Highlights of ESPN’s ‘30 for 30’

I can count the number of sporting events I watch in a given year on two hands. This is primarily because I grew up in Wisconsin and the only major sports team that has made a tremendous impact on my life is the Green Bay Packers. It takes a lot to solicit my attention whenever a ball is involved. Box scores? I have no idea how to read them. My care for and knowledge of sports is so superficial that I don’t think my Fantasy Football team won one game last year (I stopped paying attention after my first round pick was injured in week two). Despite what might seem like an inexplicable prejudice, I cannot take my eyes off of ESPN’s stunning documentary series 30 for 30 (recently added to Netflix Watch Instantly). The series enlists major filmmakers such as Albert Maysales, Barbara Kopple, Alex Gibney, Morgan Spurlock, John Singleton, and Ice Cube to chronicle major sports stories from the past thirty years. Why do I find myself caring about a subject that I am normally indifferent to? Because the best episodes of 30 for 30 focus on the multifaceted dynamic that exists between sports and culture.

Take, for instance, Alex Gibney’s (Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room) entry “Catching Hell.” Over the course of two hours, Gibney dissects the fan fumble that symbolizes the implosion of the 2003 Chicago Cubs: Steve Bartman reaching for a ball that straddled the foul line. Gibney draws a parallel between Bartman and the Cubbies and Bill Buckner and the 1986 Boston Red Sox. Gibney’s thesis is that both men became scapegoats, simplifying a narrative of failure by directing fan frustration away from a series of unfortunate events (people tend to forget the errors that occurred after Bartman’s blooper and before Buckner’s bobble). Because of the tortured pasts both teams had with their cities after decades without a World Series victory, the larger logic of cause and effect was thrown to the wind. In both Chicago and Boston, baseball curses are taken seriously to the point that Bartman and Buckner became villains in folk tales that repress the failures of the heroes (the teams themselves).

For Gibney, the footage of the catch becomes the Zapruder film: Wind speed is discussed, various angles are compared with one another, a radio broadcast is put in sync with the footage to capture Bartman’s point-of-view. The purpose of this dissection? To not only clear the names of Bartman and Buckner, but to push the local fan cultures of Chicago and Boston to atone for their crucifixions. While Gibney’s film veers a little on the long and monotonous side (particularly in the end credit subject interviews that continue to hit upon the same points), it remains a fascinating analysis of the way we tell stories about ourselves.

A second extraordinary episode, “The Two Escobars,” directed by Jeff and Michael Zimbalist (Favela Rising), also focuses on a sports snafu with strong ties to its native culture. Sadly, the mistake at the core of “The Two Escobars” had tragic repercussions: A self-scored goal in the 1994 World Cup games by Columbian soccer player Andrés Escobar led to his assassination at the hands of  local drug lords. Like “Catching Hell,” “The Two Escobars” is structured by a parallel, this time drawn between Andrés and drug kingpin Pablo Escobar (although they shared the same last name, the two men were not related).

The Zimbalist brothers dig into the intricacies of Columbian society, linking the rise and fall of the nation’s soccer clubs to the money laundering operation of Pablo Escobar’s empire. Essentially, when the soccer loving Pablo fell, the Columbian clubs became prime targets in ongoing battles for control of the underworld. Players found their family members being kidnapped and/or killed in order to skew gambling outcomes, outcomes that may have been affected by the World Cup game which (potentially) led to Andrés’s murder.  The Zimbalists force us to realize that the relationship between soccer and crime is symbiotic in Columbia. The clubs were at their strongest when the drug money was pouring in because they could afford the best players, coaches, and facilities. Once Pablo and his successors were jailed, the nation’s soccer rankings plummeted. Like “Catching Hell,” “The Two Escobars” engages with what athletes represent to the culture that is capable of either supporting or vilifying them: escape from the every day. When 30 for 30 is at its best, it never lets us forget that such an escape is informed by its context and that relationships are never as simple as they seem.

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