“30 For 30” and the Role of Money In Modern Sports

“30 For 30” and the Role of Money In Modern Sports (photo)

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By the time its final episode premieres on December 11, “30 for 30” will have aired thirty films on the last thirty years of sports. Nine were about football, six about baseball, five about basketball, two about boxing, two about running, and one each about BMX, hockey, NASCAR, rugby, soccer, and tennis. The series, designed to celebrate ESPN’s thirtieth anniversary, featured the work of thirty different directors, but through its entire range of filmmakers and topics, one theme dominated the year of “30 for 30”: money’s insidious effect on the purity of sports.

Consider its very first episode, “King’s Ransom,” about the trade of Wayne Gretzky from the Edmonton Oilers to the Los Angeles Kings. The Oilers’ motivation? Money. Or “The Two Escobars,” about the destructive impact of drug money on the Columbian national soccer. The pursuit of money was the obvious subject of some of the films, like “Small Potatoes: Who Killed the USFL?” about the life and death of an upstart spring football league laid low by Donald Trump and his quixotic need to compete directly with the NFL. But the topic even bubbled below the surface of episodes not explicitly about financial matters, like “No Crossover: The Trial of Allen Iverson,” about the race and class issues that swirled around Iverson’s legal battle after a bowling alley brawl in 1993.

“30 for 30” was initially conceived by ESPN’s “Sports Guy” columnist Bill Simmons. Simmons is a lifelong Red Sox fan, and if there’s one thing Red Sox fans knew well, at least until a few years ago, it was the pernicious role money plays in sports. Sox fans didn’t attribute 86 years of heartache to bad teams. They blamed it on the “Curse of the Bambino,” after the owner of the Sox sold their best player, Babe Ruth, to the New York Yankees for $125,000. So many of the “30 for 30” — and nearly all of the best ones — speak to the core values in the story of the Curse: greed, loyalty, and community. For instance:

Muhammad and Larry (Albert Maysles and Bradley Kaplan) – The story of Muhammad Ali and Larry Holmes’ fight in Las Vegas on October 2, 1980. The 38-year-old Ali was retired for a year, out of shape, and already visibly slowing down when he was offered a title shot against Holmes. So why’d he take the fight? “Money. That’s all it was, money. Greed.” says Wali Muhammad, Ali’s assistant trainer for the fight. The epic tragedy that follows plays like the sad epilogue to the classic Ali documentary “When We Were Kings.” An $8 million dollar purse got Ali into the fight. Poor advice, stubborn pride and Ali’s refusal to go down turned it into a beating that, according to some talking heads in the film, had permanent consequences on his health. One of those talking heads is Dr. Ferdie Pacheco, the fight doctor who finally quit Ali’s camp before the Holmes bout after years of urging him to retire. By contrasting the indignant, defiant Pacheco with the remorseful Muhammad, Mayles and Kaplan explore two differing definitions of the word loyalty.

Straight Outta L.A. (Ice Cube) – The Oakland Raiders move to Los Angeles and help inspire the style and swagger of the gangster rap movement. Another study of loyalty, this one loaded with dramatic irony: Los Angeles delights in the arrival of the Raiders from Oakland, never realizing that if the team cared so little about one community that they would leave it for “greener” pastures, they might do it again. Though Cube himself remains loyal to the Raiders and insists they’ll always be L.A.’s team, owner Al Davis demonstrates no loyalty to either city, only to himself and his dream of making lots of money selling luxury suites in his own stadium. Designed as a nostalgic celebration of Los Angeles history, the film works more effectively as a melancholic look at what it means to be a fan of a team that is more interested in itself than its hometown.

The Best That Never Was (Jonathan Hock) – One of the best high school athletes of all time, Philadephia, Mississippi’s Marcus Dupree, fails to live up to his potential. Like Ali, Dupree surrounded himself with bad advisers, and as a result, his story plays like the Bizarro universe version of “The Blind Side.” Instead of a man who discovers a talent for football he never knew he had under the care of protective, nurturing guardians, Dupree, drunk with his own gifts, gets exploited by greedy or ignorant agents, and blows his chance in part by listening to his own hype and looking for the quick buck. Hock depicts the world of big-time college football as a minefield of temptation, where recruiters and coaches ply teenagers with sacks of cash or free cars. A cautionary tale of talent unfulfilled and personal redemption (unfulfilled talent with our without the redemption was another common theme on “30 for 30,” appearing in “Without Bias” and “Guru of Go” about the deaths of college basketball superstars Len Bias and Hank Gathers, and “Into the Wind” about amputee Terry Fox’s inspirational run across Canada to raise money for cancer research).

“30 for 30” has petered out a bit down the stretch. A few scheduled films weren’t done in time, most notably Alex Gibney’s portrait of infamous Chicago Cubs fan Steve Bartman, and their replacements were mostly puff pieces produced by self-serving corporate entities. Some movies, like John Singleton’s lightweight portrait of disgraced track and field star Marion Jones, missed the mark. And one could argue it’s a bit hypocritical for a network that regularly features segments like “Coors Light Cold Hard Facts” and the “Budweiser Hot Seat” to decry the role of money in sports. But despite all that, the series maintained a consistently high level of quality, and you don’t have to be a sports fan to appreciate the risk ESPN took when it gave so much airtime and creative freedom to so many filmmakers at a time when “reality” has replaced “documentary” as the dominant nonfiction mode on TV. I suspect that in the future we’ll talk about this series the way grad school professors talk about the old “CBS Reports:” as a landmark in the history of the documentary on television.

