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Playbook for Sports Films? Don't Tick Off Pro Leagues

If there's a lesson filmmakers are taking away from the success of the football movie "The Blind Side," it's this: stick to the formula and keep the sports leagues happy.

The Oscar-nominated film about offensive lineman Michael Oher and the family that adopted him has raked in nearly $250 million and is a candidate to win the Best Picture award. But like most sports films — especially those that require the approval of sports leagues to get made — the movie follows a familiar theme: clean-cut all-American athlete overcomes great obstacles to achieve his dream.

It's a formula that works, critics say, but the result is that the dark side of sports is generally left unexamined. Teammates doing drugs? Nope. The long-term effects of concussions on football players? Not a chance. Guns in the locker room? Womanizing? Not in "The Blind Side" — or in any sports movie these days. Sports on the silver screen are sanitized now, both because of leagues looking to protect their image and the reality of what attracts a mass audience.

"In most Hollywood films, the main characters we are asked to identify with succeed by working hard, through determination and by following the rules," said Aaron Baker, a professor of film and media studies at Arizona State University and author of the book "Contesting Identities: Sports In American Film."

"Athletes in sports movies follow the same strategy," Baker said.

In other words, the Hollywood formula is what sells, especially to someone who isn't a diehard sports fan.

"The reason 'The Blind Side' was so successful is you had a football movie about a real football player, which will attract your male audience, but also it's a family story," said Ray Didinger, a veteran sportswriter in Philadelphia and co-author of "The Ultimate Book of Sports Movies."

"And the real hero of the story isn't Michael Oher, but the mother (who is portrayed by Sandra Bullock, who is nominated for the Best Actress award). So that attracts women. And you can bring your kids."
But sports leagues may play as much a role in pushing this formula as market pressures. Any filmmaker wishing to use official team names and logos — such as the numerous college teams and the NFL Baltimore Ravens in "The Blind Side" — must first get approval from leagues that have proven to be far more likely to sack projects than let them through.

"The Blind Side" was the first feature film to get NFL approval since the rags-to-riches story "Invincible" in 2006. And that was the first since the 1996 film "Jerry Maguire," featuring Tom Cruise as a sports agent with a conscience.

"We take a hard look at projects, many of which would not fit our values and standards," said NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy, adding that the league reviews three to four scripts a month. "Obviously, the Michael Oher story did ... we are very protective of our brand, but we do seek out opportunities where it makes sense."

Director Oliver Stone asked to use NFL logos and stadiums for his 1999 gridiron flick "Any Given Sunday," but the league turned him down, citing concerns about content. He made the movie anyway, creating a fictional league with fictional team names.

The 2005 sports gambling picture "Two For the Money," with Al Pacino and Matthew McConaughey, did not receive the blessing of any sports league; filmmakers resorted to using old video footage of the defunct United States Football League.

Because no actual teams were represented, critics said, the films were hurt by a lack of authenticity even if they offered a more well-rounded view of sports.

"League involvement in sports films can be important because it supports an important quality of successful movies about athletics, which is realism," Baker said.

Film critics and scholars said that sports leagues at times have shown an open-mindedness when it comes to films. They point to several examples of movies that got league approval despite some unflattering content, including the 1989 baseball comedy "Major League," which featured edgy protrayals of the Cleveland Indians and the team's ownership. The NFL signed off on the script for "Jerry Maguire," even though critics acknowledged that it pulled no punches in its examination of the sports industry.

Nevertheless, under current conditions, there may be some controversial issues in sports that will never get explored in feature films. Toby Miller, professor of media and cultural studies at the University of California, Riverside, called Hollywood "craven" for not addressing controversial issues like steroid use, sexual violence, racism or the use of public dollars for stadium construction. And another critic said that even if those issues are touched on, they usually appear only in the context of an otherwise formulaic plotline.

"There's always some sort of heroic comeback, so even if you have some of that gritty stuff in the movie, it's always balanced out by the goodness of the character or them getting a lucky break," said Tim Dirks, founder and editor of Filmsite.org. "Whatever happens always turns out to be a happy ending."