Live sporting events are, at their essence, documentaries played out in real time, with only surface-level commentary from broadcasters. But seeing as how we can’t watch any of that right now, with nearly all sports on hold as a result of the novel coronavirus pandemic, we’re left to watch actual sports documentaries.
Fortunately, there are plenty of good options available on the various streaming services. Here are a few of the best:
“O.J.: Made in America” (ESPN Plus)
Spanning five parts and 467 minutes, producer and director Ezra Edelman goes far beyond O.J. Simpson’s Ford Bronco chase in this compelling examination of race and celebrity in the United States. Biography, Los Angeles’s fraught history, true crime – it’s all in there in what The Washington Post’s Hank Stuever called “nothing short of a towering achievement.” The film won best documentary feature at the 2017 Academy Awards.
“The U,” “The U: Part 2” and “Catholics vs. Convicts” (ESPN Plus)
In the 10 seasons between 1983 and 1992, the previously undistinguished University of Miami football program lost more than two games in a season only once and won four national championships. Then, after a few seasons of being merely good, the Hurricanes would go 46-4 from 2000 to 2003, winning another national title and having one more taken away thanks in part to a dubious pass interference call in overtime against Ohio State. These three ESPN documentaries tell that story in all its swaggering glory, including so much of what was going on behind the scenes.
“Do You Believe in Miracles? The Story of the 1980 U.S. Hockey Team” (HBO Go)
Before ESPN cornered the sports-documentary market with its “30 for 30” series, HBO was the television king of the format, and this is probably the best example. All the HBO hallmarks are there – the weepy music, the Liev Schreiber narration – but the subject matter overcomes any qualms about a cookie-cutter production. Hearing Al Michaels asking us if we believe in miracles is the cure for any quarantine blues.
“Hoop Dreams” (HBO Go)
Filmmakers Steve James, Peter Gilbert and Frederick Marx initially intended to spend three weeks filming kids on a Chicago playground basketball court for a 30-minute PBS short. Instead, they spent five years amassing 250 hours of footage about the tribulations of inner-city high school basketball prospects William Gates and Arthur Agee. The result was nearly three extraordinary, heartbreaking hours of filmmaking.
“When We Were Kings” (HBO Go)
The “Rumble in the Jungle” between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman in 1974 reportedly was watched on television by 1 billion people, about a quarter of the Earth’s population at the time. Leon Gast’s film, fueled by witness recollections, footage from the fight and a propulsive soundtrack filled with songs from the musical festival that preceded the bout, shows you why.
“Beyond the Mat” (Netflix)
The Internet has raised the curtain on the inner workings of pro wrestling, but Barry Blaustein’s 1999 documentary was released when the Web was in its relative infancy. The scenes where Mick Foley is battered by the Rock with his wife and very young children looking in horror from the front row still have a visceral resonance.
Old NFL Films video yearbooks (YouTube)
Each year, NFL Films produces a highlight package for every NFL team, and the best ones are for the bad teams. “The playoffs loomed as a possibility,” the narrator intoned at the start of “On the Prowl,” the story of the 2001 Cincinnati Bengals. Yes, optimism was indeed running high after the Bengals beat the future Super Bowl champion Patriots . . . in Week 1. That Cincinnati would finish 6-10 is – hilariously – beside the point. No sports documentaries have produced more hope amid utter hopelessness.
“The Battered Bastards of Baseball” (Netflix)
Receiving widespread acclaim upon its 2014 release – the Village Voice called it “fun as all hell” – filmmakers Chapman and Maclain Way tell the story of the Portland Mavericks, a proudly scruffy, independent minor league team founded in the 1970s by their grandfather, Hollywood actor Bing Russell (father of fellow actor Kurt Russell, who briefly played for the team and offers his recollections in the movie).
More documentaries to check out
“Cheer”: From the same director as “Last Chance U” (another sports documentary series worth checking out on Netflix), this behind-the-scenes look at high-level competitive cheerleading is ridiculously watchable.
“Killer Inside: The Mind of Aaron Hernandez”: Instead of how former New England Patriots star Aaron Hernandez committed murder, this three-episode docuseries focuses on why.
“Icarus”: This exposé about the Russian doping scheme and the whistleblower who exposed it to the world won an Academy Award in 2018.
More to watch: “Free Solo,” “Undefeated,” “The Short Game”
“Senna”: An acclaimed look at the tragically short career of Brazilian Formula One driver Ayrton Senna.
“The Two Escobars”: This film looks at the intertwined tragedy of Andrés Escobar, whose own goal helped eliminate Colombia from the 1994 World Cup, and that nation’s war on its drug cartels and its most notorious drug lord, Pablo Escobar.
“June 17th, 1994”: O.J. Simpson’s run from the law overshadows a number of other major sporting events on the calendar, including the NBA and Stanley Cup finals and Arnold Palmer’s final U.S. Open round.
More to watch: “Pony Excess,” “The Best That Never Was,” “Small Potatoes: Who Killed the USFL?”, “You Don’t Know Bo”
“Andre the Giant”: The pro wrestling superstar was larger than life.
“Diego Maradona”: This film looks at the Argentine soccer icon at the peak of his power (and problems).
“Runnin’ Rebels of UNLV”: Jerry Tarkanian built a college basketball powerhouse in the desert, and the NCAA did whatever it could to take it down.
More to watch: “Michigan vs. Ohio State: The Rivalry”; “Belichick & Saban: The Art of Coaching”; “McEnroe/Borg: Fire & Ice”