As Hampton Stevens wrote in The Atlantic in 2014, the game has become an afterthought—if it’s shown at all—in this decade’s sports films. Stevens lamented that the ultimate outcome of showing less sports in sports movies was that it made the onscreen story more boring. But this trend also reflects a shift toward a culture that the management and banking researcher T.T. Ram Mohan describes in a piece for Quartz as “CEO-centric.” In this environment, the CEO isn’t just a number-cruncher but also a charismatic visionary. Movies including Moneyball and Draft Day seem to glamorize this kind of autocratic framework, lauding their GMs as lone geniuses and presenting players and coaches as obstacles to be managed.
In Moneyball, the Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) ignores the protests of his scouts, his coaches, and his players and uses statistical analysis to (cheaply) cobble together a playoff-bound team. Draft Day follows the Cleveland Browns’ general manager, Sonny Weaver, Jr. (Kevin Costner), through the day of the NFL draft as he races against the clock to get the players he wants and keep his job. If these descriptions make the films sound more like workplace dramas than sports movies, watching them doesn’t do much to discourage that impression. As far as these films are concerned, baseball and football are no longer sports, but businesses. Rather than show viewers the games, the films show them the money.
Both movies present their heroes (the managers of major-league sports teams, let’s remember) as underdogs fighting the system, even though both belong to the upper echelons of that system. Meanwhile, scouts are buffoons who can be replaced by computers, coaches are egomaniacs who are referred to as “babysitters,” and players are barely people. Moneyball reduces the latter to statistical formulae, rejecting qualities such as charm and star power. While rejecting the allure (and price tag) of a star player might seem to favor those who actually produce, that’s not the case in the film: A player becomes largely invisible once GM Beane acquires him. Draft Day similarly wants nothing to do with athletes. “Do not bother me with your shit,” the Browns general manager Weaver tells his starting quarterback. “I’m working here.”
It’s hard to get much further away from the values of the traditional sports movie. Fans seemed to notice that disconnect in Draft Day, which made a paltry $28 million at the box office (but seems poised for a healthy afterlife on cable). Moneyball’s $75 million gross didn’t make it a monster hit, but its six Academy Award nominations and critical acclaim elevated it to the level of a minor classic.
Both films twist themselves into knots trying to hide the fact that their heroes are one-percenters. Moneyball emphasizes that Billy Beane is a failed ballplayer managing the poorest team in baseball, magically making him a has-been looking to move from rags to riches and prove his worth. Draft Day chooses to portray Weaver as a guy who, despite being the GM of an NFL team, has never gotten his shot. “It was finally supposed to be my season,” he says in one scene. “I just want the team that I want one time.” Weaver may be choking up, but his speech has all the pathos of a billionaire complaining his McLaren will be delivered a week late.