Think of your favorite sports movie.
What year did it come out?
Between 1980 and 1996? This may be generational—I am a boilerplate millennial—but to me, this is the golden era of the genre. Rocky may have kicked things off in 1977, but Caddyshack and Raging Bull truly ushered in this golden era in 1980 by pushing the opposite ends of what a sports flick could be. Despite their wildly different takes on the genre, there were key similarities: neither film had a stellar budget, nor any idea of the impact they would have on the film landscape.
Scorsese was worried that he had blackballed himself when Raging Bull only garnered $23 million against its $18 million budget, while Caddyshack relied on improvisation from Dangerfield, Chase, Murray, and a mechanical gopher to propel itself into legendary pop culture status. However, both laid the groundwork for a boom in the industry where Hollywood would focus its might for a time, trying to milk the most out of this new style of cash cow.
If we make a quick detour to the present, we see a distinct lack of blockbuster sports films. Sure, The Last Dance had the world chomping at the bit for MJ and superstar drama, but that could easily be explained by less of a desire for a sweeping sports epic and more of the circumstances surrounding that other small thing that took sports away from us last year (hmmm, I can’t seem to remember what that was…) Beyond the timing, The Last Dance was a ten-hour series that was able to reintroduce one of the greatest—non-fiction—sports icons of all time to a new generation.
Outside of documentary television, something happened between 1980 and now that seems to have scared studio executives into closing their wallets for all but the occasional sports story. Some may say that superheroes eclipsed superstars, that people want to escape and see something they have never seen rather than a rehash of games known to everyone. However, what this theory fails to account for can be encapsulated in one word: Eddie.
To the uninitiated, Eddie is a gem of a film from 1996 where Whoopi Goldberg, playing a Knicks superfan, is put in charge of the floundering team as the head coach. She is able to shake off ridicule and connect with the players before turning to every trope known to filmdom to get the Knicks into the playoffs.
This movie truly has them all: the uncomfortable race jokes, the woman who can hang with the boys, the lovable old exec (Frank Langella) who has ulterior motives, the jackass coach (Dennis Farina) who is slightly less hateable by the end, and, classic 90s style, the speech to everyone in the stadium at the end of the game to save the day.
As enjoyable as those can be, the number of missed opportunities that this film had to make any kind of statement about race, gender, and the toxicity of the sports world were tallied uncountable by the time the closing credits finished.
However, before we dive into that mess, let’s build a little foundation. Caddyshack kicked off Harold Ramis’s career, showing audiences that sports could be hilarious if one embraced the ridiculous nature of paying people millions of dollars to play a game The commentary in Caddyshack, showing the “real” side of golf from the caddy’s perspective and highlighting the absurdity of the members of the club, opened an intriguing door.
No one embraced this new approach better than David Ward, writer of The Sting, and subsequently the director of the first two films in the Major League franchise. Using Charlie Sheen, Wesley Snipes, and Tom Berenger to their fullest, Major League, and Major League II to an extent, capitalized on the foundation that Caddyshack had laid. You had a movie that could see the nature of fandom, for what is arguably one of the most boring sports in the world, for what it is—patently absurd. Major League embraced the underdog by taking multiple stories and putting them all together, never relying on one big name to carry them through, as first seen in Caddyshack.
As we venture further, we encounter a slightly different, but equally successful, narrative: put Kevin Costner in a down and out role-playing one of the two most boring sports, baseball or golf, and let him make a few movies before people remember that they can’t stand the dude. Bull Durham, Field of Dreams, Tin Cup, and For Love of the Game (oddly directed by Sam Raimi, at the time of Evil Dead fame) all fit this bill and made over $300 million combined by the end of their runs. This worked for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that the lead was white, male, attractive, seen as non-confrontational…see where I’m going with this?
As a final hurrah before the downfall, we cannot ignore the effect Disney had during this period. Angels in the Outfield launched Joseph Gordon Levitt’s career, The Mighty Ducks gave meaning to “Quack” and made everyone believe that there was enough room on a hockey rink for “The V” to actually work, and The Sandlot had everyone referring to Babe Ruth as the Sultan of Swat for the first time in 80 years. Of course, where would this piece be without mentioning the granddaddy of them all, Space Jam?
All of these Disney hits and their contemporaries had one thing in common; they appealed to kids and their idealized notions of sports. Their humor was classic Disney, mixing just enough innuendo to sneak by the MPAA with a G or PG rating while appealing to both the innocence of children and the perverted minds of adults. As the glow started to fade on the sports film, they recognized that the only way to get a final flash in the pan was to literally take the biggest sports star and put him next to one of the most iconic cartoon characters of all time, cash their check, and move on. Any attempts to address the real issues plaguing sports were sugarcoated and glossed over so that the younger audience could revel in that perfect, non-political world that idealized athletics seemed to exist in.
