From Curt Flood to John Carlos and Tommie Smith to Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf to Colin Kaepernick, there’s a long tradition of black athletes standing up for themselves and the rights of others.
Such protests are highly controversial, both with authority figures in sports and with fans: Carlos and Smith were immediately banned from the Olympic Village, Abdul-Rauf’s NBA career came to an early end and President Donald Trump called players who kneel during the national anthem “sons of b—-es” and demanded they be fired. Some of those still-employed kneeling players met with NFL owners earlier this week to discuss a path forward.
Yet when America sees protesting athletes in movies and on TV, the dynamic is different from what happens in real life. Really, really different.
In the idealized settings of television and film, just as in real life, the protests come with great cost and risk. Still, when screen athletes stand up for their principles, not only do they win, they’re clearly identified as the “good guys.”
Audiences are comfortable with fictional athletes who stand up to corporate bullies, in part because movies and TV demand character development. Even when fictional players begin as compliant automatons, being told what to do and how to do it, their personal journeys are characterized by growth and self-awareness. There’s an expectation that once athletes discover their power and witness injustice, they will be compelled to act. After all, a bunch of guys looking at a problem and shrugging their shoulders doesn’t make for good drama.
But those expectations don’t translate well to real life, as polling data on NFL player protests has shown.
When fans and political critics demand that players “stick to sports,” they’re saying they want the excitement of games and terrific athletic ability, but they want it divorced from players’ full humanity. They want the action sequences, but no plot or character development. Which is how we get people saying athletes should protest “on their own time” — essentially, after the credits have run and no one’s watching.
In TV and film, once we’ve gotten to know characters as people who have the same emotional needs as we do, it becomes easier to digest the necessity of their protests. Their motivations drive our sympathy. We want them to win.
The racial dynamic is different on-screen as white characters are cast as protest leaders. And these works also communicate why the element of public spectacle is so important: It raises the stakes. Public or near-public showdowns are a key trope in these stories because they’re seen as necessary to achieving the desired results.
Here’s a look at some of the movies and television shows in which athletes stood up to the man(agement):
Survivor’s Remorse (2014-17)
The recently canceled Starz comedy starred Jessie T. Usher as Cam Calloway and Chris Bauer as Jimmy Flaherty, the owner of Cam’s professional basketball team in Atlanta. The two have a few standoffs, but the disagreement between Cam and Jimmy that carries special resonance these days comes after Flaherty signs a $5 million contract with a firm to put advertising patches on players’ jerseys. The problem is that the company is the second-largest funder of private prisons in the country. Cam, flanked by his lawyer and manager, tells Flaherty he won’t play as long as the patches are on the jerseys. Every great fortune may have a great crime behind it, but this is where he draws the line.
This standoff takes place in the arena, hours before tipoff, and Flaherty, who knows he can’t win without Cam, backs down. This confrontation takes place not in the first season but at the end of the fourth, after we’ve had plenty of episodes to witness how Cam’s activism has been inspired by the suffering he sees around him, and after we know that Cam’s commitment to criminal justice reform is motivated in part by his own father’s imprisonment. Not only that, we know that Cam is generous to a fault. His manager is constantly trying to talk him out of giving away more of his money. If Cam hadn’t taken a stand on the patches, it would seem unnatural given what we’ve learned about the content of his character.
Varsity Blues (1999)
I forgive you if the only thing you can remember about this movie is Ali Larter in a whipped-cream bra, but it really did have a bigger message.
James Van Der Beek starred as Jonathan Moxon, a backup quarterback for a Texas high school football team that has won two state titles under coach Bud Kilmer (Jon Voight). But Kilmer is merciless, racist and megalomaniacal — traits the school and community at large are happy to overlook so long as he keeps adding wins to West Canaan High’s record books.
Kilmer uses his star black running back, Wendell (Eliel Swinton), as little more than a mule, repeatedly deploying him for physically taxing runs but never allowing him to score a touchdown. The audience is treated to a bruising up-close-and-personal experience of those hits and the toll they exact on Wendell’s body. They’re gruesome.
