Why Aren’t Athletes in Movies Anymore?

Athletes are people too. They make a ton of money and they live a lifestyle most of us can’t even dream about, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have personalities. Or free time and a need to fill it.

Thankfully, LeBron James had the free time to play a part in Trainwreck, a pretty solid movie that I enjoyed last weekend. He wasn’t the lead role and he won’t win any Oscars for his performance, but there’s no doubt he made the movie better. He plays himself, a superstar who befriends the male lead, a surgeon who specializes in athletes. There’s no one alive who could have played the role he played like he did. The movie was better off with a real, name-brand star than a generic guy with muscles. No one can play LeBron James like LeBron James.

When I get nostalgic about the sports/media environment I grew up with (constantly), I think about the accessibility of athletes. They were all over my TV, even in the offseason. Not just cameos and appearances on TRL, the late ‘90s were full of movies that actually starred athletes.

athletes in moviesFor reference, I’m not talking about roles a la Kareem Adbul-Jabbar in Airplane (a handful of lines) or Kareem in Saved By the Bell (one episode in the New Class spinoff). I’m talking about Kareem in Slam Dunk Ernest (1995). It’s a matter of prepositions: he wasn’t just IN the movie, the movie was ABOUT him.

Editor’s Note: Although it’s not a feature film, it would be criminal of me to not include a mention of Kareem’s appearance in Sugar Ray’s “When It’s Over” music video.

Space Jam (1996) is a good movie. And it could only be good with Michael Jordan in it. He made that movie. The same is true with Ray Allen in He Got Game (1998).

I saw Kazaam (1996) in theaters. My Giant (1998) too. I’m not embarrassed. They aren’t exactly brilliant cinema, but I cheered for the basketball players, so I paid to see them in another medium. Plus, I was 10. I didn’t know anything.

I never got around to seeing Double Team (1997), but I assume it’s a lot closer to the My Giant end of the spectrum than the He Got Game end. It was a bad idea for a movie, but it still got green-lit and made.

You get the point: athletes used to be the leads in movies, especially basketball players. Then the Iverson/Kobe era hit the Association and for some reason, the acting stopped.

In the decade plus that followed, athletes have social media profiles where they can publish their unfiltered opinions 24/7 to millions of adoring followers. The market exists for athletes off the court and yet somehow, sports stars have slipped off the silver screen. I don’t know why.

Hordes of people wear clothes the pros endorse and drink sodas they promote, surely the same people would line up to see their movies. If TNT can turn Charles Barkley narrating basketball games in must-see television, surely a decent movie producer could turn a profit on a movie starring Steph Curry. I don’t like romcoms, but I’d pay money to see a dumb movie about a girl accidentally falling in love with Blake Griffin. Don’t tell me you wouldn’t watch a Chris Paul/Kevin Durant bumbling buddy cop movie.

Maybe the late ’90s era was the outlier. Maybe the ’95 to ’98 time span I’ve been using for my examples was unnaturally rich in sports stars who made movies. Maybe those movies all did so poorly that no studio would ever touch them again. Or maybe someone somewhere just lost the creativity to write movies for people who can’t act. Then again, IMDB says Rob Schneider is working on three movies right now.

They might just be dumb jocks, and there’s a reason these guys are athletes instead of actors, but the entertainment value is real. Anyone who saw the Green Bay Packers in Pitch Perfect 2 will agree.

We’re due for an athlete-acting Renaissance some time here, and I hate to be the one to say I told you so, but I’ll gladly raise my hand if I’m right. Maybe Space Jam 2 is just the thing to kick it off. Just imagine with me.

Frank is working on a companion piece for later this week, so make sure you come back to see what he has to say.