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Five Movies About High School Sports

In the U.S., sports are — first and foremost — a form of entertainment. More of us watch than participate, as evidenced by the fact that of the 50 most widely watched television broadcasts in 2017, 43 of them were sporting events (and 37 of those were NFL games). So it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that sports can be something more than just a product for spectators, or a vocation for those who participate.

For amateur athletes and weekend warriors, participating in sports can help build character and discipline. It can also be a way out of a bad situation, or an escape or release from the drudgery of day-to-day life. Sport has the potential to be whatever the participant chooses to make of it, and different people in the same sport (or even on the same team) can place vastly different levels of importance in playing. Nowhere else are these notions so apparent than in high school sports.

Varsity Blues (1999) 

It’s a bad sign when the biggest takeaways from a movie are an overly-enunciated and meme-worthy quotation and a whipped-cream bikini.

Those are the most memorable moments because the rest of Varsity Blues is so flat and unoriginal. We want to care about the characters and their struggles for autonomy and self-determination, but like far too many other teen-centric dramas, the serious elements of the story are overshadowed by the raunch, banal humor and eye candy fluff.

To its credit, Varsity Blues does a good job of depicting what I suspect to be a widespread truth; namely that the overbearing tone-deaf parents and a win-at-all-costs football coach are a lot more interested in the team’s success than the players. The athletes certainly love playing football, but they’re also teenage boys, and are going to want to do some of the other things that teenage boys do.

Vision Quest (1985)

In most parts of the country, the term “high schools sports” is synonymous with football, basketball and baseball… and little else. The actual athletic landscape is a lot more diverse. While football does have the greatest number of participants (according to the NFHS 2016-17 High School Athletics Participation Survey) the second most popular sport for boys is track and field, not baseball or basketball. The two most popular sports for girls are track and field, and volleyball, both of which are more popular than basketball or softball.

Wrestling is also among the most popular sports, but in many parts of the U.S. it doesn’t seem to get the respect it deserves. It’s true that just about every high school sport requires its participants to be tough and strong, but wrestling takes things another level. Beyond the obvious physical challenges of wrestling itself, the practice of weight cutting requires an almost unmatched level of commitment.

Vision Quest, while perhaps having become best known for its homoerotic undercurrents (including discussions [here] and [here]), does a solid job of showing just how far some high school will push themselves. We follow Louden Swain as he decides to “make a mark” in life during his senior year. He plans to drop down a weight class so he can wrestle the undefeated state champ, all the while struggling to figure out how to relate to women.

The reason Vision Quest works so well is that the student athletes are fully-formed formed characters who act with their own motivations. There aren’t any parents or coaches to rebel against, because the parents and coaches are largely (and properly) in the background. Louden may be a bit of a goof, but he’s a genuine and fully-formed goof, and it’s easy to cheer for him.

The Best of Times (1986)

The Best of Times is not a great movie. It’s not even a good movie. But it does give a refreshing perspective, particularly in films made for a mainstream audience; namely, that too many people place too much value on high school sports.

Jack Dundee (Robin Williams) is a former high school football player, unable to escape the shame and embarrassment of dropping a pass in a rivalry game well over a decade ago. The game ended in a tie, and wanting to move on with his life, Jack somehow convinces the former players to get together and and replay the game. The story is predictable, but it’s also unintentionally tragic.

The plot is absurd, but it lets us see into the pathos of folks who can’t let go of the past. Every one of us is probably familiar with someone who can’t stop wanting to relive their high school glory days. In The Best of Times we spend some time with folks who want to relive high school days that weren’t even all that great.

Isn’t the point of high school sports to make you a better person and help you build character, so that when you go out into the real world you’re stronger? If you drop the ball in the big game, then you learn from that and move on. You certainly shouldn’t obsess over it in the years and decades ahead. And even more depressingly, the town folk get caught up in the nostalgia and excitedly relive their high school years as spectators. How bored or disconnected from reality do you have to be to want to watch middle-aged men replaying a high school football game? By the time it’s over there’s no sense of triumph or relief; just pity.

Bring It On (2000) 

First things first: I do consider cheerleading to be a sport. I imagine people can’t see past the sporting event sideline performances, but many cheerleaders are it in it for the competitive aspects. And let’s be honest; if we consider golf to be a sport, then certainly an activity with the highest risks of concussions, as well as neck and back injuries, deserves to be considered a sport.

Bring It On has become a bit of a cult classic (and somehow spawning five direct-to-video spin-offs), and I believe it’s still underrated. Ostensibly about a cheerleader (Kirsten Dunst) trying to lead her perennial powerhouse squad to victory in the upcoming Nationals competition, Bring It On is really about her trying to figure out who she is and what really matters to her. All the camp and self-effacing humor are endearing without becoming ridiculous. It may be saccharine, but it’s also sweet.

The film does raise some issues — including racial and economic inequalities — that aren’t adequately address,ed but it does so in a respectful way, and ultimately gives us a glimmer of hope and optimism going forward.

The best thing about Bring It On is that the student athletes are doing it all for themselves. As in Vision Quest, there are no pressures from parents, coaches or teachers. These students are working and competing for their own reasons, and for their love of their sport.

Hoosiers (1986)

There’s no shortage of underdog plot lines in sports movies. That makes it hard for a film to stand out. It sometimes seems like most of the stories have already been told, so it takes great acting and sensitive direction to make it work.

The recent, but under-seen, McFarland, USA (2015) (a Kevin Costner pic about high school cross-country) did a very good of seeming fresh, but even better is HoosiersHoosiers follows the season of a small town Indiana high school basketball team and its new coach, as it sets its sights on winning the state tournament.

The real power of Hoosiers, like the underdog basketball team that’s the subject of the story, is that it focuses on the fundamentals. It’s deliberate, subtle, and not at all flashy. In the hands of the talented cast, that makes it inescapably engaging.

About Me

In 1976 I went to see The Sting with my father and sister.

Unfortunately, we arrived at the theater an hour after the show started. We went in anyway, and watched the last half of the movie. After the movie was over we stayed until the next showing, so I eventually got to watch the first half of the film (already knowing how it was going to end).

I was struck by the magic of the movies, and how we could be tricked by the actors (and by our own assumptions of what's happening on the screen), and how this was a wonderful thing.