Overview: HBO Sports and executive producers Peter Berg and Sarah Aubrey team up again for the innovative new documentary film series STATE OF PLAY. the show takes on complex and multi-layered themes in sports, exploring their relationship to larger society. Each new edition spotlights a topic or person whose impact on the sports world is undeniable, opening with a brief overview followed by a 40-minute cinéma vérité documentary and concluding with an in-depth, 20-minute roundtable discussion of the issue with the filmmakers, subjects and guest experts. Emmy® nominee Berg (Friday Night Lights) serves as moderator of the panel discussion.
The film that opens the program, TROPHY KIDS features a compelling and engaging examination of the obsession a growing number of parents have with the scholastic athletic competition of their children.
Expectations: Truthfully, I was not going to review this premiere. This is yet another ongoing series of documentaries for HBO, this time from the Sports division, and this writer has logged a lot of time watching and reviewing these types of films that I thought I’d give it a rest. But, then I looked into the format for STATE OF PLAY and the subject matter of the first installment and decided to go ahead and invest the hour and see what I thought of it. Even after watching the trailer (that appears below) I haven’t really formulated any expectations. I approach the film with a clear mind and I will see what feelings and thoughts in evokes. I hope there are those out there that will do the same.
Gut Reaction: I actually thought I could skip this? It was a well done 57 minutes and the follow-up added great input to the topic. It is like the VICE program except instead of talking to correspondents the panel consists of experts to elaborate and comment on the footage. It is a shame other HBO documentaries don’t have a little roundtable discussion afterwards.
TROPHY KIDS is about five children and the training and discipline they go through for their particular sport under the guidance of a parent. Amari is a youngster working hard at golf because her father envisions her to be a prominent ethnic LPGA player and be the breadwinner. Derek is being yelled at and drilled on in basketball so that scholarship money pays his way so Dad doesn’t have to do it. Blake & Tanner are playing through the ranks in tennis because Mom says “they want to play” so she is going to see that “they become the top tennis doubles in the world.” Justis focuses on football and his father figuratively beats him tough because he prizes the ethic value and confidence Justis will gain through the discipline in order to become “a man.”
Are these extreme cases? I don’t know. If you are around sports you see these types of relationship all the time. You see the parent living through the child; you see the competitive spirit consuming the fun right out of it all; you see the money spent on the latest; you see, often times, the unhappy child. It leaves me to wonder how far the situation has escalated in the relationships I see. This documentary puts that right in your face and it alarms you. One child actually moves out due to the intensity displayed here. After all that is shown then the experts, sports psychologist Dr. Larry Lauer and former NFL quarterback Todd Marinovich, who lived the lifestyle talked about here, point out the fundamental problems with the relationships that would probably still remain even if sports were out of the equation. Man, some just take it way too seriously to the detriment of the children involved.
Follow-up: From HBO here is a Q & A with Peter Berg about the series.
Q: Is the subject of ‘Trophy Kids’ a personal one for you?
Peter Berg: Having coached my son’s football team, there were moments I could really relate to. It’s a universal, polarizing subject. Certainly any parent whose kids are getting involved in athletics can understand it. It’s a very real example of where we are as a culture and what we’re doing with our kids today.
Q: How is this different than other documentary series you’ve worked on?
Peter Berg: When we talked about doing a series, the idea was to distinguish ourselves from other sports documentary series. 30 for 30, which I worked on, it’d be hard to find any weakness in. But a lot of what they do is focused on a very specific moment in time – like the Gretzky piece I did, or SMU football getting the death sentence. ‘Broke,’ a great doc about the challenges athletes face in holding on to their money, is more in line with the kinds of things we want to do: More thematic stories that speak to the larger issues that will hopefully serve as a catalyst for conversations.
Q : How many do you plan to do?
Peter Berg: 50! [laughs] Right now we’re doing four. But since we’re already on our third, we’re going to come back and ask for more.
Q : What’s the next film you have planned?
