr. Beane. And if you want full disclosure, I think it’s a good thing that you got Damon off of your payroll. I think it opens up all kinds of interesting possibilities.
Brian Truitt: You know, Billy Beane, he has gone his whole life going the usual route, but he’s gotten to the point where there’s professional failure, personal failure. And he’s just like, “Okay, Jonah Hill, I don’t know anything about math and statistics, but we’re going to do this thing anyway. We’re going to lean into it.” It’s them coming together in an interesting way to kind of move everything forward. One of my favorite parts of that movie is, again, they’re willing and dealing on the phone. And again, there’s hardly any baseball being played, but it’s such a fun scene between two guys, trying to get things over on other GMs, trying to make trades for certain people.
Speaker 31: Okay. Billy says he’ll pay for Renco himself, but when he sells him for more money next year, he’s keeping the profit. Okay. Thank you very much. We’ll call you back. Thank you. Come on, come on.
Brian Truitt: It ends in a place where they find success, but they don’t win the world series. It is interesting because it finds that way to win, but to a point. In real life, it’s interesting to know that this Moneyball system always worked to a point. They could never win, win. They could win up to a point, but they never could like figure out a way to get over that hump.
James Brown: Thanks to Brian Truitt for joining me. That man’s recall is amazing. I can’t wait to talk to him again. What are some of your favorite sports movies and why? Tell us on social media at USA Today. You could find me at James Brown TV, or Brian at @BrianTruitt. Brian just released his updated list of his top 25 football films of all time. That’s on USAToday.com.
If you liked the show, write us a review on Apple podcasts or wherever you’re listening. And do me a favor, share it with a friend. Thanks to Alexis Gustin for editing this episode, Taylor Wilson will be back tomorrow morning with Five Things you need to know for Monday. For all of us at USA Today, thanks for listening. I’m James Brown, and as always, be well.