You may have heard that sports are canceled. Sure, there’s still iRacing and marble racing and horses occasionally casting off the chains of servitude, but the big name professional sports are on hold for the good of humanity and it’s a weird time for pretty much everyone out there.
As folks hunker down and try their best to stay safe and protect others through social distancing, movies have become a very reliable way to disconnect from reality and spend a few hours. Streaming services make this incredibly easy if you have the means and high-speed internet to make it happen, but for us in the sports department it was time to get nostalgic and talk about our favorite sports movies growing up.
If you’re looking for the best sports movies ever or the best available on Netflix, this list may not be for you. Not all of these are winners that stand the test of time, but they’re all winners in our hearts.
The thing I like best about The Sandlot is that it is, at heart, a movie about unsupervised rascals on bicycles. It is a sports movie, sure, there’s no denying that. Everything that happens, all of the action, revolves around a never ending baseball game. But it’s not really about that. It’s about the other stuff. It’s about being a kid.
Look at the scene with Phillips and the rich kids, with all the name-calling and subsequent baseball beatdown. Look at the scene where they’re chomping tobacco and puking at the carnival. Look at the scene where they all stop their game for a moment to stare up at July 4th fireworks in awe as the Ray Charles version of “America the Beautiful” plays. That’s what being a kid is, that combination of mischief and wonder, being unsupervised on a bicycle. It’s one of the reasons I like Stranger Things, too. Maybe it’s because I was a rascal on a bicycle at that age, too.
Good sports movies usually make you feel good. The good guys win, the underdogs take out the jerks, the schlubs get their moment. There’s a formula to it all. But, like, formulas can work. Sometimes you just have to stick to them. That’s the whole point of chemistry. And baking. I’ve gotten off-topic. This paragraph is very much the “a scene about puking at a carnival in the middle of a baseball movie” of my blurb. I stand by it. The Sandlot rules. — Brian Grubb
OK so, here’s the thing: Space Jam is a terrible movie. By any objective measure, it is extremely bad. Michael Jordan’s tenure as a baseball player (in which he hit .202 and had 88 hits to 114 strikeouts) was exponentially better than his attempt at being an actor, most of the voice acting was just a little off, the plot had more inexplicable nonsense in it than I can remember off the top of my head — the one that sticks out above all else is that Michael Jordan get sucked down a portal to hell and his friends keep golfing — it is essentially an 88-minute long ad for brands that sponsored Jordan, and a whole host of other things. Having said that, if you saw Space Jam around the time it came out and liked basketball, you just inherently have a certain emotional connection to it that no other movie can match. It is delightful, it is perfect, and I love it with my whole heart. Soundtrack is aces, too. — Bill DiFilippo
I would not go so far as to call Like Mike the best movie on this list. In fact, I would reckon it’s probably the worst. A young Shad Moss (Lil Bow Wow) in a sports comedy is already a bad idea in concept and in execution it’s even worse, but little kid me did not care because this movie had two things. Basketball and a young kid putting on a pair of magical Jordans that made him dominate the NBA. Is this not the dream of every eight year old kid growing up as they play NBA Live 03, watch Tracy McGrady, and dream of dominating the NBA themselves despite admittedly being pretty chunky.
OK, so maybe that’s a little too narrow, but I’m willing to bet multiple children watched this movie and thought to themselves that they could absolutely do that if they had a magical pair of shoes. I know after watching it I wanted to go buy a pair right at that moment but my Mom, the intelligent woman she was, told me they were too expensive and that never happened.
The movie itself is not really worth watching as an adult, but I do suggest going on YouTube and looking up the cameos. Allen Iverson, Jason Kidd, and Dirk Nowitzki all make appearances as well as a handful of other NBA stars. What will never not be funny to me, though, is while there’s a representation for almost all 29 teams at the time, the Clippers have been replaced by the Los Angeles Knights. They are clearly supposed to be a Clippers stand in with the color scheme and playing in Staples Center, but at no point are they mentioned in the movie. Probably for the best, because back in 2002 it was way more believable that a kid wearing a pair of magical shoes would dominate the NBA than the Clippers actually winning games. — Chris Barnewall
Is this a children’s movie? Absolutely not. Is it a movie that is important to me from my youth? Absolutely. Everyone always tells me I need to watch Friday Night Lights, but to be honest, I refuse to believe it can stack up to the original cinematic portrayal of Texas high school football that Varsity Blues provided. First, let’s talk about the cast. James Van Der Beek at the peak of his powers as backup QB turned star Jon Moxon, Paul Walker as starter whose gruesome knee injury might cost him a scholarship to Florida State Lance Harbor (an elite fake Texas QB name, I must add), and Jon goddamn Voight as Bud Kilmer in my personal favorite portrayal of an overly aggressive coach that cares too much about winning and not enough about his players. It’s a familiar trope in sports movies but one that has never been executed this well.