Peter Berg: The next one is called ‘Culture Shock’ and it’s about football. Everyone concedes that football has problems. The question is, can you bring down the speed limit to 50 from 75? The sport has just gotten too big, too fast, too strong, and they’re trying to slow it down. We’ve gotten unprecedented access to the NFL and the Players Union as we dive into how the game can actually be made safer. There’s an argument that the game of football won’t exist in 50 years the way it’s played now. There are signs everywhere, whether it’s in the NFL, whether it is Under Armor’s football sales dropping 30 percent, or whether it’s youth football seeing a decline of 28 percent in participation. We’ve reached a tipping point, and we’re looking at how we’re going to save the game.
Q: How did you get that kind of access to the NFL?
Peter Berg: Everybody realizes that something has to be done. Roger Goodell is a good guy. And you can quote me on that. He doesn’t like seeing guys getting hurt, breaking their necks, or killing themselves. It is not Roger Goodell’s fault. The NFL is trying to do whatever they can in a complex and legally-fraught environment.
Q: What’s the next film after that?
Peter Berg: The third film we’re doing is called ‘Broken,’ and it’s a look at athletes who have broken their necks and become paraplegic. It’s a look at what happens to a human being whose entire life has been about his body and his physicality and what happens to him when that gets taken. It’s a story of resiliency, family, love, and how somebody survives the unimaginable.
Q: How did Todd Marinovich get involved in the film’s panel discussion?
Peter Berg: Todd Marinovich is such a fascinating guy. One of our editors knew him, we sent him the film and evidently he saw the film and couldn’t sleep for two days. He’s kind of dropped out of society; he lives in the Pacific Northwest. He seemed shy at first, but once he got comfortable, he really had a lot to say. We talked for a while and he talked about how he’s going to encourage his kid.
We could’ve loaded up the panel with 10 people, but one of our feelings is that sports shows have gotten too competitive. Everyone is fighting to get their sound bite in. Everyone is so bright and loud and slick. We wanted to slow it down.
Q: What’s the biggest difference in kid’s sports today?
Peter Berg: I used to play football in my friend’s yard, with dogs biting us, and we’d come home dirty and bleeding. And we’d play for it hours-it was fun! And you actually learn how to play. In the winter, we’d all skate or play basketball. Now, kids have to declare their sport at age seven. That’s it, I’m a lacrosse player. The idea of play is at risk.
Q: Has the film had affected your personal approach to parenting?
Peter Berg: My kid is 13 years old and, as a parent, it can sometimes be difficult. You watch your kid be lazy, or put in what you perceive to be a lack of effort, and it can be frustrating. Being part of this film has actually made me a better parent. It’s relaxed my expectations for my son. After hearing Marinovich say that if he could say anything to the kid in the film he’d give him a hug — well, I’ve hugged my kid a lot since then. I’ve been that dad in the car, asking him why he did this or didn’t do that. I won’t do that anymore.
Q: Do you think successful parents are more hands-off?
Peter Berg: There’s no rule of thumb. I’ve seen successful parents be very intense with their kids, and I’ve seen them back off. What I find interesting is looking at the parent of the really successful kids on the field. On the surface they might seem very laissez faire, but if things go wrong, they’re vigilant, they’re intense. Not every parent is as intense as Steve the basketball dad. “C’mon man! What are you looking at!” Sometimes it’s the quiet parents who are actually on their kids with a wolf-like intensity.
Q: Is youth sports a worthwhile investment?
Peter Berg: One area where it’s really intense is the business of personal coaches. Steve Clarkson, “The Dreammaker,” is making a fortune teaching kids how to throw a football. These guys get into the ear of a parent who might have delusions about their kids having an athletic career that they’re never going to have. Most high school players aren’t going to play Division I, and most of the ones that do aren’t going to the NFL, and most of those have a three-year average career. It’s not a smart bet.
In Conclusion: What is a smart bet is this series, but I don’t want to say anymore. I don’t want to give a detailed recap of the documentary. What I want to do is ask you, especially if you are an adult with child athletes at home, to watch STATE OF PLAY: TROPHY KIDS. Then come back and we can debate and talk about it right here in the Comments Section because there is really a lot we could talk about.
Other HBO air dates are 12.06 at 11:30pm; 12.08 at 7:30am; 12.10 at 3:15pm’ 12.13 at 8:30am & 7:30pm; 12.14 at 11:00pm; 12.21 at 4:30pm 12.26 at 4:00pm; 12.27 at 5:25am and 12.30 at 12:30am. It is also on HBOGo.