Moxon is talented but not nearly as invested in football as his father or his coach are. And he hates Kilmer’s racism and mercenary disregard for the health of his players. Moxon gets tapped to lead the team because first-stringer and all-state quarterback Lance Harbor (Paul Walker) suffers a career-ending injury. It’s Kilmer’s fault — he insisted on pumping Harbor full of cortisone and forcing him to play until he was no longer physically able, costing him a college football scholarship.
When Moxon starts calling his own plays, gets Wendell into the end zone and generally pisses off his coach while still winning, Kilmer goes ballistic. He threatens to alter Moxon’s transcripts and derail his plan to attend college on an academic scholarship. But Moxon’s teammates have had enough of Kilmer’s antics, and they mutiny during halftime of the final game of the season. Kilmer’s team will only take the field of the second half without him, and the coach must relent or risk further public humiliation. The team wins the game, and Kilmer is forced to leave West Canaan and football for good.
The Longest Yard (2005)
In this remake of the original 1974 film that starred Burt Reynolds, prison inmates play a football game against a group of racist, sadistic prison guards who are constantly abusing their power.
In the 2005 version, Adam Sandler plays Reynolds’ role of washed-up quarterback Paul Crewe. Crewe isn’t an easy person to root for. Besides point-shaving, Crewe endangers himself and others when he gets drunk and leads police on a high-speed car chase in his girlfriend’s Bentley.
When he gets to prison, the warden, Rudolph Hazen (James Cromwell), forces Crewe to assemble a ragtag team of prisoners to give the guards an easy, confidence-boosting win before their season playing against guards from other prisons begins. The other prisoners sign on because they see an opportunity to give the guards a taste of their own depraved behavior. They’re comically bad at first, but under Crewe’s stewardship, they pull together. They start to develop hope and confidence of their own. Maybe they can really win this thing!
The black prisoners, led by Cheeseburger Eddy (Terry Crews), are loath to join the team until another prisoner, Megget (Nelly), is forced to swallow his dignity and pride. The guards confront Megget in the prison library and repeatedly call him “n—–,” in an attempt to cajole him into a fight. Megget resists the bait but relishes the opportunity to get his revenge on the field.
Once game day arrives, the prisoners are unaware that Hazen has made a deal with Crewe to throw the game. Crewe must comply or face life in prison for a murder he didn’t commit, one that resulted in the death of his closest jail friend, Caretaker (Chris Rock).
When the big day arrives, Crewe starts out leading the prisoners in what looks like a rout of the guards. Hazen reminds Crewe what he has to lose, and Crewe begins to throw the game. But he has a crisis of conscience and tells his teammates what’s happening. He decides to try to beat the guards anyway, leading the prisoners to a game-tying touchdown and a two-point conversion to win as the clock runs out.
In both Varsity Blues and The Longest Yard, the protests are led by charismatic white quarterbacks who have their own grievances but are happy to loop in those of black players as well. Would kneeling be more acceptable if Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady had started doing it first, citing the same reasons as Kaepernick? Would Brady and Rodgers be criticized as un-American and unpatriotic, or praised for their compassion and for using their privilege to help minorities? And if the reactions to them would be different from those to Kaepernick or other black players, what does that say?
Both The Longest Yard and Varsity Blues feature unambiguously terrible antagonists in the warden, prison guards and Kilmer. They paint pictures of racists as unsubtle, selfish and uncultivated. They portray bigotry as a problem of individual extremists rather than something that’s endemic to the country. Again, we’re faced with the luxuries afforded by (admittedly uncomplicated) character development. If we don’t know NFL players and owners as well as we know the characters in these movies, how do we judge their actions?
The White Shadow (1978-81)
Ken Howard stars as Ken Reeves, a former player for the Chicago Bulls who injured his knee, ending his professional career. One of his college teammates, Jim Willis (Ed Bernard), offers him a job coaching basketball at the dilapidated, majority-black Carver High School in Los Angeles. The team is a band of undisciplined misfits — Reeves has a bad habit of referring to them as “animals.”
