As the world of sports is struggling amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, sports fans cling to any bit of content they can find. Sport has a rich history of stories involving much more than just competition. Triumph, controversy, politics, and even cultural revolution are embedded in the historical fabric of sport. The following list of documentaries and TV docuseries embrace the good, the bad, and the ugly of sports, and represent the social and cultural identity of their respective eras. Here are my recommendations for hockey, football, basketball, baseball, soccer, and a few other sports documentaries.
Ice Guardians (2016)
In arguably the most famous hockey documentary of this century, Brett Harvey breaks down the need for one of hockey’s most controversial topics: fighting. Fighting and the role of the enforcer in hockey have been under close watch by the NHL, media, and fans due to raised awareness of concussions and their impact on life after hockey.
While the game of hockey and the role of enforcers has changed drastically over the years, ‘Ice Guardians’ details how the existence of fighting may mitigate other, more violent acts in hockey.
Ice Guardians can be watched on Netflix.
The Russian Five (2019)
If you started following hockey in the mid-1990s or later, you may not believe me when I tell you the Detroit Red Wings were basically the laughingstock of the NHL in the 1970s. From 1966 to 1983, the Red Wings made the playoffs just twice in 17 seasons.
‘The Russian Five’ highlights how the Red Wings looked overseas to break their Stanley Cup drought and how bringing Soviet hockey players from behind the Iron Curtain to the NHL changed both the Red Wings franchise and the style of play in the NHL forever.
O.J.: Made in America (2016)
Winner of a 2017 Academy Award, ‘O.J.: Made in America’ is one of the most thorough, well-made sports documentaries ever. ESPN 30 for 30 films have multiple appearances on this list, and Ezra Edelman’s masterpiece is the first we look at.
The story of O.J. Simpson has been communicated in many different ways, but this is hands down the best documentary view of one of the most famous stories in North American sports history. The eight-hour, five-part miniseries is a rollercoaster that documents Simpson’s life, football career, murder trial, and racial tensions happening in Los Angeles at the same time.
‘O.J.: Made in America’ can be watched on ESPN+.
The U (2009)
Another member of the ESPN 30 for 30 family, ‘The U’ chronicles the University of Miami football team in the 1980s and the racial turmoil surrounding the city of Miami. The Billy Corben film dives into the decision of coach Howard Schnellenberger and team recruiters to turn to the tense Miami ghettos for talent.
The University of Miami football team embraced their newfound culture and went on to win four national championships from 1983 to 1991. But as you will see it was not all smooth sailing, as the big personalities led to team conflicts, legal issues, scandal and controversy over targeting and bounties in-game.
‘The U’ can be watched on ESPN+.
The Last Dance (2020)
‘The Last Dance’ has been a hot topic in the sports world recently, as the highly anticipated docuseries chronicling the career of Michael Jordan and his time with the Chicago Bulls. The whole series has not been released yet, but the inside look at one of the most dominant athletes in history is one you cannot miss.
This series is exactly what sports fans need with all sports on hold. Whether you’re a basketball fan or not, Jordan’s story is electrifying. It has all the big plays, controversy, excitement, and emotions that every sports fan craves. Although only four of the 10 episodes have been released so far, the series has been excellent and is must-watch television for anyone with an appreciation for sport.
‘The Last Dance’ is being released weekly on Netflix.
Hoop Dreams (1994)
Commonly viewed as one of the best sports documentaries ever made, the 1994 film ‘Hoop Dreams’ is an excellent depiction of American life. It brings to light a wide range of social and cultural issues such as race, socioeconomic classes and education.
‘Hoop Dreams’ won a variety of awards across North America, and the International Documentary Association named it their all-time greatest documentary. Filmed over a five-year period, the film follows two African-American from poor Chicago neighbourhoods who were recruited to play high school basketball at a predominantly white school. Must watch for anyone who enjoys documentary films, not limited to sports fans.
Catching Hell (2011)
A moment in sports that changed a man’s life forever, but not in the traditional way. On October 14, 2003, in Game 6 of the National League Championship Series, Steve Bartman deflected a foul-ball that Chicago Cubs fielder Moises Alou was pursuing. With this catch, the Cubs would have been just four outs from a World Series appearance, but instead, the Florida Marlins went on to score eight runs in that eighth inning and ultimately won the series.
