Sports movies. We’re used to the triumphant roar of the final victory made against all odds. We’ve seen the motivational montage, bought the t-shirt. But we’re less used to seeing narratives of recovery surrounding this Hollywood dream: of what happens after the final battle, or before the hero is made, during the arduous inner-fight that puts the protagonist in contention. Here, Mantality explores how injuries in film, both physical and mental, can turn narratives of victory on their head. Journey with us to rock bottom, chronicling broken bodies and spirits, before we rejoice in the reinvention in the athlete themselves, and sometimes their entire sport.


The Darkest Hour

Films: Million Dollar Baby (Eastwood, 2004) / Foxcatcher (Miller, 2014)

Rock bottom is not a pretty place. These films show the earth-shattering debilitation of the worst side of sports injuries. In Clint Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby, we have Maggie (Hilary Swank), who shows grit, determination and promise to fight her way through boxing’s elite. In the film’s final act [spoilers!], Maggie falls on her stool and breaks her neck. Her coach is the only one who understands how a life without boxing is no life for her at all; even her family prove to be only interested in her for the money she brings in. Coach Clint faces the music, and helps her commit suicide.

It’s not just the body that can fail. In Foxcatcher, we see the dark side of Olympic wrestling. Ex-gold medallists the Schultz brothers are brought into the bizarre world of Steve Carrell’s John DuPont – a millionaire dedicated to restoring these former champions to glory. There’s more to this arrangement than meets the eye though, and the socially awkward DuPont proves to be more dangerous than generous. Of particular interest is Mark Ruffalo’s Dave Schultz, who loses his love of wrestling after being out of the game for so long. This film shows the darkest sides of sports psychology – of businessmen taking advantage of broken athletes, of the struggle of staying dedicated to a sport after you’ve reached its pinnacle, of battling against depression and anxiety while trying to balance what’s best for family surrounding you.  These films are unflinching but necessary – injuries are no laughing matter, and can define lives, careers and families.

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Stronger Through Strife

Films: Cinderella Man (Howard, 2005)/ The Natural (Levinson, 1984)

There are, however, opportunities for reinvention. These films show how injuries can provide incentives to train harder, to work on weak aspects of your game, and to build the character traits you’ll need to chart a rise to the top.

In Ron Howard’s Cinderella Man, boxer James J. Braddock struggles through Depression-era America while supporting his wife and children. Braddock suffers a broken hand, which ends his boxing career and makes him a liability on the docks. While working however, he strengthens his notoriously weak left hand, paving the way for his comeback later in life. Particularly memorable is Paul Giamatti as Joe, Braddock’s manager, who tapes the injured hand repeatedly to minimise the impact of his punches on his broken bones. While the injury threatens to derail him and his family, it is the resilience Braddock learns in this period which allows him to reach the pinnacle of the boxing world later. So here, we learn that low points are a chance to iron out weaknesses, to work on strategy. The story is one of strength through suffering – of the importance of battling through the worst times, steadily building resilience and character, in order to pull through to the other side.

This true story is echoed in the fictionalised account given by The Natural, a baseball film from the 80s. Much like Braddock, Roy Hobbs (Robert Redford) is forced to adapt his game – although instead of breaking his hand, he gets shot by a notorious serial killer who hunts baseball players. But same ballpark. He has to switch from pitcher to hitter in baseball’s toughest league. Through dedication and perseverance, Hobbs manages to reinvent himself and become one of the league’s biggest hitters. These examples provide personal cases of redemption and triumph, where injuries are opportunities for reinvention and restructure.

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In the next section, we’ll see player injuries which didn’t just redefine themselves, but the whole game.

Game Changers

Films: Moneyball (Miller, 2011) / A League of their Own (Marshall, 1992)

Moneyball focuses on a new system of baseball management, which prioritises player data instead of prestige and public perception. It is the true story of the Oakland 10-11 team, and their manager Billy Beane, who defied all the odds in putting together a ramshackle team of oddballs and maligned players. Among them are players carrying injuries from earlier in their careers – meaning they are looked over for top transfers or key positions on the team. By coming together however, they accentuate their strengths and minimise their weaknesses. Beane‘s inclusive system is much parodied at first, but the parts gradually build up to a formidable whole. There is a semi-parallel with the success of basketball’s Golden State Warriors, who feature no traditional ‘big’ hitters, but prioritise a game strategy that utilises the entire team’s potential. Injuries in Moneyball are catalysts for change – opportunities to re-assess strategies both on and off the pitch. 

A similarly uplifting paradigm shift is charted in A League of Their Own. Tom Hanks plays Jimmy Dugan, the manager of one of the first all-female baseball teams – based on the real life All-American Girls Professional Ball League. Dugan’s own career is cut short by injury, meaning he is forced into other aspects of the game. Again, an injury forces a shift in perspective, finding other ways of playing the same game, and encouraging a more inclusive attitude in the process. While World War II rages on, women’s baseball soars in popularity, illustrating the pragmatism and resilience formed under challenging circumstances.

These films provide stark lessons in coping with sports injuries – from understanding the debilitating effect they can wreak on the player, to inspiring personal narratives of hope and redemption, to striving towards a practical and optimistic approach which sees an injury as a chance to shift perspective, both personally and throughout the sporting world.

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