We Got Game

How Sports Took Over American Culture

What's the most important annual event in American culture? If you guessed the Oscars, you're in the wrong locker room, wuss. It's the Super Bowl.

Football is the flying wedge of an industry that generates an astonishing amount of money—$213 billion last year, according to 'Sports Business Journal.' And that doesn't include the revenues from 'recreational' activities like fishing, camping, or strutting in running pants. If you added in these ancillaries, sports would be bigger than banking, but even without them, it grosses nearly seven times as much as its closest entertainment rival, movies. On Super Bowl Sunday alone, more than $250 million will change hands when the Titans meet the Rams before a rapt audience 140 million strong. While women are a bigger part of this crowd than you might think—up to 40 percent by one account—it's still the best place to reach that coveted advertiser demographic: young dudes on brew. Gathering round "the national campfire," they bond and buy cars.

But the Super Bowl is much more than a cash cow. It's the culminating moment of a game that has become the most important ritual in American life. As sportswriter Robert Lipsyte notes despairingly, Super Sunday is "the national holy day of a secular religion." But perhaps a better metaphor for the power of football is art.

You don't need a degree in pigskin studies to argue that, when it comes to immersion and identification—the very definition of an aesthetic experience—nothing beats this impact art. No Gesamtkunstwerk can generate such intense emotions in so many men. No song crosses age, race, and class lines like sports in general and football in particular. The Super Bowl is to America what Wagner's Ring is to Germany: a national opera that connects the past to the future, a sacred mediator of the violent, the venal, and the sublime.

No wonder Hollywood wants in on the game. Sports movies are now a fast-track genre, and football films lead the pack. In the pipeline are gridiron mellers like One for the Ages, in which a coach tries to assemble a new team after the old squad perishes in a plane crash; inspirationals like Finding Forrester, in which a boy on an athletic scholarship discovers a talent for writing; race dramas like The Titans, in which a black coach takes over a hostile white team; and ass-patting comedies like Naked Reverse, described by Variety as "combining three American institutions: sex, the media, and college football." This is not to mention the slew of boxing bios, wrestling docs, and meta-soccer sagas like The Cup, in which a Buddhist monk turns his love of the game over to a higher power. All that's missing from this lineup is a Bruce Willis epic about a quarterback who saves the world by hurling an atomic football at a death star.

Times have certainly changed since Ron Shelton struggled to make a movie about a bush-league intellectual named Crash Davies. "It was very difficult to get Bull Durham off the ground, because no one wanted to make a sports movie 10 or 11 years ago," Shelton recalls. Now, after five sports films (including White Men Can't Jump), Shelton is the master of his own subgenre: the jock-com. "When I started to make these films, sports was just the background that you could spin yarns around, like generations of directors did with Westerns," he notes. But now that sports pervades the culture, the game has become the main event, which is probably why Shelton's current film, Play It to the Bone, features a lavishly brutal fight between two devoted buds. It may intrude on the drollery to see Woody Harrelson and Antonio Banderas beat each other to a pulp, but it's what people pay to see. Especially guyz.

After football, boxing is the most popular setting for sports movies today. Which is one reason why, after 12 years of kicking around the studios, Norman Jewison finally got to make his Rubin Carter biopic, The Hurricane. A month into its run, it's the third highest-grossing film in America and likely to propel Denzel Washington to an Oscar. Though most critics thought racism was the true subject of this film, there's an old tradition of duct-taping major social issues to sports movies. In fact, if you ignore the racial content, The Hurricane has the ultimate sports-movie theme: the personal ordeal. Athletes who face death, overcome defeat, or rise from degradation are what give this genre its iconic pop. As Shelton observes, "Whatever mythologies we had at the end of the 19th century, they've become sports mythologies today."

No movie better illustrates this myth-devouring power than Any Given Sunday, Oliver Stone's attempt to put the man back in management. In a Christmas week of powerhouse dramas, this was the biggest film, bum-rushing that little cocksucker Mr. Ripley. One reason is Stone's camera, which takes the adrenal style of TV sports photography to jump-cut heaven; but there's also the requisite Big Issue: commerce vs. game. This theme is manifest in the character of coach Tony D'Amato, played by Al Pacino, who has become the repository of mature male potency in a pussified world. Here he teaches a self-centered young black athlete how to win and lose "like a man." It's everything you could want in a sports movie—racial reconciliation, filial love, and deep male bonding—laced with the kind of gender politics that makes you understand how sexual Stone's paranoia has been all along. The team's ruthless owner (Cameron Diaz) is a more destructive version of the crazy female owners in Major League, Slapshot, and the HBO series First and Ten. We know she's an unnatural woman from the way she ignores the giant dicks on display in the locker room. As an emblem of unjust power, Diaz stands for the hype that is destroying the game, while Pacino rhapsodizes about its "purity." Guess who wins?

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