November 17, 2014

GUEST COLUMN | The Role of Sports Films In Childhood

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As a kid, I used to replay the final scene of The Sandlot over and over in my head, sliding into home plate as if I was Benny “The Jet” Rodriguez. I spent more time trying to perfect the Knuckle Puck Slapshot than I did practicing the piano. I convinced myself that if I just stretched enough, my arm could also extend from half court to the rim without a problem.

These iconic sports films — The Sandlot, The Mighty Ducks and Space Jam — are just a few of the ones that showed me the lighter side of sports when I was growing up. These movies showcased the fact that there’s more to sports than just competition.

Whether I was turning on Nickelodeon for another episode of Rocket Power or watching reruns of Cool Runnings on Disney Channel, I could always count on finding the perfect blend of feel-good moments and exhilarating sports entertainment.

I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who watched Otto Rocket pull some triple-kickflip, reverse 360 and emulate those moves in my driveway (although realistically, my moves were similar to those of Squid, the least-talented athlete on the show). Some films like Mighty Ducks and The Sandlot encouraged me to go out and play those sports. I can’t recall how many times I gathered up the neighborhood gang to play sports in which none of us had any formal training.

My mom never played any sports growing up — she originally thought the yellow line in an NFL game was actually there on the field — and the only thing my dad played as a young adult was boxing, which we could never really practice together. My parents brought me up to understand that school came first, sports second. Because of that type of upbringing, I got my inspiration to play sports from what I saw on the television screen in movies and shows. While it may seem ridiculous and difficult to fathom, I started playing basketball at a young age after watching Bugs Bunny play in Space Jam. Being a five-year-old, naïve child, I convinced myself whole-heartedly that if I kept practicing, maybe I could be good enough to beat a group of Monstars — or at least the guys who lived next door.

It saddens me to look at the new generation of sports films, which lack the same quirky elements that can draw kids to sports. The top-25 rated children’s sports film on Amazon are all from my generation. None of them were made in the last 10 years. If I asked my 10-year-old cousin what his favorite sports film was, he would most likely answer with a movie that came out during my childhood rather than his. What will be the next sports film that captivates a generation of youth and sends them out into the street to learn how to play and love sports? A film that even the generation after will continue to watch religiously.

It’s possible that today’s generation of youth is just more likely to play a sports video game than watch a sports film. The key difference here is that video games don’t spark the same desire to get up, go outside and actually play the sport. In a video game, you are already constantly competing against an opponent, so there is no need to take that competitive nature elsewhere. But when you watch a feel-good movie like Mighty Ducks, it makes you want to pick up a hockey stick and head out to the nearest rink.

Maybe the early 2000s were just the peak of children’s sports film. There is a fundamental difference between the sports films coming out now and the ones that came out when I was growing up. Recently, it appears that these movies focus more on the emotional side of athletics rather than the entertaining, light-hearted component. Films like 42, Friday Night Lights and The Blind Side are exceptional sports films, but they tend to place more emphasis on the drama, which isn’t going to hit home with a younger age group. The sports films that do have a lighter tone like Semi-Pro, Benchwarmers and The Longest Yard would not be appropriate for most children. It has become harder to find the balance that movies of my generation found so easily.

One thing movies do extremely well is provide a sense of nostalgia. Watching a familiar movie scene can instantly remind you of that time when you were eight years old without a care in the world. Like more recent movies about sports, some of my coaches emphasized the element of winning more than the element of fun. These were the coaches that I despised because they were the ones who sat the kid who was not that great at basketball on the bench, just to win a 10-inch plastic trophy. Childhood sports films glorified that kid on the bench, and that’s what made them so relatable.

Everyone loves winning the championship at the end of the season, but when I look at my fourth place house-league ribbon, my first thoughts aren’t, “man, I wish we were the best team in the league.” They’re, “We lost every game 55-10, but at least we scored 10.” I’ll remember the moments I had with my teammates that we could laugh about. Or the moment when the worst player on the team finally scored his first layup of the season nine games in. Or the moment when you heard the coach call your name during a game, and you got off the bench with pumped up adrenaline saying, “I’m ready Coach”, only to hear him say, “Perfect, can you give Hank your jersey.”

It’s light-hearted moments like these that excited and stuck with me growing up, and they were captured perfectly in the sports films of my generation.