Is this heaven? No, it's a sports movie
By David Shields
Special to Page 2

I'm a sucker for sports movies. Flipping through the channels late at night, I'll come across "The Longest Yard" and not be able to get up off the couch until Burt Reynolds has scored the winning touchdown. Although she'd never expressed the slightest interest in it, I insisted on taking my 9-year-old daughter to see "The Rookie." (We loved it!)

A sports movie doesn't have to be as great as "Raging Bull" to be entertaining.
Why do I have such an affinity for sports movies? Not just good sports movies, such as "Bang the Drum Slowly," or great sports movies, such as "Raging Bull," or melancholy sports movies, such as "North Dallas Forty," but the pure sugar solution itself: "Hoosiers," "Angels in the Outfield," "Rookie of the Year," "Field of Dreams," "For Love of the Game," "Ladybugs," "Mr. Baseball," "Rudy," "Rocky," "The Natural," "The Air Up There," "Hardball," "Karate Kid," "Major League," "The Replacements." Why, despite knowing how formulaic these films are, am I invariably moved when watching them, often to the point of tears? What story are they telling that appeals -- at least to me -- on such a primitive level? And how can the same story get told -- why does the same story need to be told -- over and over and over?

In "For Love of the Game," Kevin Costner plays a character named Billy Chapel. In "Downhill Racer," Robert Redford is David Chapellet. In "Hoosiers," the player who saves the team is named Jimmy Chitwood (note the initials). In "He Got Game," subtly is totally dispensed with -- Denzel Washington's son is named Jesus. Sports movies, which need to convince the viewer to care about fictional contests between nonexistent teams, borrow the grammar of resurrection and salvation. Something has to be at stake in the game other than the final score; the script inevitably moves in the direction of religious iconography.

"Major League" begins by informing the viewer that Cleveland last won the World Series in 1948. "Rookie of the Year" opens with similar information about the Chicago Cubs (last World Series win: 1908). The overture of "Field of Dreams" is the voice-over narrator's ode to his dead father, who nearly made it to the bigs. In "Hoosiers," we immediately learn that the Indiana high school team Gene Hackman coaches last won the state championship in 1951. Walter Matthau, now a little-league coach in "Bad News Bears," was once a major-leaguer. So was Tom Hanks, now coaching a women's team, in "A League of Their Own." Rocky, as a photo of him on his dresser makes evident, was once a happy kid with light in his eyes; he takes the photo off the mirror and holds it up, comparing what he was to what he has become. Costner, in "For Love of the Game," was earlier in his career an All-Star pitcher -- "golden, one of the giants." The first, crucial gesture most sports movies make is for the protagonist to say, secretly, to the viewer, "We once strode the earth as gods."

Rocky Balboa
Rocky Balboa remembers the days when he was a happy kid with light in his eyes.
An alternative scenario is that long ago, in the primordial past, the hero screwed up. History is a nightmare from which he is -- all of us are -- trying to awake. He gets a second chance to come back to life; he'd better not blow it. In "The Best of Times," Robin Williams drops a pass in the big game against the high school down the road. He spends the rest of his life being pummeled for this failing and finally gets a chance to redeem himself. In "The Replacements," Keanu Reeves has never recovered from his mysteriously awful performance in the 1996 Sugar Bowl, but he now gets a chance as a replacement player for the striking pros. Paralleling Reeves's transformation, the disco hit "I Will Survive" goes from locker-room joke to oddly moving anthem of personal redemption and team solidarity.

Kicked out of the kingdom
In either version, we get evicted from paradise. We're lost in a vast desert. "Major League" begins with a vast desert, literally. The team's training camp is in Arizona; a lizard crawls among the cactuses just outside the field. The Indians' roster, in "Major League," features a voodoo-worshipper, a player who can't hit the ball fair, another who can't throw it straight. The play-by-play man is a drunk; the color man never says a word. It's a freak show. It's the lonely hearts' club.

In "Field of Dreams," the wounded warriors on the yellow brick road are a blocked writer, a player who got into only one game and never had an at-bat, a man who never made it to the major leagues, another who was unfairly tarnished by scandal. In "Bad News Bears," the Little League team is sponsored by Chico's Bail Bonds and the players are a black kid, an Hispanic kid, a Jewish kid, a fat kid, a shy kid, a kid who has been abused by his parents, all of whom are mocked by the one WASP kid. The dramatis personae of "The Replacements" includes a deaf-mute, a Sumo wrestler, a couple of bodyguards, an insane SWAT-team cop, a wide receiver who can't catch, and a thief. We're living in the land of the damned.

