Let’s face it: ESPN kind of sucks. I love sports more than just about anything on the planet and I find it nearly impossible to watch ESPN, the largest entity covering sports probably in the world, because it has fallen victim to the same kind of debased screaming matches and straight-up stupidity that took over cable news.
However, despite ESPN’s overall problems, the World Wide Leader has maintained one beacon of light over the last three years: its 30 for 30 documentary series. 30 for 30, executive-produced by ESPN.com’s superstar writer/editor/podcaster Bill Simmons, began as a novel way for the network to celebrate its 30-year anniversary by tackling 30 major sports stories that happened during ESPN’s lifespan. And unlike many of the other networks doing sports docs (like HBO and Showtime), ESPN rejected the idea of a house style and instead recruited legitimate high-profile filmmakers to tackle each topic of interest, basically any way they wanted. Albert Maysles, Steve James, and Barbara Kopple are just a few of the greats who shepherded films in the first 30 for 30 series.
Currently, you can find many of the original 30 for 30 films on Netflix. Most run under an hour and are very much worth your time if you like sports, documentaries, or simply good storytelling.
But the reason we're talking about 30 for 30 today is this: After a nebulous period where ESPN was putting out even more, mostly good docs under the ESPN Films Presents moniker (some of which were original 30 for 30 cuts that weren’t finished in time), 30 for 30 is officially returning this fall. The new run kicks things off tonight with Broke (8pm), a film about how professional athletes end up spending so much of their big contract and sponsorship money. Broke is directed by Billy Corben, who created a fantastic, albeit overly celebratory, work about the University of Miami football team called The U in the first round of 30 for 30 projects.
Also on the docket this fall:p> – 9.79, directed by Daniel Gordon, is the story surrounding the men’s 100 meter race at the 1988 Olympics. Six of the eight finalists eventually tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs. (October 9)
– There’s No Place Like Home, directed by Maura Mandt and Josh Swade, follows one man’s quest to find the original rules of basketball concocted by James Nasmith. (October 16)
– Benj, directed by Coodie Simmons and Chike Ozah, tackles the life and death of Ben Wilson, a high-profile high school basketball prospect in Chicago who was murdered in 1984. (October 23)
– Ghosts of Ole Miss, directed by Fritz Mitchell, examines the 1962 football season, wherein James Meredith became the first black player to be integrated into the team just as Ole Miss began an undefeated run. (October 30)
– You Don’t Know Bo, directed by Michael Bonfiglio, details the impressive but short multi-sport career of Bo Jackson. (December 8)
What I like best about the 30 for 30 series is that there is something for almost everyone in the queue. Maybe you don’t care about track but love football, or vice versa. Either way, chances are good that at least one of these docs will appeal to you. And if you’re on the fence, the official 30 for 30 site has trailers, clips, and additional reading (ugh, reading, I know) that will help contextualize events or people you might be unfamiliar with.
Moreover, the survey of content is both vast—in this group alone, the coverage goes all the way back to the beginning of basketball, with There’s No Place Like Home, up through the current day, with Broke—and specific (very few people outside of Chicago probably remember Ben Wilson, and the same could go for Mississippi and Ole Miss’s season 50 years ago).
Ultimately, 30 for 30 is a great reminder of how deep sports are woven into the fabric of our culture and how great of an impact they can have on both small and large groups of people. The series also reminds us that compelling documentaries don’t have to follow any sort of boilerplate formula, particularly when such powerful voices are crafting them.
I know Tuesday nights are busy for the dedicated TV viewer. But most of these films are going to air at 8pm, which isn’t the most difficult timeslot to navigate. You can catch up with most of the major networks' content online, and maybe finesse the DVR for the rest. Or, you know what? Check out the schedule at 30 for 30’s official website to find out when the replays will air (you can also stream them live via the WatchESPN app). If the first round of docs is any indication, they’re all almost certainly going to be worth watching.
I guess there is a reason to check out ESPN sometimes, after all.