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Balancing Act: The Evolution of Sports Documentaries from Journalism to Propaganda

The rise of curated narratives and the unfortunate decline of investigative journalism in the way we consume sports content


This week I watched the latest iteration of Netflix’s Untold Sports documentary series. This production was called “Swamp Kings" and attempted to tell the story of the brief, tumultuous, and successful era of the Florida Gators football team under Urban Meyer. I was expecting many things out of this documentary, some of which it delivered (the evolution of Brandon Spikes, the rise of Tim Tebow and Tebowmania, and the obsessive nature of Urban Meyer) and some of which it didn’t deliver (no mention of Cam Newton leaving the team, no mention of the now infamous Aaron Hernandez story, and the portrayal of quarterback Chris Leak as a sort of hindrance).

The tone and stories told ultimately felt like a bit of a puff piece for Urban Meyer and to a lesser extent Tim Tebow. Meyer, as you might recall, was an utter disaster in the NFL lasting only 13 games as the coach of the Jacksonville Jaguars in one of the most bizarre coaching rides you may ever see in professional sports. Meyer, if nothing else, was a man in need of some good PR and it seems that this documentary aimed to deliver that. He is not the first person to try and seek redemption through modern forms of media and storytelling. It seems that since Michael Jordan’s 10-part docuseries entitled “The Last Dance debuted in 2020, athletes and coaches have taken to creating documentaries and podcasts to share their version of the truth. It is a curveball to the notion of journalism, narrative building, and image rehabilitation and something we can only expect more of in the future.

The Rise of Sports Documentaries

Documentaries have been around for almost as long as film has been a thing. If a fictionalized or dramatized movie is a novel then a documentary is certainly a well researched thesis. Documentaries aim to tell the story of what really happened in a piece of history through interviews, recorded footage, and narration as opposed to the dramatized method of a feature film. Sports documentaries in particular, have not been something that was in high demand historically.

As someone who loves a good sports documentary, the genre started to seem viable for me through the variety of HBO productions in the 1990s and ESPN’s documentary series entitled “Sports Century”, which told tales of the greatness of athletes from the past. But what took this subgenre of documentaries to the next level was ESPN’s 30 for 30 series that debuted in the late 2000s.

30 for 30 took the stories of teams and players that many had long forgotten and dove deep into their era. With top level Hollywood producers and directors at the helm, the series won many awards and told the stories of Len Bias, Hank Gathers, Mike Tyson, and many more in captivating detail that made many a sports fan (myself included) absolutely hooked on the series. For someone that grew up in the 1990s, seeing stories from the 80s and early 90s was incredible to see and to just learn so much about the stories that went beyond box scores and the outcomes of the games.

Sports documentaries tapped into what makes us love sports: the stories that create the context of the most charged moments that we watch on TV. A great example of this was the 30 for 30 film about Indiana Pacer legend Reggie Miller and his rivalry with my beloved New York Knicks that was entitled Winning Time: Reggie Miller vs the New York Knicks. As someone that lived through the rivalry in the mid-90s through the turn of the century, getting some behind the scenes facts about the players and coaches made revisiting the animosity between the Pacers and Knicks that much more intriguing and fascinating. The reason why it was so successful was because there was a great mix of journalists and athletes speaking about what happened, while adeptly showing each side of the rivalry, warts and all.

Much like real life, there wasn’t a depiction of right and wrong or black and white, but instead shades of gray. This is part of the journalistic integrity of telling the story accurately and without bias. Despite director Dan Klores being a Knick fan he was able to tell the story in a way that made the Pacers and Reggie Miller likable and you understood why they felt the way they felt about the Knicks. That is what makes for great storytelling. But in recent years, these documentaries have focused on certain teams and players with their heavy involvement, and what has resulted is favorable storytelling aimed at reframing a figure as opposed to telling a story.

One Side of the Story

I often think back to when “The Last Dance” came out. The timing of it was such that it became appointment television for any sports fan. The series released one episode a week during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, when all of the sports leagues were shut down and we all needed a fix of some sort of sports content to take our minds off of the harrowing reality that is a global pandemic. Through each episode we all watched as Michael Jordan, one of the best basketball players that ever lived, was telling stories about his career in a way that we had never experienced before. It was intoxicating.

And ever since then, there have been more of these kinds of multi-part documentaries with a heavy influence of the athlete that it happened to. There was a bit of urgency to release these documentaries with projects like “The Captain, which went through the career of Yankees shortstop and Hall of Famer Derek Jeter, and "They Call Me Magic”, which details the life and career of Los Angeles Laker point guard and Hall of Famer Magic Johnson. These productions, while a bit informative, are mostly puff pieces to prop up their subjects.

