TV Room: ‘O.J.: Made in America’


ESPN’s “30 for 30” series has been responsible for some of the better sports-themed documentaries of recent years (Peter Berg’s King’s Ransom, on the trade of Wayne Gretzky to Los Angeles; Ron Shelton’s Jordan Rides the Bus, in which Michael Jordan retires from the NBA to play minor-league baseball) by understanding a simple rule: Sports stories get more interesting the further afield they run from the sport in question.

Ezra Edelman’s sprawling five-part epic O.J.: Made in America follows that rule to a tee. It is not just a high point for the series, it’s one of the great long-form documentaries you will ever see.

It’s been shown on ESPN, had a brief theatrical run, and should be available on various streaming services soon. My review is at Eyes Wide Open:

“I thought he was a has-been.” That’s Marcia Clark, no sports fan, in Ezra Edelman’s O.J.: Made in America. She’s describing her reaction to hearing about O.J. Simpson being wanted for double murder. Clark would spend an incredible-to-believe nine months in a courtroom trying to put him behind bars for those murders. But given the portrait of Simpson that emerges from Edelman’s masterfully dense, dramatic, and journalistic five-part documentary, it’s likely that the one-time sports star and permanent celebrity wannabe would be more offended by Clark thinking he was a has-been than a murderer…

Here’s the trailer:

In Books: ‘Against Football’

(Library of Congress)
(Library of Congress)

Steve Almond is one of those overly talented writers whose style ranges from the literary short story to pop cultural/ethical commentary in the Chuck Klosterman vein. So, in one sense, the fact that Almond has written a book on sports shouldn’t be surprising. On the other hand, it’s a passionate work about a subject he cares deeply about. That’s the thing about football fanatics; they hide in plain sight.

themillions-cover1My essay on his newest book, “To Hell with All That Guilty Love: On Steve Almond’s ‘Against Football’,” ran in The Millions yesterday:

Like most of us, Almond thought he was immune from modern sports mania’s entanglements. We all know (and some of us resemble) the type, eyes scouring for the nearest screen showing SportsCenter, phones lit up by fantasy scores and trash-talk, ears always full of the angry drone of sports talk radio. No matter the mountains Almond would move to watch his Raiders lose time after catastrophic time, he thought he could stay above the fray.

In the preface, Almond describes a newspaper article he pasted to the wall of his office, which contains a quote from running back Kevin Faulk after he took a head-rattling hit. Faulk’s words were clearly those of a man who had suffered a significant blow to the brain. Almond writes, “I thought it was funny”…

Here’s Almond debating football with the great Greg Easterbrook at the Politics and Prose bookstore:

Dept. of Endgames

Good enough that Colson Whitehead is covering the Olympics (somewhat post-facto) for Grantland. (His conversations with the W.G. Sebald app beat most of what NBC had to say.)

But even better that once his first piece actually takes him to London itself, Whitehead’s thoughts immediately turn towards the apocalypse:

…I started scoring events in terms of what they’d offer in a human-annihilation-type scenario. Offensewise, archery skills seemed like an obvious asset at first. But the archers’ high-tech bows wouldn’t survive a day of jumping off roofs, tromping through sewers, and escaping cannibal hordes. The bows were items of cruel but fragile beauty, with their carbon limbs and polyethylene strings, their V-bar extenders and side-rod stabilizer doohickeys. Great for the marksman’s art, but no good in a volume-kill scenario. You’d be better off with a simple machete. The qualifying heats made it clear that swimming is a good life skill or whatever, but only marathon-distance swimming was going to help you make it to the island after a squabble over rations or sex resulted in your tiny escape vessel overturning. Triathlon, I decided, with its endurance super-combo of swimming, biking, and running, solved multiple problem areas. I made a note to see it in person.

Whitehead published his own take on the zombie apocalypse last year, Zone One. Not so much archery in it, sadly enough—he left that to Suzanne Collins.

New in Theaters: ‘The Anderson Monarchs’

In the Philadelphia neighborhood where the Anderson Monarchs girls’ soccer team plays, the bright wall murals exhorting a positive outlook (“Dare to Dream”) exist in stark relief to the limited opportunities available to those who grow up there. The practice field itself is a patchy thing, something of a Charlie Brown Christmas tree compared to the verdant greens where they play games against teams from wealthier suburban neighborhoods. During one practice, police cars and ambulances race past, lights flashing; the camera zooms in but the girls, likely used to it all, pay almost no heed. But Eugene Martin’s film about the Monarchs isn’t much interested in delivering another tale of urban woe, preferring instead to accentuate the positive…

The Anderson Monarchs is playing now as part of the Docuweeks festival in New York, but should expand to more cities later. My full review is at Film Journal International.

The trailer is here:

Athletic Pursuits: NFL Fans Staying Home

On a list of priorities for the nation, the future viability of its pro football ranks no higher than the success or failure of any comparably-sized business. Of course, the importance of the sport and the continuing placement of certain of its franchises in particular areas has an emotional hold on people that goes well beyond the strictly financial (jobs/tax revenue that could be lost if a team were to move away or just fold).

Given how high pro football rates in the American psyche as a barometer of national awesomeness (right up there with the military and our ability to keep producing great apps), then, it’s something of a surprise that the NFL has been facing a problem over the past few years: declining ticket sales. Chalk it up to the recession or just the ever-increasing verisimilitude available via digital broadcast, but fewer and fewer people are coughing up money to actually see a game live. But instead of saying it’s for the reasons listed above or maybe that there’s just too many teams, Gilded Age-style ticket prices, and too many other sports to follow, some people are drawing a different conclusion.

Take this quote from Scott Rosner, a sports-business professor at the Wharton Sports Business Initiative:

Across all sports, leagues and teams need to do a much better job of entertaining people who go to the game.

This may be naivete speaking, but isn’t the game supposed to be the entertainment? (That and the $12 Bud Lights, of course.) If people don’t want to see a game, no manner of clowning half-time shows or Jumbotron inanity will bring them to the field. At least, one would hope not.