1. Draft Day (2014)
Actual helmet-to-helmet football action can only take a movie so far. These days, hardcore NFL fans are all about the action behind the scenes—or that’s what movies like the new Draft Day would have us believe. Out this weekend, Draft Day follows Sonny Weaver Jr. (Kevin Costner), coach of the lowly Cleveland Browns, as he struggles to acquire the No. 1 draft pick for his bad, but not bad enough team. While players are certainly involved—they’re getting drafted, after all—the real action in Draft Day happens in the Browns’ front office, where middle-aged white dudes are wheeling, dealing, and talking hours of boring strategy. In the real world, an NFL front office might be a less than smashmouth place, but in Draft Day, the team’s staff becomes just as important as the players on the field.
2. Radio (2003)
High school football is a distinctly American pastime that combines the high-stakes world of sports with the high-stakes world of being a teenager, so it’s no wonder that filmmakers return to the subject matter time and time again. But while Remember The Titans or Friday Night Lights mine their drama from the trials and tribulations of a team, Radio uses the game as a backdrop for the coming-of-age story of a man who has an intellectual disability. Based on a true story, the 2003 film stars Cuba Gooding Jr. as Radio, an isolated young man who befriends Ed Harris’ steely-but-caring high school football coach. While fears that Radio will be a distraction to the football team interject some conflict into the film, that’s just one of the many hurdles Radio must face. He also goes back to school, learns to read, struggles with bullies, and eventually graduates high school. Like many sports films, Radio is overly sentimental and entirely formulaic—a mother’s death is conveniently timed to add maximum heartbreak—but this time that sentimentality comes from an underdog succeeding in the classroom, rather than on the field.
3. Two-Minute Warning (1976)
Set mostly at a championship football game at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, Two-Minute Warning is a killer-on-the-loose thriller designed to feel like one of Universal’s ensemble-cast disaster movies of the period. There’s a sniper in the stadium, but he’s not a character: His motives are never explained, and he isn’t given a name or a face until the end. Much of the movie consists of scenes with random bystanders at the game—a young married couple (Beau Bridges and Pamela Bellwood), a gambler (Jack Klugman), a pickpocket (Walter Pidgeon), a priest (Mitchell Ryan), a middle-aged couple (Gena Rowlands and David Janssen)—and the audience is supposed to be entertained by the prolonged wait to see which of these stock characters will spurt ketchup and fall over when the shooting starts. At the end, Charlton Heston, as a police captain, shows up and does what he can to make things better, just as he did in Airport 1975 and Earthquake. The TV rights for the movie were sold to NBC, but the network was so rattled by the sheer ghoulish pointlessness of it all that they added 40 minutes of new footage to make it appear that the shooting was intended to distract the police from an art heist.
4. Big Fan (2009)
Movies about athletes are most often about the triumph of the underdog. But Robert D. Siegel’s directorial debut focuses on the plight of the sports talk radio acolyte, a slice of football fandom known for brazen opinions, fierce drunken regional rivalries, and not a lot of forethought. Paul Aufiero (Patton Oswalt, in his most complete dramatic role) is first and foremost a diehard New York Giants fan. While ensconced in a little shack working as a parking attendant, he meticulously crafts the rants he calls into his local station as Paul From Staten Island, sparring with Philadelphia Phil (Michael Rapaport). Paul’s family laments that he’s wasting his life, but he only has love for the Giants, even when his favorite player brutally assaults him in a Manhattan strip club. The gameday sequence—where Paul and his friend Sal (Kevin Corrigan) revel in the tailgating scene only to sit outside the stadium huddled around a television perched on the trunk of a car—shows just how far Paul will go to worship at the now-demolished Giants Stadium. Instead of the joy of victory or agony of defeat, Big Fan is steeped in the sheer insanity of fanatical sports devotion.
5. Monday Night Mayhem (2002)
Particularly in its early years in the 1970s, ABC’s Monday Night Football was one of the most popular, influential, and culture-defining TV series that no one is ever going to rerun or package for the home video market. The cable-TV movie Monday Night Mayhem, starring John Heard as ABC Sports super-chief Roone Arledge, recreates the national craze that erupted around the show, and dramatizes the sometimes tense dynamic between the proudly verbose, self-parodying announcer Howard Cosell (John Turturro) and jocks-turned-broadcasters such as Dandy Don Meredith (Brad Beyer) and Frank Gifford (Kevin Anderson). Cosell, who died in 1995, was coming off a good year; the previous spring, he had been played by Fred Willard in a TV movie about the Billie Jean King-Bobby Riggs tennis match, and just a couple of weeks before Monday Night Mayhem premiered in January 2002, the Michael Mann-Will Smith biopic Ali opened. Jon Voight, who wasn’t a much likelier candidate for the role than Turturro, played Cosell in that movie, and received an Academy Award nomination.
6. Two For The Money (2005)
A morality drama about the culture of sports betting, Two For The Money stars Matthew McConaughey as a former college quarterback who is making chump change by handicapping football games. His talents are spotted by Al Pacino, who heads a sports consulting firm and hosts his own TV show, The Sports Advisors. Pacino, channeling the 1974 James Toback movie The Gambler, makes speeches about how gamblers gamble in order to lose, in order to feel something—anything other than to win. McConaughey, who has demonstrated a near-infallible touch thanks to his Nate Silver-like devotion to statistical analysis, proves Pacino right by becoming dissatisfied with his hard-won success and starts making his picks based on gut instinct, resulting in a lot of people who’ve been taking his choices seriously going home wearing barrels with rope suspenders. In the end, Big Mac proves that gambling is a pointless endeavor by successfully picking a slate of winners based on tossing a coin, and seeks redemption by leaving dirty New York to coach junior football.
7. Weapons Of Mass Distraction (1997)
Weapons Of Mass Distraction, a satirical HBO movie written and co-produced by Larry Gelbart, stars Gabriel Byrne and Ben Kingsley as rival media moguls warring over which of them will win ownership of professional team Tucson Titans. While the groundlings wonder who will go to the Super Bowl, these overlords punch it out by using their resources to dig up sleaze about each other, including revelations regarding Kinglsey’s father’s time in a Nazi death camp and original gender of Byrne’s wife (Mimi Rogers). The moguls have acquired their wealth and power by using tabloid TV and other distractions to keep members of the 99 percent distracted from the issues that should really matter to them, such as the income gap and the death of the middle class, and football is the ultimate distraction. As the film itself puts it, “He who controls sports controls it all.”
8. Wildcats (1986)
Though Wildcats is grounded by the Wildcats’ winning streak and eventual City Championship triumph, the real focus is on Goldie Hawn’s Molly McGrath. As a single mother of two living in Chicago, she longs to follow in her deceased father’s footsteps and coach her own football team. When the opportunity presents itself, she leaves her track coach position at the affluent Prescott and heads to Central High, an inner-city school with a failing football team. As she navigates initial sexual harassment (complete with classic ’80s boob and penis shots) and verbal abuse, she’s also faced with losing custody of her children. But Hawn shines, infusing Molly with effortless charm, genuine honesty, and a slightly spacey delivery (brilliantly showcased in the endearing closing credits) and by movie’s end both her and her team (which includes film debuts from Wesley Snipes and Woody Harrelson) come out on top.