Even for true football fans, myself included, you have to acknowledge that this is a pretty f’ed-up sport. We pay people millions of dollars to turn themselves into hulking gladiators, so they can bash one another up until one person gets a prolate spheroid-shaped ball made of cow skin (that we for some reason call pigskin) into a rectangular quadrant. For some reason, that scores six points. Oh, and every person who plays gets brain damage. To celebrate the insanity of football for Super Bowl LI, here are five of our greatest, most inspiring football movies — and why they’re absolutely f’ed up.
On the surface, Rudy is a feel-good family flick about a short, dyslexic man who overcomes adversity to achieve his dreams and play on the prestigious Notre Dame football team. But Rudy — the real guy and the fictional one — isn’t such a great hero when you think about it. First, he’s annoying. He dumps his really great girlfriend to pursue his dream of ... what? Wearing a blue shirt on a green field for 30 seconds? The other players treat him like a pet and he has zero self-respect. This guy is not a role model, especially when you find out the real Rudy tried to swindle people out of their money with get-rich-quick schemes during the housing bubble. The only things Rudy wants are attention and fame; he doesn’t deserve them. —April Wolfe
This uplifting tale of a mentally challenged black man learning how to read after being taken in by the local high school’s football coach still makes me cringe years after watching it. Radio (Cuba Gooding Jr.) is a defenseless guy who’s openly derided and physically attacked in town, as he walks around with his shopping cart. The white coach suddenly decides he wants to be nice to this kid, and then some of those racist, violent players apparently have a change of heart. At one point, a cop arrests Radio for simply existing, and in a cute little twist, the cop’s punishment is to spend a day with the kid. Luckily, Radio doesn’t fully comprehend what’s happening, or otherwise he might be rightly outraged. Instead the movie only succeeds in saying that white people can learn to love black people, if they're mentally challenged or in some other way perceived as less than and therefore pitiable. —April Wolfe
All the Right Moves
Ostensibly, this film starring a young Tom Cruise and Lea Thompson as star-crossed lovers in a Pennsylvania mining town is a pretty realistic portrait of life in the Rust Belt. Cruise is the star football player trying to get a scholarship to escape, and Lea is … a girl. Cruise’s character offends his blowhard coach, played by the coach Craig T. Nelson, and he’s benched for the big game, ruining his chance of getting a scholarship. For the rest of the movie, these two men won’t speak to each other, so Thompson’s character has to talk to the football coach’s wife, so that they can conspire to get these men to talk out their feelings and put an end to a ridiculous feud. Today, we would call this “emotional labor,” where the women have to do all the invisible work to help men feel comfortable with themselves in a restrictive patriarchal environment. If you break it down, the entire film is about men being uncomfortable with their feelings. Despite all that, it’s still one of the more thoughtful football films we’ll ever have. —April Wolfe
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The Blind Side
This well-meaning film based on a true story just can’t help but fall into problematic territory. A relative of Radio, The Blind Side is based on the true story of NFL player Michael Oher’s upbringing, in which a large black boy is taken in by some more well-meaning white people, and his new “mother” teaches him to play football. This one also follows the “gentle giant” storyline, because Oher’s a pacifist, and his white mom has to use his heightened protective instincts to get him to take some guys out on the field. Again, as in Radio, white people come to love Oher’s character, because he’s ultimately harmless. Let’s just say that race relations are far more complicated in real life and that adopting a kid and pushing him into football just because he’s big and black feels more than a little opportunist and exploitative. The real Oher apparently hates this movie. — April Wolfe
Yet another outcast finds his place in the world on the gridiron of all places in The Waterboy, far from the worst Adam Sandler film, but probably the worst film on this particular list, critically speaking. Bobby Boucher, a Bayou boy suffering from a serious case of arrested development (that's to say he's not developmentally disabled, which makes Sandler's performance somewhat less offensive), is an adult water boy for the local college football team who loses his job because his being an easy target is too much of a distraction for the big, burly, hateful players. I mean, my first instinct is to say that football players are the ones who should take issue with this movie, but really bullied people who can't revert their pain into explosive violence should be most bummed. Deathly humiliation and angst? Nah, that shit's just "tackling fuel." At least Henry Winkler is around for some yucks. —Gwynedd Stuart