Even in “The Last Dance”, it was clear that the intent making this film was to remind the public of the greatness of Michael Jordan and those incredible Bulls teams of the 1990s. If we consider what was happening in the NBA when filming began in 2017, it is clear to understand why Jordan felt compelled to make the movie when he made it. Coming off of the 2016 season, LeBron James was on top of the world. He had just led his hometown Cleveland Cavalier to their first championship against a Golden State Warriors team that had the best regular season record in NBA history (a record that surpassed Jordan’s 1996 Bulls team). This was a problem for Jordan’s legacy, finally the challenger seemed to be making a legitimate case to dethrone him.

An entire generation of NBA fans does not disagree with LeBron James when he makes claims about being “the greatest basketball player people have ever seen”. His longevity (20 years and counting), consistent excellence, multiple titles, and record breaking accolades back that up. So when Jordan, who for so many years enjoyed his status as being considered the greatest, felt that he was being challenged he used his documentary as a way to remind people of just how great he was. Throughout the episodes, we saw glimpses of his incredible ability of course. But we also saw his tenacity, the media scrutiny he dealt with, how he coped with the loss of his father, and the perseverance to overcome all of it and still be a 6-time champion. In many ways, “The Last Dance” reframed the viewpoint of Jordan for a lot of younger viewers and reminded people in my generation and older what he was able to accomplish, just in case we forgot.

This was a wildly successful tactic that got people on social media to reignite conversations about Jordan and what he was able to do in his time as a professional basketball player. The documentary also glossed over his disaster of a run in Washington after his second retirement and made some mention but ultimately glossed over some of his shortcomings. It was a successful formula that documentaries like “Swamp Kings” have emulated. Granted, Jordan’s doc had tons of footage from the 98 season and also did show Jordan in his weaker moments, which is what makes it stand out from the others. But by opening Pandora’s box, we have been left to wonder if the space of journalistic docs is going to be replaced by player/coach propaganda and if that is something that we want as a collective sports consuming consciousness.

The Forever Shifting Landscape

There was a recent story about Cincinnati Bengals running back Joe Mixon, where he stated that he was not talking to certain members of the media because of the line of questioning that they used in asking him about details in an aggravated menacing case that was ultimately dropped. Mixon felt that the reporter's line of questioning constituted “disrespectful behavior” and that he would not be answering any questions from them. This stance from Mixon is understandable from a sense of presumed guilt by the reporter. But what was most interesting to me was the fan reaction to this story.

Many fans cheered the idea that a reporter was “put in their place” and that “more players should do this”. The episode highlights the disconnect that exists between many journalists and the fans of the teams that they cover. Somewhere along the way (I would venture to say around the 2016 US Presidential election) there was a shift in the way that we viewed media, and additionally a shift in the way that reporters and on-air personalities fashioned themselves to the viewing public. Fans believe that journalists are looking for a juicy headline, producing clickbait to stir up controversy and debate. In turn, many journalists have leaned into the role that they have been accused of saying inflammatory things to get reactions.

The result of this has been the formation of what Golden State Warriors forward and prominent podcaster Draymond Green calls the “new media”. Athletes have now broken down the wall of journalists being the middleman to tell their stories and instead are telling the story themselves. There is an associated realism with an athlete-led production, that there is no “angle”, just the story or opinion that needs to be shared. We have seen the rise in shows like The Draymond Green Podcast, the Pat McAfee Show, All the Smoke with Matt Barnes and Stephen Jackson, and KG Certified with Kevin Garnett. These shows have the added layer of bringing a former player's perspective to the conversation about sports, something that a journalist simply cannot offer as they have not been through the games and the battles of being a professional athlete. But in the process we have forgotten why having journalists and people that ask the tough questions is so important.

As human beings we are all inclined to have instincts of self-preservation. We will defend ourselves if we feel that our character is being defamed and we will also frame the conversation in a way to make ourselves come out as good as possible. So when an athlete is dictating the direction of a piece of media like a podcast or documentary we are seeing their distilled vision of the events as opposed to a mixture of that and the opposing opinion on the situation. In an age of personal brands and image management it is easy to see why a player that is trying to tell their story would like to do it on their terms and their terms only.

The issue becomes that there is still a space for journalistic investigation and the telling of many layers to truly educate the viewer. A great example of this is the award-winning 5-part ESPN documentary entitled “O.J.: Made in America” which looks at the life of controversial running back O.J. Simpson from his career in football to his attainment of celebrity and ultimately to his trial for the murder of his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ronald Goldman. If OJ Simpson himself were to try and tell his life story there is no doubt in my mind that it would be framed differently because of all the negativity that surrounds his aura. But with journalists doing investigative interviews, we are able to see more of the story that may not have been reported in the media during the height of OJ-mania. That is why journalistic integrity is important and why documentaries, articles, and podcasts with real journalism still matter. My fear is that we are becoming so addicted to the realism of manicured narratives from athletes and coaches (like we saw in Swamp Kings) that we will fail to see the value in storytelling and investigative journalism, which is ultimately a disservice to both the players and fans of the sports that we love.

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