Cinephiles and Sports Fans Suffer From the Same Sickness

By  · Published on January 25th, 2016
Illustration by Timothy McAuliffe/ESPN

Last night I watched my Carolina Panthers trounce the Arizona Cardinals and advance to Super Bowl 50. As the post-game coverage continued, players ran around the field, pouring buckets of Gatorade on coaches and high-fiving fans on the sidelines who had stuck around to participate in the festivities. Players who had dreamed of this moment were laughing or even crying, and even noted grump and team owner Jerry Richardson cracked a smile. And, in the middle of all this celebrating, my Twitter feed was blowing up.

“Where the fuck is The X-Files?”

This isn’t the first time that sports and film nerds have butted heads over an NFL broadcast; I’m sure we all remember the weird experience that was the Monday Night Football Star Wars trailer. But if I can be perfectly honest for a minute – and it’s my column, so I think I might as well – I’ve never quite understood the disconnect between sports fandom and film fandom. Both the sports and film industries are comprised of billion dollar corporations who demand public funding to subsidize highly lucrative projects. Both masquerade as expressions of childhood passions – playing wiffleball with your uncle or dressing up in old clothes and imagining yourself as a swashbuckling pirate – while regularly spitting out homogenous products that are workshopped beyond any conceivable degree of risk. And, most importantly, both reduce diverse populations of fans into endless arguments over which imagined communities they do or do not participate in. Oh yeah, you’re a Patriots fan? Tell me, then: exactly how many Blu-rays of Avatar do you own?

Maybe it’s the nature of love to not be spread too thin, but it always seems to me that we don’t give sports and film/television the equal footing they likely belong. We refer to ourselves as cinephiles and call the guy in the Favre jersey on the train a ‘sportsball’ fan – a word I hate with a passion – giving strength to one fandom while simultaneously making the other sound desperately immature. A big factor in this is the lack of people who are truly capable of crossing over between both film and culture writing. There are a few who do it and do it well – the inimitable Will Leitch, for example, or my friend Matthias Ellis, who combines his careers as both a sportswriter and a PHD candidate by writing about the history of baseball on film – but a scarcity of common voices keeps the two audiences relatively isolated.

And that’s a shame. Not just because the sort of sports and film communities you and I participate in are generally filled with intelligent and thoughtful people, but also because fans looking to move between the two won’t really need to learn anything new. All the terms are already there for the taking. With that in mind, here’s a list of the five things that give film fans a leg up as a sports fan.

You Already Hate Award Season

If you’re a critical sports or film fan, then you already know that award seasons are both a fair amount of fun and, in the grand scheme of things, deeply irrelevant. In most sports, awards are broken up into two major categories. The first is the seasonal awards, where the best players from the past calendar year are selected and given awards based on production and output. The second is the Hall of Fame awards, where qualifying players are chosen to join the inner sanctum of sports history; this ballot, in both its restrictions and history, is deeply analogous to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences nominees for the annual Academy Awards.

For years, major sports have struggled to update an electorate who either hadn’t challenged their assumptions about the industry in decades. The Baseball Writers Association of America, for example, floundered for years behind an outdated methodology that gave individuals too much credit for something that is primarily a collaborative effort. In its worst moments, the BWAA has also punished or awarded modern players based on faulty historiography or outright moralizing, hearkening the game back to a time when our understanding of the sport was considerably less nuanced (and the sport itself considerably less diverse). None of this stops people from endlessly arguing about Most Valuable Player or Hall of Fame candidates, even in the months and years leading up to their eligible season. See anything here you might recognize? The only thing better than one Oscar season is several, each occurring at different times in the year! Who wouldn’t want that?

You Already Love the Numbers

By now, the basic numbers are so entrenched in our understanding of the sports and film industries that we wouldn’t be able to walk them back even if we tried. Numbers like batting average, passing yards, completion percentage, box office gross, and film critic scores should only be one part of how we talk about important films and athletes, but too often the conversations are reduced to the Big Round Digits. This film had a 40% on Rotten Tomatoes? Who cares if most horror films tend to skew towards the negative on mainstream review aggregators: skip the movie while it’s in theaters! Your leadoff hitter had a batting average of .300? Forget the fact that he never walked or stole a single base: sign that man to the biggest possible contract!