Peppered throughout this time were clues that things weren’t as sparkly as they appeared. Rocky went the distance and then out of the ring and over the hill, Karate Kid threw in the towel and tried jump starting Hilary Swank’s career in a reboot that bombed, and even Adam Sandler only ever attempted to make one sports film, The Waterboy, during his heyday when he could literally print money with his name alone.
There were a few highlights in there with White Men Can’t Jump and A League of Their Own, two films that succeeded at bringing to light more of the issues that I have been hinting at throughout this article, but they were diamonds in the rough. Any attempt to actually delve into the true nature of race relations and gender inequality in sports and the impact of, oh I don’t know, say, Rodney King and the LA riots, were all too happily ignored or seen through heavily rose-tinted movie screens.
And so we come back to Eddie. Looking back at it now, you could actually see a film like this being made now to some success. Disney+, Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon have had moderate success in pioneering a new age of sports films, both fictional and based on true stories, and this seems like a perfect combination for commentary on today’s world. Let’s take a look at some of the issues that Eddie had the opportunity to put front and center.
A die-hard female sports fan. In the 90s sports were dominated by the male persona. American football was known for its hard hits, the steroid era was up and coming in baseball, and power was the name of the game. The idea that a woman could be a rabid fan was never something that had really been put to screen. Women were either the doting girlfriend, the hot chick, the cheerleader who falls for the stud, or the reason why the star lost their concentration.
So there was potential when they brought in Whoopi Goldberg, who six years earlier had won an Academy Award and by 1994 was the highest-paid actress in Hollywood. Unfortunately, what she was turned into was nothing more than an incoherent, we-shoulda-done-this, cookie-cutter caricature of an angry Black woman yelling at the white dude. Opportunity to make a more nuanced and deep character missed.
A woman in a sport dominated by men. The WNBA was founded in the same year that Eddie came out. What better timing could there ever be to show that women’s sports and coaching could be on the same level as men than a star-studded film about the first female coach in the NBA? Could Hollywood embrace the moment and highlight the true pains and struggle that Whoopi’s Eddie would face? Instead, they decided to focus a little too much on how cool Whoopi could be, placing all the onus to adapt in her lap, rather than encouraging the growth of the basketball stars she had to contend with. Opportunity to show strength and development of character in the supporting roles missed.
A Black woman going up against a white owner and white head coaching rival. I must say, this was low-hanging fruit even back then. A Black woman from a modest background wins the day by giving an impassioned speech to Madison Square Gardens fans, who collectively rise up and chant down the white owner’s decision to relocate the team to St. Louis.
This is ripe for a poignant, thought-provoking, and discussion-generating moment. However, instead of rolling with the racial elements that are inherent in such a scenario, a pivot to a “Ha, Gotcha” and Mutumbo style finger-wagging was sufficient. The symbolism of a strong Black woman overthrowing a devious white owner with the backing of the masses writes itself, yet Hollywood dodged right and went with the even lower hanging fruit.
There are sadly many other tropes and stereotypes that Eddie ended up exploiting rather than examining, but in the end, Hollywood overplayed its hand and the silence of theaters screening Eddie spoke volumes. On a budget of $30 million, Eddie took in $31.4 million. Whoopi Goldberg was nominated for her second Razzie. Dennis Farina would go on to have a small role in Snatch and get 46 episodes of Law and Order under his belt. And the Knicks still couldn’t win it all.
What I will give Eddie credit for is that the basketball is actually pretty good. The editing of the games themselves brings the viewer in and can make them forget for a minute that they are about to go back into a Sisyphean mire of bad acting and overblown plot points.
After all this, the potential legacy of Eddie has sadly been lost. Rarely do Razzie-worthy films like this develop a cult following, especially when they are dripping with unnecessary plot and pseudo-feel-good moments. It caused Hollywood to take a step back from the big game of basketball for a while, with a few exceptions that seemed to have learned from Eddie’s mistakes.
Spike Lee turned to real basketball players and a compelling story for He Got Game then produced a touching piece with Love and Basketball. ESPN started to gain traction and power, opening the doors to meaningful retrospectives with a documentary about someone who actually cared if the Knicks won or not. People started to realize that sports do not need extra fluff to be captivating.
A lesson from Eddie is just that. Basketball, and sports overall, do not need the Hollywood treatment to share narratives compelling enough to intrigue even the most jaded anti-sports troll. Friday Night Lights took a gritty and dirty approach to a true story, becoming one of the greatest sports films of all time by diving into the trauma and tragedy that come from building your life around a game. Icarus exposed the seedy underworld that permeates through all sports, making us confront the fact that rarely is everyone truly on a level playing field where merit and hard work always pay off. The big speeches get drowned out, and the only real change comes from action. Eddie had the world stage to show this and chose to pass the ball instead of taking the shot. Sports films thankfully got it together and saw that real life is the most captivating of all.
I wish that I could end this piece with a quote from Eddie, one that would slightly redeem the movie because “at least it gave us this line”, but I can’t. I can only leave you with the warm knowledge that if any basketball team does end up moving to St. Louis, it will probably still be better than the Knicks.