There is a sportswriting adage that goes, "The smaller the ball, the better the writing," and the inverse seems to be true of sports movies. Screenwriters routinely slander golfers ( Happy Gilmore), Ping-Pongers ( Forrest Gump) and roulette players (Casino), while always getting bowlers exactly right (Kingpin, The Big Lebowski).
So choosing the greatest sports movie of all time should be as simple as keeping your eye on the ball. Big ball is good (Hoop Dreams), small ball is bad (Tin Cup), and no-ball-at-all is most likely a work of genius (Raging Bull, When We Were Kings, Dorf Goes Fishing).
Alas, there are other, conflicting formulas, and they are equally valid. If men are running in slow motion on a beach (Chariots of Fire, Brian's Song), you are almost certainly watching greatness. (If women are running in slow motion on a beach, you are almost certainly watching Cinemax.)
Every movie ever made about a team of profane outcasts—Mean Machine in The Longest Yard, the Chiefs in Slap Shot, Chico's Bail Bonds in The Bad News Bears—has been, without exception, brilliant.
Field-goal-kicking donkeys (Gus) are funny. Dogs that can dunk (Air Bud) are not.
Movies set in Indiana (Hoosiers, Knute Rockne: All-American, Breaking Away) can be one of two things: great or Rudy. Movies whose main character is named Indiana are failsafe, though other Midwestern states can be less reliable. Jackie Gleason was unforgettable as Minnesota Fats in The Hustler, Brendan Fraser unwatchable as Yankees phenom Steve Nebraska in The Scout.
Nebraska had a 106 mph fastball—and in sports movies, wild implausibility should be used only for comic effect. As a weightlifter representing Klopstokia at the 1932 Olympics, W.C. Fields wins gold in Million Dollar Legs when his opponent, straining to jerk 1,000 pounds, falls through the earth. (Great.) The Natural had us right up until the moment Roy Hobbs literally knocked the cover off the ball. (Not great.)
Then there are movies in which no one on the set has ever personally witnessed the sport being filmed. So the climactic at bat of The Fan, in which Wesley Snipes plays a San Francisco Giants star, takes place in what appears to be a hurricane, violating rules of both the National League and the National Weather Service.
It's not that sports fans are unwilling to suspend disbelief. We'll happily accept that high school basketball player Michael J. Fox can spontaneously turn into a werewolf (Teen Wolf). But when that wolf shoots two crucial free throws while a defender stands directly in front of him—in the middle of the lane—waving his arms in Fox's face, our disbelief is no longer suspended, and it falls to the ground like a cartoon character who has imprudently looked down after running off a cliff.
Better to give us unflinching verisimilitude: Babe Ruth playing Babe Ruth in The Pride of the Yankees, Jimmy Piersall losing it in Fear Strikes Out, a writer from SPORTS ILLUSTRATED propping up a bar in The Slugger's Wife.