Paul Newman
Reggie Dunlop (Paul Newman) is fighting to get out of Pennsylvania's Federal League in "Slap Shot."
The team is, needless to say, losing. Some of this is simple narrative typology: a romantic comedy can't begin with the lovers in a happy embrace. But this goes beyond that. In film after film, it's a sort of plague of losing streaks. We're losing. We're losers. We're bums. We're in a state of infinite regress, of existential failure. In the land of opportunity, we are anti-matter.

In "Slap Shot," the players are trapped in Pennsylvania's Federal League; in "Bull Durham," it's Class A ball; in "The Replacements," they're scabs replacing the real NFL players; in "Field of Dreams," they're in Iowa, these players forever shadowed by the 1919 Black Sox scandal; in "Rocky," they're in South Philly; in "Hardball," they're on the South Side of Chicago; in "For Love of the Game," they're the Detroit Tigers, a team which has an illustrious past but which but hasn't won in decades. And they're playing the Yankees, who figure in many baseball films as the Goliath whom David must slay or die trying. These films are, by definition, obsessed with the underside of the American Dream -- the detritus of Yankee triumphalism.

As a corollary, movies such as "Paper Lion," "Mystery, Alaska," "Lucas," "Tin Cup," "Rocky," "Bad News Bears," "A League of Their Own" and "Rudy" are odes to perpetual losers who succeed by the force of their trying; they fail, but their failure is noble, because, determined to succeed but overpowered by forces of economics, personal psychology and body type, they nevertheless get their groove back. We can identify: Our body types might not be so ideal, either.

Owners from Hell
The owners in sports movies are 11 kinds of a--hole: They're money-obsessed; they want to fire the hero; they want to sell the team; they want to move the team to Miami. Why, in so many movies, Miami? It's both heaven (paradisal retreat from the workday world of, say, "Slap Shot"'s Pennsylvania rustbelt) and hell (retreat and descent from, say, "Slap Shot"'s Pennsylvania's rustbelt, which has a heavenly aura once the balm of athletic glory has been applied to it). If the player often becomes a Christ figure, the owner is clearly a stand-in for the Pharisees, the Roman officers, the Jewish priests, the money-changers. Athletes are in touch with the gods -- that's why we love them -- but the only god the owner is in touch with is Midas.

The Natural
Roy Hobbs (Robert Redford) is an aging player with one last shot at redemption in "The Natural."
In movie after movie, the owner's younger, voluptuous wife is pouring alcohol down her throat or stuffing her face with food or stuffing her yappy little dog's face with food, because hubby-made-of-money doesn't satisfy in the sack. She wants, implicitly or (in a few films) explicitly, the players, who are "real," or a particular player, who is particularly "real," the irony being that this player is always Paul Newman or Keanu Reeves or Nick Nolte or Kevin Costner or Robert Redford. He's real, but he's a movie star. "He's an animal"; "No, he's a god," as "The Babe" has it.

This suits vs. jocks animus is, in a way, the narrative tension of nearly every sports movie, for these films return again and again to the opposition between the social (which is corrupt) and the body (which is miraculous). The three-act structure of virtually every studio-produced American movie mandates that Plot Point A occurs approximately 20 minutes into the movie. The next hour is usually devoted to the complications that ensue from Plot Point A. Twenty minutes before the end of nearly every Hollywood movie, Plot Point B occurs, which spins the action downward toward its conclusion.

In many sports movies -- "The Natural," "Angels in the Outfield," "Rookie of the Year," "Field of Dreams," "Like Mike" -- Plot Point A is the discovery of the protagonist's magic athletic prowess; in many other sports movies the magic element is introduced at exactly this same point, but the magic is more figurative. The next hour consists of a debate between various forces of social corruption and the force of this magical power, and then at the end of the film the magic is triumphant. The magic, though, is no longer supernatural ability -- which has usually dissipated by now (Plot Point B) -- but the redemptive power of love.

The redemptive power of love
And so the son plays catch with the father, resurrected (in "Field of Dreams"). Our hero pitches a perfect game (in "For Love of the Game"). We win. We win. We win the big game. We reconcile generations, races, the war between the sexy sexes. We win the pennant. We make it to the bigs. We get to play in the big game. We're finally on the big interstate; we're no longer trapped on the service roads. We hit the home run. We save the team from bankruptcy, departure, ignominy, collapse. We defeat the bully opponent (the Yankees, the fascistic karate coach). We come together as a team, especially that; we're now all pulling in the same direction.