It manages to mix fun with serious topics without feeling like an afterschool special, pointing out the issues of concussions in football (in 1999!) and the rampant use of painkillers to get players back on the field too quickly. They also delve into racism (like Kilmer refusing to let his workhorse running back get touches once close to the end zone), battles between fathers and sons over the future (if you’ve never said, “I don’t want your life” like Mox then we just can’t relate), and the fleeting nature of fame (Harbor’s girlfriend suddenly throwing herself at Mox who is dating Harbor’s sister). They do all of this while being able to have a sequence where the team is too hungover on game day because they were at the strip club all night to cheer up Lance and found out their teacher strips there in the evenings resulting in this, a truly spectacular scene featuring Scott Caan and Ron Lester.
It also has reasonably good actual football sequences, which helps its case against other sports movies where the actual sports action tends to be, let’s just say, lacking. It all ends with Paul Walker taking over as coach after the player’s orchestrate a coup against Kilmer in the playoffs, running the “Oopty Oop,” where they sent five wide receivers onto the field to run a spread offense, quite literally, breaking the brain of one fan who begins counting the receivers on his fingers in the stands in one of my favorite moments in movie history.
Basically, Varsity Blues predicted the rise of the spread offense and brought to light issues of concussions and painkillers in football while also being a highly entertaining movie about high school hijinks. It should have won Oscars. — Robby Kalland
Rookie Of The Year
Two words: funky buttlovin.
Okay, here are more than two words. Until the Cubs actually won the World Series, this was the only realistic way the Cubs were ever going to win the World Series. A kid, who slips on a baseball and messes up his shoulder, finds his tendons have been fused together to make him now able to throw a fastball 100 miles an hour. After hurling one from the outfield right to the catcher, the Cubs — owned by the same dude who had that big toy store in Home Alone 2 — sign the guy, but some shady room deals have a coup brewing in the front office as one exec is focused on money and the original owner cares more about family. All the while, the kid is being groomed by Gary Busey and Marv from the Wet/Sticky Bandits who uses the term “hot ice” at one point.
If you aren’t already hooked please enjoy the fact that a gigantic steroid goon yells “MOMMY” a bunch in a climactic scene and later strikes out when our hero throws a slow pitch softball pitch at him. Ray Charles makes an appearance for a Pepsi ad. And the hidden ball trick is utilized to perfection. Also, Gary Busey’s character’s name is Chet Steadman and he communicates mostly through grunts in this film.
Five stars, you’ll love it. — Martin Rickman
The entire Disney Channel Original Sports Movie slate has been catalogued by this writer on this very website, and you may notice something amiss here: Brink is ranked above Johnny Tsunami and yet it doesn’t appear on this list. That’s because this about favorite movies, not best, and I will not be taking any more questions at this time.
Johnny Tsunami is a personal favorite in a lot of ways, including the fact that a rewatch of the movie as an adult makes it approximately 300 times funnier and more ridiculous. Budding surfer bro Johnny is ripped from Hawaii on a transcontinental move apparently planned in a matter of days. A bunch of prep school kids immediately try to murder him on a mountain that very clearly does not exist in New England. The rest of the movie plays out fairly predictably, and the action sequences are hilariously bad. Johnny, a small boy, yet his jacked as hell stunt double rides his surfboard to glory in his name. The ski/snowboard rivalry is inexplicable until loosely explained at the end, but the logistics just never really make any sense.
But here’s the thing: the show did a very good job of establishing villains and making the snowboarders actually seem cool. The public school kids are clearly the dudes you wanted to be friends with, and as a kid who made an awkward transition from public to parochial school (sans tropical shirt collection, mind you) I definitely identified with Johnny in a few ways. The child in me hates that I learned how to ski, but the rest of me understands that life isn’t black and white and everyone should get to ride the mountain together. — Ryan Nagelhout