Cinema and Media Studies Sports in Film
Aaron Baker
  • LAST REVIEWED: 14 March 2024
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 January 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791286-0136


Since the start of the motion picture industry in the United States, sports have been a frequent subject for the movies. Hollywood has produced hundreds of films about sports for the same reason that synergistic ties have been established between American movies and other cultural forms, including theater, literature, fashion, television, advertising, and toys. From the documentary style “news films” of major prizefights and the World Series that were an important part of the early film industry to recent blockbusters such as The Blind Side (2009) and Moneyball (2011), collaboration with sports has helped sell the movies. Sports are rule-governed contests of physical skill in which humans compete against one another. In the sports film such athletic contests play a central role in defining the main characters. The Hollywood sports film in particular has two important conventions: a utopian view of the world that assumes that anyone who works hard, is determined, and plays by the rules will succeed and a need for plausibility based on resemblance to the actual sports world that qualifies its utopian outlook with the complexities of social difference. Put more simply, in their attempt to portray plausible athletes and sporting events to attract sports fans, Hollywood films often include historical forces that complicate their narratives, which are otherwise focused on individual characters as causal agents. The sources listed below fall into three categories: tools for teaching and research, writings on the general traits of films about athletics, and studies of the sports world shown in such movies.

General Overviews

Considering the prominence of sports in American culture and its frequency as subject matter for Hollywood movies, there are surprisingly few books about sports movies. Baker 2003 and Tudor 1997 offer the only comprehensive overviews of the genre from a theoretically informed perspective. Bergen 1982 and Dickerson 1991 are limited to a film criticism approach but useful for their readings of individual films. Streible 2008 and Grindon 2011 both present excellent studies on films about boxing, one of the sports most represented by Hollywood.

  • Baker, Aaron. Contested Identities: Sports in American Film. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2003.

    Using film studies and cultural studies methodologies, Baker shows how Hollywood films about athletics foreground the American master narrative of self-reliance. He demonstrates that even as sports films tackle socially constructed identities such as class, race, ethnicity, sexuality, and gender, they ultimately underscore transcendence of the barriers related to these identities through self-reliance. Accessible to undergraduate students and places sports films in relation to Hollywood cinema as a whole.

  • Bergen, Ronald. Sports in the Movies. Orange, NJ: Proteus, 1982.

    Bergen analyzes how sports are “escapist entertainment” with visual and dramatic qualities to support narrative film, but informed by values and beliefs that representation in the movies reinforce. Bergen’s assumption that sports films communicate these values and beliefs in a unilateral manner, however, predates the cultural studies view that audiences can resist dominant ideas with their own readings of what movies mean.

  • Dickerson, Gary. The Cinema of Baseball. Westport, CT: Meckler, 1991.

    Dickerson emphasizes how baseball and movies both reflect the dominant values of American society, in particular the importance of hard work and merit, the “competitive spirit,” as key to the promise of success. Focusing on forty-one commercial features made between 1929 and 1989, Dickerson analyzes how baseball movies endorse dominant values as well as how those values changed across different eras.

  • Grindon, Leger. Knockout: The Boxer and Boxing in American Cinema. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2011.

    A very thorough and well-written study of an important film genre. Grindon’s knowledge of the historical and social background of boxing informs the readings of films made from 1930 to 2005. Boxing movies vary from Hollywood endorsement of American opportunity and affluence by presenting what Grindon calls a “discourse . . . on oppression” (p. 4). Appropriate for undergraduates.

  • Streible, Dan. Fight Pictures: A History of Boxing and Early Cinema. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008.

    Streible’s book is a cultural and social history study of two hundred early films about prizefighting made between 1896 and 1915. Using Tom Gunning’s notion of the cinema of attractions, Streible analyzes how these non-narrative films legitimized the sport, raised issues of race as they portrayed African American heavyweight champion Jack Johnson, and popularized boxing with female audiences.

  • Tudor, Deborah V. Hollywood’s Vision of Team Sports: Heroes, Race, and Gender. New York: Garland, 1997.

    Tudor’s book focuses on the representation of social identities in sports films with a particular emphasis on star and celebrity analysis, race, and gender. Her chapters on sports stardom and heroism emphasize Chicago athletes: Michael Jordan, Ryne Sandberg, and Jim McMahon.

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