Field of Dreams
Moonlight Graham (Burt Lancaster) and Ray Kinsella (Kevin Costner) find "magic waters" in "Field of Dreams."
In "Field of Dreams," Ray's brother-in law, that Pharisee, that money-changer, tells Ray, "Just sign the papers. Sell now or you'll lose everything. You're broke. When the bank opens in the morning, they'll foreclose." James Earl Jones thunders back, "Ray, people will come (to the baseball field Ray has imagined into existence in his backyard). They'll come to Iowa for reasons they can't fathom. They'll turn up your driveway, not knowing for sure why they're doing it. They'll arrive at your door, as innocent as children longing for the past. And they'll walk off to the bleachers, sit in their shirt sleeves on a perfect afternoon, and they'll find they have reserved seats somewhere along one of the baselines where they sat when they were children and cheered their heroes, and they'll watch the game, and it will be as if they dipped themselves in magic waters."

More from the author
David Shields' books include Black Planet: Facing Race During an NBA Season, Baseball Is Just Baseball: The Understated Ichiro?, Enough About You: Adventures in Autobiography and the novel Dead Languages. These books, as well as his other titles, are available at

"Magic waters:" baptism, one of the seven sacraments of the Christian Church, is frequently called the "first sacrament," "the door of the sacraments," and the "door of the church." "Field of Dreams" isn't about Ray Kinsella (Costner) sacrificing his body -- he's not an athlete -- but baptism is a good way of understanding the movie's signature line, "If you build it, they will come." Ray is building a baseball field, but he's also building a door of the church. Does James Earl Jones die when he walks into the cornfield? The players who show up, including Ray's father, are most certainly dead, but here they are, playing catch. In baptism, we are "buried with Him into death," but it's also a "likeliness of His resurrection" -- an immersion, followed by an emersion.

"Is this heaven?" Ray's father, John, asks Ray. Ray replies, "It's Iowa." "Iowa?" John says. "I could have sworn this was heaven." "Is there a heaven?" Ray asks. "Oh, yeah," John replies. "It's the place where dreams come true." Ray, watching his wife play with their daughter on the front porch, says, "Maybe this is heaven." Paradise regained: Heaven is a playground.

The movie -- any sports movie -- becomes a praise song to life here on earth, to physical existence itself, beyond striving, beyond economic necessity. I seem to remember a wonderful short story a graduate school classmate wrote about a bunch of old guys in Florida who go night after night to a porn movie theatre (before the advent of videos). Why do they go? To say, "We're here, God, we're still here." I went to graduate school at the Iowa Writers' Workshop; so, a decade earlier, did W.P. Kinsella, who wrote the novel upon which "Field of Dreams" is based. He set his sports fantasy in Iowa City; so did I.

How to Succeed Without Selling Out
Denzel Washington
Herman Boone (Denzel Washington) overcomes his workaholic ways in "Remember the Titans."
In "Ladybugs," Rodney Dangerfield protests to his Type-A boss: "The best, the best -- that's all I keep hearing. You want to be the best (have me coach the boss's daughter's soccer team to the championship). Well, let me ask you this: What good is being the best if it brings out the worst in you?" What profiteth a man if he gaineth the world but loseth his soul? This is the interesting middle path that nearly all of these films try to walk -- finding a way for the protagonist to be successful without the film endorsing a bland Ben Franklin/Jay Gatsby/Hortatio Alger/Little Engine That Could ethos of dogged, American striving. The films need to be critiques of win-at-all costs relentlessness at the same time that they figure out a way for their heroes to succeed.

In "Remember the Titans" and "For Love of the Game," respectively, Denzel Washington's and Kevin Costner's Achilles heel is shown to be workaholism; by the end of the film, they learn to give a little, to discover the homo ludens gene hidden somewhere still in their psyche, to learn to depend on themselves a bit less and others a bit more, to cut others some slack; they're not made of the same stern stuff as the hero, after all.

Gene Hackman
Norman Dale (Gene Hackman) is the charismatic leader who earns the team's unwavering trust in "Hoosiers."
In "Breaking Away," Dave Stohler doesn't cheat, as the Italian bikers do, but he wins the race with a little help from his friends. In "Mr. Baseball," Tom Selleck learns from his Japanese teammates that in some circumstances what's called for isn't the American-ish long ball; it's the Japanese-style bunt. In "Hoosiers," unlike the town elders, Gene Hackman is willing to let the team lose for the sake of a principle; this very principledness is the source of his and the team's salvation. In "Karate Kid," Mr. Miyagi teaches Daniel not how to focus monomaniacally on winning the karate tournament (as the opposing coach, a Vietnam vet, does with his charges), but how to think seriously and truly about karate; Daniel wins the tournament.