Related: NHL Owners – Who Are They?
Bartman was villainized by Cubs fans, and ‘Catching Hell’ revisits the incident and how Cubs fans found a scapegoat in Bartman. The 95-year World Series drought continued for the Cubs, and this documentary examines how one moment changed the life of a baseball fan forever.
‘Catching Hell’ can be watched on ESPN+.
No No: A Dockumentary (2014)
The life and career of major league pitcher Dock Ellis is explored in this documentary, who is famous for having thrown a no-hitter while high on LSD. Yes, in a Major League Baseball game. But drugs aren’t the only thing highlighted in this film. Dock was an outspoken controversial figure who never shied away from commenting on racial prejudice or civil rights as a black athlete in America.
While the highs of his pro career are outlined, this film also explores the difficulties Ellis had surrounding addiction to alcohol and amphetamines. ‘No No’ is a great documentary that analyzes one of the most polarizing figures in baseball history and goes way deeper than just his on-field play.
The Two Escobars (2010)
If you’re familiar with Pablo Escobar and his life as a drug kingpin and head of the Medellin Cartel in Colombia, you understand the violence and brutality that went hand in hand with Pablo’s “business operations”. ‘The Two Escobars’ breaks down the story of Pablo’s involvement with the Colombian National Soccer team, and more specifically Colombian soccer star Andres Escobar.
‘The Two Escobars’ is a fascinating outline of a disturbing time in Columbian history, and is an excellent portrayal of the intersection between sports, drugs, and politics in South America in the early 1990s. If you are a fan of Narcos or other similar shows, you will certainly enjoy this film.
This ESPN 30 for 30 film can be viewed on ESPN+.
Documenting one of the most tragic events in sports history, ‘Hillsborough’ examines the tragic events that transpired during an FA Cup match between Liverpool and Nottingham that resulted in 96 deaths and over 750 injuries. This film gives a complete analysis of the events leading up to, during, and after the incident.
The thought of something so preventable happening is an unbelievable tragedy, and director Daniel Gordon does a phenomenal job of presenting the entire story in an investigative but respectful manner. This is an extremely emotional film about a horrifying event, but is a great depiction of the series of events leading up to and following the tragedy.
This EPSN 30 for 30 can be viewed with ESPN+.
Other Sports Documentaries
If you watch one movie from this list, my recommendation is ‘McConkey’. Outside the realm of traditional sports documentaries, ‘McConkey’ examines the quirky world of freestyle skiing and one of the sport’s pioneers Shane McConkey. Whether you’re into freestyle skiing and extreme sports or not, this film is 105 minutes that pretty much anyone will enjoy.
This film dives into McConkey’s complete love of life, humour, and drive to be new and different that changed the sport and an entire generation of skiers who followed. This is a bit of a change of pace from other documentaries on this list and is a heartfelt display of someone who did not want to let a single second of their life go to waste.
‘McConkey’ can be watched for free at RedBull.com.
‘Icarus’ has been popular on Netflix since its 2017 release. The story follows filmmaker Bryan Fogel and his quest to uncover some of the dark secrets of doping in sport.
This movie starts as an investigative documentary into one of sports’ most controversial areas and finishes as a political thriller with a much more complex plotline than one could ever imagine. If you’re a fan of investigative journalism in sport, this Academy Award-winner is a must-watch.
Icarus can be viewed on Netflix.
Free Solo (2018)
Since its release in 2018, ‘Free Solo’ has been one of the most talked-about documentaries out there. Winner of the 2019 Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, Free Solo follows Alex Honnold on his journey to “free solo” climb the Yosemite National Park rock formation El Capitan.
Free solo climbing is exactly what it sounds like, climbing a vertical rock face by yourself with no rope. This film is not for the faint of heart or those who are vertigo prone, as the camera angles captured by veteran climber and cinematographer Jimmy Chin. If you haven’t seen this film, it is a must-watch that will have you on the edge of your seat.
‘Free Solo’ can be viewed on Netflix.