Excerpt: Sporting Realities

The following has been excerpted from Sporting Realities: Critical Readings of the Sports Documentary (Nebraska, 2020), edited by Samantha N. Sheppard and Travis Vogan.


Sports documentaries have never been more popular, prestigious, or visible. Such films won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature in 2017 (O.J.: Made in America, Ezra Edelman, 2016), 2018 (Icarus, Bryan Fogel, 2017), and 2019 (Free Solo, Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, 2018). Academy Awards, of course, are no necessary marker of artistic quality. But the sudden concentration of lauded sports documentaries suggests we are in something of a moment—one that various popular commentators have dubbed a “golden age” for the genre.1

Like all documentaries, sports documentaries are allied with what Bill Nichols calls the “discourses of sobriety” (law, science, and so forth), which are principally concerned with making an argument about the world they endeavor to reveal.2 But sports documentaries—unlike, say, educational films about photosynthesis or hydroelectricity—take as their topic an unusually popular site of culture. As a result, they have the potential to attract the outsize audience that comes along with sport—and the global brands and celebrities that make it up. Moreover, they often (though certainly not always) contrast the promotionally driven register through which sport is commonly depicted via game broadcasts and advertisements. They can therefore usefully reposition sport from a site of leisurely consumption into an occasion to consider the cultural attitudes and intersecting forces than inform them. Sports documentaries, for instance, offer some of popular culture’s most enduring investigations of identity politics. George Butler’s Pumping Iron (1977) and Pumping Iron II: The Women (1985) use bodybuilding to illustrate the very different standards by which male and female athletes’ bodies, genders, and sexualities are judged. Steve James’s Hoop Dreams (1994) explores the intersection of race, class, and masculinity through inner-city basketball. Henry Alex Rubin and Dana Adam Shapiro’s Murderball (2005) considers ability and disability by focusing on wheelchair rugby. More recently, documentaries like The Armstrong Lie (Alex Gibney, 2013), Happy Valley (Amir Bar-Lev, 2014), and League of Denial (PBS Frontline, 2013) have contributed to the discourses surrounding sporting controversies like performance-enhancing drugs, sex abuse, and head injuries. League of Denial’s exposure of the National Football League’s efforts to suppress information about the long-term
health effects of the concussions its players routinely sustain, for example, informed lawsuits,
settlements, and rule changes. These documentaries’ use of sport to ask pressing questions has made them handy teaching tools for those who offer courses across the humanities and social sciences.

While cinematic markers of achievement like awards and film-festival selections powerfully illustrate sports documentaries’ recent renown, the genre’s surge has been driven largely by television. Most prominently, in 2009 the ESPN subsidiary ESPN Films launched 30 for 30, a series on which several of this anthology’s chapters turn a critical eye. ESPN used documentary’s prestige within the context of television to cultivate a sense of refinement among sports media outlets and to help it compete for market share of the sports documentary.3 The gambit seemed to work; 30 for 30’s initial run gathered a Peabody Award as well as the International Documentary
Award for Distinguished Continuing Series.

Beyond the respectability they built, ESPN’s 30 for 30 documentaries served as cost-effective promotional devices that fuel the very commercial motives that the stereotypically edifying documentary often suppresses. The films cost less to produce than the rights to broadcast even marginally popular live sporting events. They can also be flexibly scheduled to complement related programming and can be used in perpetuity by the channel and its various offshoots. ESPN thus extended its critically acclaimed and economical documentary series with spin-offs organized around specific events and properties, such as SEC Storied, which it used to help launch the SEC Network; Nine for IX, a complement to its women-centered ESPNW website; Soccer Stories, made to support ESPN’s and ABC’s coverage of the 2014 World Cup; and 30 for 30 Shorts, brief documentaries that live primarily online instead of on TV. As of this writing, ESPN Films has created more than two hundred documentaries under its various banners. The New York Times
described 30 for 30 as “a thunderclap in the industry” that established the sports documentary as sports television’s most prominent genre outside of live event coverage and instituted ESPN as the form’s unquestioned leader.4

. . .

This anthology brings together a collection of scholars to probe the sports documentary’s cultural meanings, aesthetic practices, business imperatives, and political contours. In particular, the chapters’ focus on the industrial and commercial elements informing the sports documentary’s ideologically loaded depictions sets this collection apart from already published material on the topic. The ten chapters assembled consider and critique the sports documentary’s increasingly visible and powerful position in contemporary culture and forge novel connections between the study of nonfiction media and sport. And they do so by exploring a diverse and important collection of sports documentaries, many of which have not yet received scholarly treatment.


  1. Barney Ronay, “Dramatic Victory: Are We Entering a Golden Age for the Sports
    Documentary?,” Guardian, November 20, 2017, http://www.theguardian.com.
  2. Bill Nichols, Representing Reality: Issues and Concepts in Documentary (Bloomington:
    Indiana University Press, 1992), 3.
  3. See Travis Vogan, ESPN: The Making of a Sports Media Empire (Urbana: University
    of Illinois Press, 2015), 121–45.
  4. Richard Sandomir, “Documentaries Are the Go-to Players of Sports Television,”
    New York Times, March 21, 2015, SP5.

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