In "Bad News Bears," Walter Matthau isn't prepared to go all out to win the big game; it doesn't matter anymore, because the Bears are now bad news to the opposition rather than to themselves. Exactly the same thing happens in "Hardball": Keanu Reeves's charges lose the final game. Who cares? They're alive again, despite or perhaps because of their saintly teammate Jarius's death.

In "Democracy in America," Alexis de Toqueville writes: "A democracy finds it difficult to coordinate the details of a great undertaking and to fix on some plan and carry it through with determination in spite of obstacles. It has little capacity for combining measures in secret and waiting patiently for the result. Such qualities are more likely to belong to a single man or to an aristocracy." These movies solve the dilemma of democracy -- the difficult negotiation between individual striving and egalitarian community -- by praising the ragtag team but really praising the charismatic leader who galvanizes the team.

Any Given Sunday
Tony D'Amato (Al Pacino) leads the Miami Sharks out of hell in "Any Given Sunday."
Hell is not, then, as it is in the Euro-version, other people, but self, and heaven is team. In Al Pacino's speech to the troops as the coach in "Any Given Sunday," he says, "We're in hell right now, gentlemen, believe me. And we can stay here -- get the s--- kicked out of us -- or we can fight our way back into the light. We can climb out of hell one inch at a time. ... And I know if I'm going to have any life anymore, it's because I'm still willing to fight and die for that inch. Because that's what living is: the six inches in front of your face. I want you to look at the guy next to you, look into his eyes. Now, I think you're going to see a guy who will sacrifice himself for this team, because he knows, when it comes down to it, you're going to do the same for him. That's a team, gentlemen, and either we heal now as a team, or we will die as individuals. That's football; that's all it is. Now what are you gonna do?"

Sanctified by our flaws
Our "flaws" -- we're selfish, we're drunks, we're divorced, separated, we're hotheads, we're kleptomaniacs, we're superstitious, we're drug addicts, we can't throw, can't catch, can't field, can't shoot, can't run, are afraid, are headstrong, are too big, too small, we're women, we're Jewish, we're black, we're fat, we're kids, we're nearsighted, we're poor, we're hicks, we're Americans -- are not only overcome, they define us and beatify us, sanctify us.

And yet where would the Tin Woodsman, the Scarecrow and the Cowardly Lion be without Dorothy? Still in Kansas. This team needs a strong -- a very strong -- leader. And who is this leader? "Ah, buddy. Ah, buddy," as Salinger's Zooey would or, actually, does say. "It's Christ Himself. Christ Himself, buddy."

In "For Love of the Game," Costner moves from person to person, healing their wounds and absolving them of their sins, not to mention fixing their cars, offering sage advice, dispensing gentle witticisms, and tipping hugely. This debt is repaid in full at the end of the movie when the veteran catcher comes out to the mound in the ninth inning of Costner's perfect game and tells him: "Chappy, you just throw whatever you got left. The boys are all here for you. We'll back you up. We'll be there. We don't stink right now. We're the best team in baseball right now, right this minute, 'cause of you. You're the reason. We're not going to screw that up. We're going to be awesome for you right now. Just throw." Athlete as alms-giver. Christ and his 12 apostles. A shepherd and his sheep. Bathing the team in his love, he makes us better. He loves us into loving ourselves again.

Kevin Costner
Billy Chapel (Kevin Costner) redeems his teammates and slays Goliath (the Yankees) in "For Love of the Game."
Many movies create a nimbus of moral light around the hero, but the pattern here is so insistent as to establish a mini-sub-genre: sports movie as passion play. In "Field of Dreams," Costner (again) must "ease his pain." Whose pain? His father's, but also Shoeless Joe Jackson's, Moonlight Graham's and Terrence Mann's, and ours, ours. Rocky loves people to death or, rather, out of their spiritual death; by the end of the film he has remade his shy girlfriend, his bitter coach, his unemployed friend. The first image of Rocky is of Christ holding a Communion wafer, as if he were a Catholic priest performing the Eucharist sacrament; at the Last Supper, Christ, says, "This is my body, which will be given up for you." In the very next shot, Rocky is getting the crap beat out of him. In other movies, athletes sacrifice their bodies by playing with injures ("Major League," "Slap Shot") or actually dying ("Hardball," "Pastime"). The last image of Rocky is of Rocky in a close approximation of the Pietá. The athlete's bloodied body, given in battle for us, is the crux.

