The NCAA basketball tournament leading into the new baseball season is arguably among the best few weeks on the sports calendar. But the kickoff to March Madness and opening day also coincide with three documentaries highlighting different aspects of sports’ darker side, especially in its impact beyond the court and field.
Given the amount of office pools built around the tournament, Showtime might have the most timely entry with “Action,” a series about the world of sports gambling, focusing primarily on money wagered on pro football. While showcasing the colorful characters who participate – and the pained or exultant faces in casino sports books – the four-part show also delves into the destructive nature of compulsive gambling.
Hitting theaters before Major League Baseball begins, meanwhile, is “Screwball,” director Billy Corben’s look at the use of performance-enhancing drugs, zeroing in on the 2014 scandal – almost comical in its details and scope – that swept up a number of players, including the year-long suspension of then-Yankees star Alex Rodriguez.
Finally, there’s “Roll Red Roll,” a limited release that examines what came to be known as “rape culture” in the story of an inebriated teenage girl who was sexually assaulted by members of the high-school football team in Steubenville, Ohio in 2012.
Steubenville became a national story, prompting soul-searching about the manner in which the accusations were handled. As Rachel Dissell, a reporter for the Cleveland Plain Dealer, puts it in the documentary, “Is this football town putting its daughters at risk by protecting its sons in a situation like this?”
Some of the most disturbing material in “Roll Red Roll” comes via audio from a sports radio show, where the host sounds determined to support the players, speculating that it was easier for the girl to “tell your parents you were raped” than admit to getting drunk and having sex. There are also accusations, denied by authorities, that police “slow-walked the case,” and that school administrators deferred to the football coach, who in an interview with police appears to have accepted the word of his players.
“Screwball,” by contrast, brings a lighter touch and almost satirical approach to what’s been described as the biggest illegal steroid scheme in pro sports history.
The operation involved Biogenesis founder Tony Bosch and a slew of over-the-top characters who “made a mockery of baseball’s crackdown on performance-enhancing drugs,” says Tim Elfrink, co-author of the book “Blood Sport: A-Rod and the Quest to End Baseball’s Steroid Era.”
Having served more than 18 months in federal custody for his role, Bosch is an exceptionally good interview, recalling how he could watch baseball on TV and witness the fruits of his work. “It was almost like, ‘Hey mom, I made it to the big leagues, but in a different way,’” he says.
“Action” uses as its jumping-off point a 2018 Supreme Court ruling that cleared the way for states to legalize sports betting, and the repercussions for those who have already built lives and careers around gambling on games.
Most express concern about the longterm impact of the court decision, with professional gambler Bill “Krack” Krackomberger warning that legalized betting will bring “snake-oil salesmen and charlatans coming out of the woodwork,” a point underscored by radio and TV ads for can’t-miss handicappers.
CBS’ “60 Minutes” will also address the issue of legalized gambling in its March 24 episode, with one athletic director sounding alarms that the changes – and money swirling around games – will turn into a source of temptation for college athletes.
It’s not unusual, of course, to hear those who savor sports as an enjoyable escape from their daily cares lament such coverage. But as each of these projects reinforces in one way or another, sports are also a business, one whose toxic elements and deeper relationship to society can’t – or at least shouldn’t – be swept under the bleachers.
“Roll Red Roll” premieres in New York on March 22.
“Action” premieres March 24 at 8 p.m. on Showtime.
“Screwball” premieres in theaters on March 29 and on demand on April 5.