The Evolution of the Sports Biography

Long before their athletic purists were wall to wall in our society, the interest around knowing the origins and the daily routines of our favorite sports heroes was tangible. As sports made a deeper penetration into our daily lives, having an understanding of the people under the jerseys seemed almost necessary.

There was a time when sports stars would just appear in TV shows or movies like Jack Dempesy in The Prizefighter and the Lady, (1933) or Joe DiMaggio in Manhattan Merry-Go-Round, (1937) but as sports transformed from pastime to a full on entertainment industry unto itself, the cameo roles were too small for this new bread of popular culture idols. Like all other notable portrayals of the famous and envied, the sports biography evolved over time. The first wave of sports biographies were nearly extension of folklore where athletes are these mythical figures who just happened to walk among us mere mortals. An example of this kind of sports biography is the 1948 movie The Babe Ruth Story, co-written by Ruth and tragically released just two months before his death. As you can see from the trailer, the film builds Ruth as the epitome of strength, integrity and chivalry. All of those attributes could have been true about Ruth, but the complete lack of objectivity makes any of the raving about the Great Bambino unbelievable. The next phase of the sports biography took a different approach to telling the stories of sports legends. Instead of presenting them as larger than life, the next crop of tales would focus on how they were just like us. In 1950, less than three full seasons after historically breaking the color barrier in Major League Baseball, Jackie Robinson co-stared with Ruby Dee in The Jackie Robinson Story. Though the movie gives an honest effort to explain who Jackie Robinson was as a person, it is impossible to capture the true historical impact of a figure like Robinson while he is still making history. The recent recreation of the Jackie Robinson movie, 42- while still flawed in some ways, does have the advantage of a more complete view of Robinson's historical impact. An unlikely force would change the direction of the sports biography; television.

As the TV news broadcast challenged its print counterpart for the attention of the viewing public, sports focused programs like Inside the NFL and Real Sports became the next evolution of the sports section. These shows studied sports at a granular level and allowed the subjects of their stories a voice beyond the occasional locker room quote. Now in its 22nd season, Real Sports lead by Bryant Gumble is still arguably the benchmark by which all other sports magazine shows are judged but others have come along and carved out their own niche. For example, Bill Simmons' 30for30 now in its third season, has changed the landscape of sports storytelling. The beauty of 30for30 is it gives little known stories like what happened to legendary high school running back Marcus Dupree the same treatment as the tragically cut short life of Len Bias. Unlike sports magazine shows, where you get numerous stories from a small group of reporters, 30for30 offers a wide array of points of views from a carousel of fans, storytellers and filmmakers. This approach to sports biography has caught on at other networks, as just last year Showtime released full-scale documentaries on Kobe Bryant, Allen Iverson, and Tony Gonzalez often with their sports careers in the background to larger more personal issues in the forefront.

The recognition that sports stories well-known and lesser known alike, contain the possibility to tell us a great deal about numerous aspects of the human condition. Over the next two weekends the box office will offer up two very different sports biographies. Opening Friday Feb. 19 is Race. Race staring Stephan James (Selma), as 1936 Olympic hero Jesse Owens is a well-known story. Many know about how James Cleveland Owens took the track and field world by storm but still like many other Olympic hopeful had to decide to compete in the socially and politically charged 1936 games. The challenge for Race is to refresh this familiar story while shedding light on lesser-known insights and showing Owens as athletically superior but still human enough to feel the pressure of the times.

Eddie the Eagle released Feb. 26 has a different charge than Race. Staring Taron Egerton (Kingsman) and Hugh Jackman (X-Men) Eddie the Eagle is a lesser-known sports story about the arduous struggle of Michael "Eddie" Edwards to become an Olympian. Just like its sports biography predecessors, Eddie the Eagle should take from the tradition that our sports heroes are more like us than not. What they do, not who they are allows them to pull off these amazing feats. Both Race and Eddie the Eagle have the opportunity to add to the reasons why we appreciate sports storytelling and by extension the men and women who make them great. It does not matter if you are a relatively unknown skier or world class athlete, you can make a tremendous impact on people and even world events by competing in games.