The last shall be first
"And a little child shall lead them." Not only the Christ-hero but the lowliest of us needs to come through, as well. In "For Love of the Game," Billy Chapel's best bud, the guy riding shotgun, the journeyman catcher, needs to come through with a big hit in the top of the ninth before Costner completes his perfect game in the bottom of the inning. The King's garments touch everyone, even Jarius in "Hardball," the littlest of the little, who proves his mettle before being shot by drug-runners and in whose honor they play the championship game. At Jarius's funeral, Keanu Reeves says, "With our hopes dwindling, he hit a shot down the first-base line, and we won the game. And watching him raise his arms in triumph as he ran to first base, I swear I was lifted in that moment to a better place. I swear he lifted the world for that moment. He made me a better person even if just for that moment. I am forever grateful to Jarius for that." Even Ollie, in "Hoosiers," the miniscule blonde cherub, magically hits two free throws to propel Hickory into the state championship. Rudy, in "Rudy," is a boy among men, but shows the boy-men how to be men. It's revelation time: The last shall be first.

Jarius "G-Baby" Evans (DeWayne Warren) overcomes his lack of size to inspire the team in "Hardball."
And yet nearly every sports movie tends to elide the Big Moment. Weirdly, it often seems to just slide by. In part, this is because the structure of the movie is usually based on the rhythm of a season and so the climax of the film is making it to the World Series; there's no time for the seven games of the World Series. So, too, the World Series is a kind of heaven on earth, and the movie can't show heaven on earth, so it shows the ascension. The movie got you there: The viewer can imagine the rest (it's better that way). Watching "Field of Dreams," we really want to know what's on the other side of the cornfield, but we never quite get there.

What the films tend to do for endings instead is to try to extract from the relevant sport the perfect sports metaphor and dilate that. In "Karate Kid," Daniel assumes the Crane Posture, which Mr. Miyagi had taught him early on and the value of which Daniel never understood; using it now, in the final moments of the karate championship, he seems to have gathered all that Mr. Miyagi has taught him and not only absorbed it as philosophy but used it as winning strategy. So, too, in "Personal Best" -- a film about two female track stars, Mariel Hemingway and Patrice Donnelly, who become friends, lovers, antagonists and friends again; at the end of the film, Mariel sacrifices herself by running out to a lead too early and then creating an opening, a gap, a space through which Patrice can pass and thus join her friend in qualifying for the Olympics. The movie doesn't show the Olympics; it shows the getting there. Sports movies are often very good at dramatizing the intersection of public and private realms: the body politic.

"Adrian!" Rocky shouts. "Adrian! Adrian!" Surrounded by admirers after he has lasted 15 rounds with Apollo Creed, Rocky wants only to see his beloved. The ending of innumerable sports movies replicates this moment: the applause of the crowd must be there, but once there, it's deemed inconsequential, background noise. This is a metaphor for being in a movie audience and wanting to be with that audience, needing the human heat of a crowd, but also needing to commune with the screen in a private, rhapsodic way, just you and the star. You and the crowd; then you and the star. Also, you and your sweetheart, and you and the world. Agape and Eros. You want the world to love you, but then you want someone to be there to love you while the world is loving you, so the two of you can tell yourself the world's admiration doesn't matter. Which it does and which it doesn't.

So far I've tried, I suppose, to maintain a certain exegetical distance toward the mythic structure of feel-good sports movies, but listen to this: the actor Craig T. Nelson bought the rights to my first novel -- about a sportswriter's vicarious relationship with a college athlete -- and hired me to adapt the book into a screenplay, though the movie never got made. Over the years, I kept tinkering with the script, at one point reducing it to a 15-page "treatment" (synopsis). I just pulled it out of a drawer, and whaddya know? The losing team, the town in the toilet. The shepherd leading his sheep to the Land of Oz. Becoming successful but rejecting win-at-all-costs. And a little child shall lead them. Agape and Eros. The elision of the big moment. The perfect sports metaphor. The praise song to existence here, now, on earth, beyond worldly care.

Virtually every sports-movie motif that I've tracked in this essay I found in full force in my synopsis, written many years ago. I'd never particularly gone to school on these movies, until now. Which suggests that a) I've watched way too many sports movies over the years; b) I have or had an embarrassingly formulaic imagination; or c) that narrative is simply out there in the culture and that we (men, especially, since men don't give birth; women already suffer physically to give life to us all) will forever be drawn to it, this lullaby of salvation told by and about the body.

David Shields' work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, Harper's, Vogue, Details, Village Voice, Yale Review, McSweeney's, and Salon. His book Black Planet" was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. He is a professor in the English department at the University of Washington.



The full list of our Top 20, plus explanation of the voting

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