“30 For 30: Volume 1,” containing the first fifteen films in the series including “Muhammad and Larry” and “Straight Outta L.A.,” will be available on DVD on December 7.


New Nasty

Whips, Chains and Hand Sanitizer

Turn On The Full Season Of Neurotica At IFC's Comedy Crib

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Jenny Jaffe has a lot going on: She’s writing for Disney’s upcoming Big Hero 6: The Series, developing comedy projects with pals at Devastator Press, and she’s straddling the line between S&M and OCD as the creator and star of the sexyish new series Neurotica, which has just made its debut on IFC’s Comedy Crib. Jenny gave us some extremely intimate insight into what makes Neurotica (safely) sizzle…


IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a fancy network executive you met in an elevator?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon. 

IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon. You’re great. We should get coffee sometime. I’m not just saying that. I know other people just say that sometimes but I really feel like we’re going to be friends, you know? Here, what’s your number, I’ll call you so you can have my number! 

IFC: What’s your comedy origin story?

Jenny: Since I was a kid I’ve dealt with severe OCD and anxiety. Comedy has always been one of the ways I’ve dealt with that. I honestly just want to help make people feel happy for a few minutes at a time. 

IFC: What was the genesis of Neurotica?

Jenny: I’m pretty sure it was a title-first situation. I was coming up with ideas to pitch to a production company a million years ago (this isn’t hyperbole; I am VERY old) and just wrote down “Neurotica”; then it just sort of appeared fully formed. “Neurotica? Oh it’s an over-the-top romantic comedy about a Dominatrix with OCD, of course.” And that just happened to hit the buttons of everything I’m fascinated by. 


IFC: How would you describe Ivy?

Jenny: Ivy is everything I love in a comedy character – she’s tenacious, she’s confident, she’s sweet, she’s a big wonderful weirdo. 

IFC: How would Ivy’s clientele describe her?

Jenny:  Open-minded, caring, excellent aim. 

IFC: Why don’t more small towns have local dungeons?

Jenny: How do you know they don’t? 

IFC: What are the pros and cons of joining a chain mega dungeon?

Jenny: You can use any of their locations but you’ll always forget you have a membership and in a year you’ll be like “jeez why won’t they let me just cancel?” 

IFC: Mouths are gross! Why is that?

Jenny: If you had never seen a mouth before and I was like “it’s a wet flesh cave with sharp parts that lives in your face”, it would sound like Cronenberg-ian body horror. All body parts are horrifying. I’m kind of rooting for the singularity, I’d feel way better if I was just a consciousness in a cloud. 

See the whole season of Neurotica right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib.


The ’90s Are Back

The '90s live again during IFC's weekend marathon.

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Photo Credit: Everett Digital, Columbia Pictures

We know what you’re thinking: “Why on Earth would anyone want to reanimate the decade that gave us Haddaway, Los Del Rio, and Smash Mouth, not to mention Crystal Pepsi?”


Thoughts like those are normal. After all, we tend to remember lasting psychological trauma more vividly than fleeting joy. But if you dig deep, you’ll rediscover that the ’90s gave us so much to fondly revisit. Consider the four pillars of true ’90s culture.

Boy Bands

We all pretended to hate them, but watch us come alive at a karaoke bar when “I Want It That Way” comes on. Arguably more influential than Brit Pop and Grunge put together, because hello – Justin Timberlake. He’s a legitimate cultural gem.

Man-Child Movies

Adam Sandler is just behind The Simpsons in terms of his influence on humor. Somehow his man-child schtick didn’t get old until the aughts, and his success in that arena ushered in a wave of other man-child movies from fellow ’90s comedians. RIP Chris Farley (and WTF Rob Schneider).



Teen Angst

In horror, dramas, comedies, and everything in between: Troubled teens! Getting into trouble! Who couldn’t relate to their First World problems, plaid flannels, and lose grasp of the internet?

Mainstream Nihilism

From the Coen Bros to Fincher to Tarantino, filmmakers on the verge of explosive popularity seemed interested in one thing: mind f*cking their audiences by putting characters in situations (and plot lines) beyond anyone’s control.

Feeling better about that walk down memory lane? Good. Enjoy the revival.


And revisit some important ’90s classics all this weekend during IFC’s ’90s Marathon. Check out the full schedule here.


Get Physical

DVDs are the new Vinyl

Portlandia Season 7 Now Available On Disc.

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GIFs via Giffy

In this crazy digital age, sometimes all we really want is to reach out and touch something. Maybe that’s why so many of us are still gung-ho about owning stuff on DVD. It’s tangible. It’s real. It’s tech from a bygone era that still feels relevant, yet also kitschy and retro. It’s basically vinyl for people born after 1990.


Inevitably we all have that friend whose love of the disc is so absolutely repellent that he makes the technology less appealing. “The resolution, man. The colors. You can’t get latitude like that on a download.” Go to hell, Tim.

Yes, Tim sucks, and you don’t want to be like Tim, but maybe he’s onto something and DVD is still the future. Here are some benefits that go beyond touch.

It’s Decor and Decorum

With DVDs and a handsome bookshelf you can show off your great taste in film and television without showing off your search history. Good for first dates, dinner parties, family reunions, etc.


Forget Public Wifi

Warm up that optical drive. No more awkwardly streaming episodes on shady free wifi!



Internet service goes down. It happens all the time. It could happen right now. Then what? Without a DVD on hand you’ll be forced to make eye contact with your friends and family. Or worse – conversation.


Self Defense

You can’t throw a download like a ninja star. Think about it.


If you’d like to experience the benefits DVD ownership yourself, Portlandia Season 7 is now available on DVD and Blue-Ray.