Sports as spice

I had to laugh when I saw the title of Richard Sandomir’s essay in the Jan. 4 edition of The New York Times: “The Best Sports Films Often Are Not.” 

One of the things people ask about my upcoming novel “The Penalty for Holding” – once they absorb that it’s about a gay, biracial quarterback’s search for identity, acceptance, success and love amid the brutal beauty of the NFL – is, How much football is there? Trust me, they’re not hoping that the answer is “a whole lot.”

And that’s as it should be. For a sports story to succeed, sports have to secondary to the story. There’s a practical reason for this. No specialty tale – which is what any sports story is – can rely on sports fans alone. It must also engage those who are mildly intrigued, those who’d enjoy any good story but don’t necessarily know a lot about sports. And to do that the story can’t be too much inside baseball. Sports are the spice. The narrative is the meat.

Given that, there are any number of approaches. The sport can thread the story (the Kevin Costner baseball films “Bull Durham,” “For Love of the Game”). It can be the payoff (another Costner starrer, “Field of Dreams”).  

Or z metaphor. One of my favorite sports films, so to speak, is “Gladiator.” It’s a classic tale: The star who experiences a reversal of fortune only to reinvent himself in another game.

But that’s only what “Gladiator” is ostensibly about. Its real subject is death. Russell Crowe’s general-turned-arena-entertainer shows us how to die beautifully – with courage and without regret. He goes home.

And isn’t that the point in sports?