The Blind Spots: How Sports Movies Sell The Myth Of Meritocracy

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Cuba Gooding, Jr holds up his Oscar after winning the Best Supporting Actor Award for his role in "Jerry Maguire" during the 1997 Academy Awards. (Timothy A. Clary/AFP via Getty Images)
Cuba Gooding, Jr holds up his Oscar after winning the Best Supporting Actor Award for his role in "Jerry Maguire" during the 1997 Academy Awards. (Timothy A. Clary/AFP via Getty Images)

This piece is part of our special 6/27/20 episode "Sports, Racism And The Myth Of Meritocracy." Check out the full show here.

We wanted to start this week's special episode at the movies, because we’ve been thinking a lot lately about the messages Hollywood sends about sports and race.

"One of the first things that comes to mind is 'Rocky I,' which is kind of a weird starting place," former Only A Game producer Niko Emack says. "You know, Apollo Creed comes out, and it's this huge spectacle."

"And it kind of contrasts with Rocky's kind of humble, 'I'm just a guy from the neighborhood. I'm gonna come out in my sweats and do my thing.'

"Another example that comes to mind is 'Jerry Maguire.' "

"You know, it's great that they're so confident in their abilities," Niko says. "But it does kind of hearken back to a time of 'shucking and jiving.' And it's really disappointing to see time and time and time again."

The Tropes

Sports are often seen as a place where all that matters is hard work and talent — a place that’s somehow immune to systemic racism, a place where African Americans can get ahead. Or, at least, that’s how sports are portrayed in pop culture.

Consider movies that focus on Black athletes.

"You know, they come from extreme poverty," Niko says.

"In 'The Blind Side,' you know, it's a family, a white family, that basically adopts a Black kid who proves his worth because he's great at football," NPR TV critic Eric Deggans says.

"The film is mostly from the perspective of the white family that is taking him in, and it turned away from some of the deeper questions that it could have investigated — about what happens when society is set up in such a way that the best option for a young Black man is to leave everybody he knows and go live with a white family. And the situations that he lives in are presented as a result of choices that individual people make. And the whole systemic part of it doesn't really exist for the film."

"You're only getting a certain perspective from these kind of movies — and these tropes — that you start to believe them in real life," Niko says, "which can be really, really, really problematic."

Niko and Eric aren't the only ones who see big issues with "The Blind Side," which, by the way, is the highest grossing sports movie of all time.

"Definitely the white hero coming in, teaching lessons about life in general, and 'Don't give up,' " says Only A Game contributor and "The Game Last Night" host Olivia Christian. "Trying to explain challenges to African Americans as if they had no idea life would that be difficult until this person showed up."

"Like, a coach that shows up into the 'hood and, you know, these guys have no hope," says The Athletic’s Michael Lee. "He starts to discover that maybe he's more bigoted than he thought. And these kids are helping them understand that he's got to be cool. And they teach him how to dance and maybe perform a rap song. And all’s great.

"That story plays out, I think, at least 75 million times in the movies. What was the movie with Keanu Reeves? It was a baseball movie."

"It's Keanu Reeves," Olivia says. "He's a gambler."

It's called "Hardball."

"Yeah, yeah, that's the movie that always pops into my head," Michael says.

"Keanu Reeves goes to Chicago in the housing developments, gets this ragtag team together," Olivia says. "They win the championship. Just a guy who's a gambler. It's not even like he's an ex-baseball player. He's just a white guy who comes and saves the day."

"You're trying to create a message of equality, but the larger message can be misconstrued as, 'It takes a white person to give credibility to a Black person, so that we can thrive,' " the Washington Post’s Jerry Brewer says. "And that's a very dangerous message to send."

And Now: 'Remember The Titans' 

There are a lot of myths about what sports can do. But the biggest of them all is the myth that sports can somehow solve racism. You see it time and again in movies — in "42," "Invictus" and, perhaps most famously, 2000’s "Remember the Titans."

" 'Remember the Titans,' like, any time it's on — and it's often on on a Saturday afternoon, when I'm trying to complete my Honey-Do list — and I sit down and I watch it. It's a great movie," Jerry Brewer says. "But there is something weird about, 'OK, we're gonna solve our locker room tension by having an everybody sing in the locker room.' "

"Look, first of all, a lot of these movies are very good and entertaining, which is why they also are so sly and slick about this," says Dr. Amira Rose Davis, who teaches history and African American studies at Penn State and co-hosts the podcast, "Burn it All Down."

"They're very, very clear to ground it in the past, like, 'This is the past,' " Davis says. "And it's a bunch of microaggressions. And there's one, like, big, mean racist moment. And then there's a lot of white people in the movie — teammates or otherwise — who are like, 'Oh, I see it now.' "

So, I watched "Remember the Titans" for the first time last weekend. It’s set in 1971 and based on the true story of the forced integration of a high school in Virginia. There’s a football coach, played by Denzel Washington, and when he moves to town, someone throws a brick through his window. But when the team starts winning, all of the coach’s neighbors come out of their houses to cheer.

"Would his white neighbors have accepted him if they were losing?" Davis asks. "People are not coming together because they've suddenly had an eye opening experience about racism. People are coming together because they are winning. But, instead of amplifying that point, instead of the end saying, 'Oh, yeah, see what can happen when you win,' it becomes, 'This was transformative.'

"Winning the championship — they actually didn't win — coming in second place in the state does not solve the structural racism and integration in Virginia. And so we we get lulled into a sense of reaching a mountain top of a mountain we're still climbing."

"You're only getting a certain perspective from these kind of movies and these tropes, that you start to believe them in real life, which can be really, really, really problematic."

Former OAG Producer Niko Emack

Former Only A Game producer Niko Emack is also familiar with "Remember the Titans."

"Oh, of course, with Denzel, one of my favorites," Niko says. "The actor, not the movie.

"I saw it as a kid. It's a great story about learning about each other through sports. But then you get a bit older and you realize that, 'Oh, OK, that’s a little bit more Disney.' It's only scratching the surface. Everyone kind of gets to pat themselves on the back and say, 'I solved racism.' You know, it reminds me a lot of kind of this social media activism that we're seeing right now, where people post a black square, or companies post a black square. But, at the end of the day, they go home and they say, 'Job's done. I did my part,' when, you know — it's great; it's good — but, again, it's just doing the bare minimum. It's not pushing yourself to an uncomfortable place to really explore some of those themes and topics."

This segment aired on June 27, 2020.

Headshot of Karen Given

Karen Given Executive Producer/Interim Host, Only A Game
Karen is the executive producer for WBUR's Only A Game.



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