Boys in Blue
Showtime Sports Documentary Films, 2023
📷 : Used with permission, Showtime
Movies and TV shows with heavy subjects
Movies and TV shows about toughness and athletic competition
Okay, I am not a prude, just naïve about some things. Several years after my son graduated high school, I asked out of the blue if his high school football coaches used foul language. He was incredulous that I would ask a question that seemed to him to have such an “obvious” answer. “Yeah,” he said. I also learned that it was not unusual for football coaches to have profanity-laced practices and film sessions. Indeed, this was the norm. The documentary series, Boys in Blue, sent these memories rushing back and I could not help but laugh. So that’s what Brandon meant!
Boys in Blue focuses on the North Community High School football team. Located in Minneapolis, the predominantly Black school sits in the middle of a poor community where sadly, gunfire and violence are all too common. Initially unbeknownst to the talented football players, the coaching staff consists of Minneapolis police officers. This combined with the team’s blue uniforms makes for an apt title for the piece.
In addition to the jovial and open coaching staff, several of the kids are profiled. Hill, the 15-year-old varsity quarterback, is friendly but reserved, and quietly aspires to play professional football. Best friends Meiko and “Rio” are seniors whose goals are to do the same. And “Cash” is a sophomore who is focused on using football to “repay [his] family for everything they’ve done for [him].” The coaches are all in lock step with the kids, as their own goals are to help their players get where they want to go. In this sense, high school football, at least for many of the team members at North High, is a means to an end – but this is not in any way atypical. We know this from the numerous studies conducted by social researchers over the last 30 years.
In The Great American Football Ritual, D.E. Foley writes about the season he spent studying a high school football team in a small Texas town back in 1990. He found that the Friday night “football ritual” played a significant role in how the players, and even the community, viewed themselves and their status relative to non-elite players and towns, respectively, based on the strength of their high school football program. The television series Friday Night Lights, which ran from 2005-2011, was based on H. G. Bissinger’s 2004 book of the same name. The critically acclaimed series was about a high school football team in Odessa, Texas, and its significance to the town’s identity. Like the kids at North Community High School, the players here aspired – even expected – to go to a major university and ultimately play in the National Football League (NFL).
I think a lot about the level of emphasis kids and coaches place on getting to the pros. According to the NCAA, only 7.3% of high school football players play NCAA football, and of those, 1.6% go pro. In raw numbers, that is 254 NFL players out of 1,006,000 high school football athletes each year. Knowing these odds, should young people be given what can be viewed as false hope? Shouldn’t they instead be encouraged to pursue much more realistic, attainable goals?
Admittedly over the years I have waffled on these questions. My family and I have had long, serious, and sometimes contentious debates at the dinner table on this very issue. The viewpoint I settled on is that these are not mutually exclusive paths. Pursuing the dream to play professional sports does not preclude simultaneously preparing for a more traditional career. Given the odds of going pro, grave mistakes are made when the former is heavily – or worse, solely emphasized over the latter.
Still, some might say it is sad that the lofty dreams of the kids in Boys in Blue are not being tempered by the adults around them. Such statements though, reflect a lack of appreciation for the complexity of the kids’ lives. The sadness here should be reserved for the circumstances under which Hill, Rio, Meiko, Cash, and the other kids at North High are forced to learn and live every day. Gunshots are heard throughout much of the documentary’s filming. Coach Adams acknowledges the persistent violence in the surrounding community, adding with great seriousness: “But for some reason, when it’s game time (shaking his head slowly), don’t f*** up my football game. Don’t f*** up my football game.” When gunshots are heard during a talk outdoors with Rio and Meiko, Meiko casually comments: “I ain’t ‘gon lie; that sh** normal for us.”
Much of the research on high school sports focuses on teams in Texas, with a smattering in Florida and New York, and all address things like identity, sense of community, unrealistic aspirations, and significantly, the dangers of concussion. Not to minimize the importance of these issues, but none hone in on the challenging and often dangerous conditions under which students learn, play, and even walk to school every weekday. Perhaps these were not the conditions of the communities that were studied. If so, then sense of community is not the same near North High as it is in the places focused on in many of the studies. So while the coaches in Boys in Blue can be criticized for not tempering the kids’ aspirations for going pro, they should be recognized if not rewarded for what they do provide. These include friendship, yet another family to trust and rely on, and a sense of security for their young players, who are experiencing daily travails that include just trying to stay alive. I was glad to see Peter Berg contextualize the players’ experiences in this work.
Boys in Blue reminds me so much of the HBO series, The Wire, which ran from 2002-2008. Each season focused on a different aspect of the Baltimore community: the police, the streets, the docks, the media, and even a focus on the schools. During that particular season, viewers saw teachers find innovative ways to both connect their students to the work and show that they were there for them during difficult times. This is similar to the role of North High’s coaches in the training and support of their players. Also like The Wire, Boys in Blue delved into local politics and how the actions of leaders often impact students’ lives in unintentional but very real and stressful ways. Indeed, politics in the North High community looms over the fate of all of the boys in blue.
While not technically a film, Berg’s Boys in Blue documentary series checks all the boxes for why it nonetheless fits the indie sector so well. It tells a small story of a high school football team in an urban community, allowing the audience to not only get inside the school, but inside the players and coaches’ lives. The significance of this cannot be understated. Whereas judgments are often made about predominantly Black schools and the kids in them, this work gives us the privilege of an extended firsthand glimpse over four episodes. With this, we can at least begin to form/shape/modify our own ideas about the kids, families, and coaches through a deep and broad lens. At Cup of Tea Critiques, we rarely recommend a production – this will be our first (and perhaps only) exception to this.