Carver’s star player, James Hayward (Thomas Carter), needs a job to care for his mother, who has ulcers, and his siblings because their father is dead. Another player, Curtis Jackson, doesn’t want to face the fact that he has a drinking problem.
Unlike the other examples here, the relationship between Reeves and the team is more symbiotic than purely adversarial. The chief conflict doesn’t hinge on Reeves being a bad person. Rather, Reeves is blindly navigating his new job and everything it entails. He’s in charge of a group of players who talk back and who are skeptical of authority because they’ve learned that no one expects much of them. The state of Carver’s campus — strewn with detritus, missing letters on its signage — communicates to its students that they don’t matter much. And if the students know they don’t matter, how is anyone going to be able to get them to care about school?
Vice principal Sybil Buchanan (Joan Pringle) acts as interpreter and student advocate in her interactions with Reeves, giving a credible voice to the players’ concerns. She tells Reeves he’s not a “white knight” and won’t be able to swoop in to the school and fix everything in 20 minutes. She’s indignant when Reeves enlists the team to move him into his new apartment on a Saturday for free, telling him the days of slave labor are over. Reeves and Buchanan are working toward the same goal, which is helping the students. But she and the basketball team are teaching a man who probably doesn’t think he’s racist not to behave like one. Created by Bruce Paltrow, The White Shadow offers a more nuanced view of race and racism than The Longest Yard or Varsity Blues. And it also says something about what it takes to be a useful ally.
Eddie (Whoopi Goldberg) is a limo dispatcher and devoted New York Knicks fan who wins a public relations contest to coach the floundering team. There’s a twist though: Eddie’s a pretty decent coach. Fans like her.
Eddie becomes more than a novelty act. She quickly discovers there’s more to coaching than calling plays. She’s the team’s chief haranguer, marriage counselor, therapist and mother. Her pestering and rule-setting pays off, and the team starts not only winning but also enjoying basketball again. They lose their arrogance and sense of entitlement once they realize they have a person who cares about them as more than ball-dribbling widgets to be yelled at, traded and cut. She’s a real coach.
Meanwhile, the team’s owner, “Wild Bill” Burgess (Frank Langella), a Texas billionaire oil baron, has decided to convert the Knicks’ unbelievable good fortune into profits — by secretly negotiating a move that would send the team to St. Louis.
Eddie, once she gets wind of the plan, stands up to the man whose ego is about as inflated as the 10-gallon Stetson on his head. Burgess sees the Knicks as chess pieces he can move about the country at his pleasure. When he won’t listen to Eddie privately, she takes their disagreement public, revealing Burgess’ plans to a packed house at Madison Square Garden and daring him to censure her for it. After Eddie risks the job she loves and the cushiest salary she’s ever had in her life, it’s not just her team who backs her up. It’s the city of New York.
In Varsity Blues and The Longest Yard, the athletes in question are not millionaires. The audience doesn’t have to overcome feelings of class resentment to sympathize with them. But what happens when that’s not the case? What happens when the players in revolt are professionals who make piles and piles of money?
You use an intermediary.
Eddie received terrible reviews when it was released in 1996, but it’s really smart about one thing: It uses Eddie first as a vehicle for criticizing spoiled players. And then, once it’s clear that Eddie is a sports fan, just like the audience, the perspective of who is “good” and “bad” begins to shift. Once we see Eddie and the Knicks players as part of the same team, working toward the same goal of making the NBA playoffs, we’re willing to accept their revolt — which, again, is public — against Wild Bill.
There’s a delicate balance that’s achieved, and there’s a thoughtfulness in positioning Eddie this way. When she stands up to Wild Bill, she’s a fan advocating for other fans. Eddie comes the closest of these shows to placing fans (particularly the ones who have been vocal about wanting athletes to sit down and shut up) on the same side as the pro athletes who make so much more than they do. Even though the movie isn’t directly about race, it illustrates how being rich doesn’t automatically zero out the balance on life’s problems. It doesn’t matter how much money you make if your boss simply sees you as a moneymaking property, and that’s a sentiment any populist can get behind.