9 Sports Documentaries That Focus on the Players
Whether you play sports, watch sports, or loathe sports, you can probably still enjoy a good sports story. Even if you don’t know what a layup is or the thought of Tom Brady makes your eyes roll to the back of your head, anyone can relate to the soaring highs of a last-minute touchdown or the devastating lows of a shocking loss. We’ve seen entire nations set their differences aside and unite as one when their underdog team triumphs against all odds. And as we’ve seen in the NFL, some players use sports as a platform to create much-needed change. The best sports stories are, at their core, human stories.
That’s Topic’s perspective on sports: it’s not about the game, but the player. We learn so much about each other from how we play the game. So, sports fans, neophytes, and skeptics, we welcome all of you to check out these nine sports documentaries. Not only will you be dazzled by some seriously impressive athletic prowess, but you’ll also get to know some incredible humans.
NFL running back Marshawn Lynch helped the Seattle Seahawks win a Super Bowl, so why are so many news outlets focusing on his media presence? Over the years, Lynch has become infamous for dodging reporters’ questions or by responding with repetition, explaining that he’s “all about the action.” “Don’t talk about it,” he says. “Just be about it.” But what started as a personal ethos has become a powerful protest against the racial oppression of the American sports-media, which expects athletes, especially Black athletes, to perform for the cameras. Featuring a groundbreaking stream-of-consciousness-style format, “Lynch: A History” is a visual collage of more than 700 video clips creating a powerful montage of one man’s refusal to play the game.
“Nice guys don’t win in this game,” says tennis legend John McEnroe. Judging by his tennis record and his on-court behavior, he might be right. “John McEnroe: In the Realm of Perfection” is an utterly raw profile of the man who became famous for his volleying skills and infamous for his angry outbursts and meltdowns. The documentary focuses solely on McEnroe’s historic French Open match in 1984, when he was the top tennis player in the world. The 16mm archival footage highlights McEnroe’s indisputable athletic prowess, but also packs in plenty of the temper tantrums that make him such a fascinating figure to observe.
Corruption, bribes, fixed ratings—sometimes sports are revolutionary, and sometimes it’s just show biz, baby. This investigative documentary explores the darker side of boxing, where fighters are exploited both physically and financially and there are virtually no rules or regulations to get in the way of profit. With the help of FBI surveillance footage, this documentary is an unprecedented look at the corruption behind the International Boxing Federation, which took bribes from big-name boxing promoters, like Don King and Cedric Kushner, to fix their boxers’ ratings and give them title fights. Who knew how dangerous the sport was outside of the ring?
Dreamers gonna dream. After an injury that cost him his career, former Romanian soccer star Laurențiu Ginghină wants to overhaul the entire sport. He proposes rules that would make the game less violent, with even bigger hopes that it would make society more harmonious. But that’s not all. His plans for revolutionizing soccer would be ongoing — his new rules would leave room for the sport to continue evolving, from football 2.0 to football 2.1, to 2.9, to infinity. While his strategy might need some work, the documentary’s real focus is on Ginghină himself. Not your typical subject of a sports story, Ginghină is so captivating you’ll believe his vision by the end.
Get ready to be inspired. A group of young swimmers from developing countries are given the opportunity to train for the Olympics in a state-of-the-art pool in Phuket, Thailand. Some of them have only ever trained in the ocean, some have never seen a pool of this size, and none of them have been coached by anyone like Coach Alvarado. So when they enter the sports center, they know they’ll be pushed further than they’ve ever been pushed. This documentary is an unexpected underdog story, because the underdogs are given extraordinary advantages. But in the end, external advantages only go so far; it’s what’s inside that creates champions.
Tennis isn’t just for the elites. In these four short films that make up our “On-Topic Shorts” collection, we meet people and communities not typically associated with the racket sports. Richard and Ann Northern are an old married couple who reminisce about the life they built together while running their former tennis club in Brooklyn. In Iowa, a father shares how his homemade tennis court has become a powerful outlet for healing. In East LA, the Maravilla handball courts hold almost a century of memories, created by the neighborhood’s Chicano community. And we meet a tennis instructor who’s struggling in her personal life, but transforms into a formidable athlete on the court.
Will they bring home their first trophy? “This Is Yarra” follows a high school basketball team, the Yarra Wild Beasts, as they prepare for the South Sudanese Australian National Basketball Association Tournament. The documentary focuses on individual players, like team captain Riyadh Aden and the highly emotional Dut Dut, and reveals what basketball means to them, but it also depicts the entire team’s spirit and determination to win their first championship. And in the larger picture, the film makes it clear that basketball has made a life-changing impact on the youth of Australia’s South Sudanese community at large.
Like a real-life “Sandlot” but set in the Caribbean, “Boys of Summer” investigates how a team from Curacao was able to send their underdog team to the Little League World Series seven years in a row. Every year, more than 2 million kids from 100 countries try to make it to the tournament, but not all will make the cut. So how does Team Curacao? Practice, determination, and unwavering faith. The documentary also offers a glimpse of what it’s like to live, and train, on the warm Caribbean island.
Sometimes you win and sometimes you lose, but what matters is not giving up the fight. Are we talking sports or protesting for change? “Black 14” is about both. The documentary follows a group of Black football players at the University of Wyoming who wore black armbands to protest the racist beliefs of the Mormon Church and Brigham Young University. The school’s response will infuriate you. These 14 players risked their college educations and professional football careers to do what they believed was right, and instead of being met with support, they were kicked off the team. Executive produced by Spike Lee, the short documentary is a much-needed tribute to these unsung heroes of the Civil Rights Movement.