The good news is that film criticism has taken a page from the sports analytics book and are digging much deeper into the data than ever before. Before its untimely demise, a website like Grantland could be counted on to blend film theory with data analytics to shed some light on film-related headline news. These days, websites like ESPN’s 538 pick up where Grantland left off, while even minor entertainment sites have their version of an Academy Award winner forecasting model. In industries prone to throwing around value judgments based on subjective criteria – this was a ‘good’ movie, she played the match with a lot of ‘hustle’ – any developments in non-proprietary analytical research can only help audience members better wrap their head around the movies that they loved and hated. Math isn’t the future of sportswriting and film criticism, but it’s a useful tool that is only now making its way into the mainstream.

The Way Fans Talk about Diversity Already Makes You Sick

There’s a ton that we could say about this one, but one man is all we need. During last night’s game, Cam Newton, a 26-year-old black man from Georgia, beamed at the television cameras, broke into dance after every touchdown, and made sure that each scoring drive ended with a kid in the first row getting to take home the game ball. If you weren’t a football fan, you would be forgiven for thinking this person is a role model, an incredibly talented athlete who gives back to his community and always thanks his fans. Instead, because of a few bad decisions made in college and a general disdain for black quarterbacks, Cam Newton is one of the most contentious figures in the game.

When Carolina beat the Tennessee Titans in November, a fan wrote to a local newspaper to complain about Newton’s “chest puffs,” “pelvic thrusts,” and “arrogant struts.” When Newton and his girlfriend announced the arrival of their first child in December, people wrote the Charlotte Observer and scolded him for not marrying her first. No matter how hard we try to pretend otherwise, there is a separate set of standards for non-white athletes and a severe lack of voices trying to counter narratives like the ones above. At the risk of inviting more outrage fatigue, it’s about time that we have more people like the ones who kept #OscarsSoWhite in the headlines for the past two weeks writing in support of non-white athletes. If you ever want to mix up which ignorant fan base gives you a headache, choose a sports team and go from there. You’ll spend all your days on the internet and never sleep again.

The Line Between the Two Is Blurred Anyways

We’re all familiar with high-profile athletes who become professional actors – who can forget former NBA star Dennis Rodman in Double Team or Simon Sez? – but there are plenty of smaller opportunities for athletes and filmmakers to move between industries and strut their stuff. Kevin Costner, a former minor league baseball player, often struck showed up to spring training games in his prime and would play a few innings with the B-squad. Just this past year, Will Ferrell shot an entire HBO special on the premise that he could play every position on the field during minor league baseball games. Meanwhile, celebrities show off their latent athleticism by participating in the home run derby or an exhibition game against other celebrities during the MLB and NBA All-Star festivities, respectively.

Established filmmakers shoot commercials or promotional videos with athletes. Athletes pop up in small roles in mainstream comedies. Actors garner award season attention by playing sports legends in prestige biopics. Both even throw garish star-studded award shows for themselves in Los Angeles at least once a season. When you get right down to it, sports and the film industry are focused on entertainment, and blurring the lines between the two industries has long been a lucrative approach for those in charge. And since most major sports are broadcast on television, the door is open to treat baseball and football games like the television product they are. This has led to one of the better developments of the past few years: the increased attention that the AV Club pays to the aesthetics of sports broadcasts.

What’s One More Heartfelt Relationship with Strangers?

Last night, as my team ran down the clock to victory, I sat alone on my couch and felt an overwhelming surge of happiness and the feeling that I had played a part in a collective success bigger than myself. This is despite the fact that I’ve only been a fan of the team since 2010, I have no regional ties whatsoever to the Carolinas, and I’ve never actually seen the Panthers play in person. In fact, the only other person in the apartment was straightening up in another room, having bailed on the final minutes of the game after it became clear that the Cardinals were going to lose (she’s a Patriots fan, anyways). Not to be deterred, I jumped onto Twitter and started celebrating with anyone and everyone who would listen. And you know what? They celebrated back.

Next: 10 Best Sports Movies for People Who Don’t Care About Sports

Yelling words of encouragement to someone because of the way that he or she is dressed doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, but then again, neither does sitting in a dark room for ninety minutes and pretending like a hundred million dollar movie touched you more than anyone else. Sports franchises and films are a series of successes and failures that form a narrative big enough that we want to be a part of it; in doing so, we unlock another universal topic that allows us to feel a connection with complete strangers. Overhearing someone talk about a movie you loved causes the same rush of connectivity as seeing someone walking down the street in your favorite team’s baseball hat. It’s a collective hallucination of inclusion that we wouldn’t want any other way.

Matthew Monagle is an Austin-based film and culture critic. His work has appeared in a true hodgepodge of regional and national film publications. He is also the editor and co-founder of Certified Forgotten, an independent horror publication. Follow him on Twitter at @labsplice. (He/Him)