I imagine that most people would not guess this from reading my blog, but I am a big sports fan. Growing up near Chicago, I rooted for all the city’s professional sports teams, though my love of the Cubs meant little room for the other baseball club, the White Sox. Baseball was, and still is, king for me. That does not mean that I was not a Bears fan. Somewhere there is a picture of a roughly eight-year-old me bedecked in full Bears pads and helmet, Walter Payton’s number thirty-four jersey displayed proudly front and back, and me in a three-point stance. Baseball will always be my favorite sport, but football does have a big place in my heart. I will have to pay extra close attention in the coming years, too, as I had a cousin drafted in the second round as a wide receiver by the Indianapolis Colts. They are not going to take the place of my Bears, though I will be pulling for them every Sunday. If they play the Bears, I hope my cousin has a great game but in a losing effort. Home is still where my true loyalties will always lie. What I do not hope is that during his career there is nothing that resembles anything like what you see in the 1999 Oliver Stone film Any Given Sunday.
What Any Given Sunday does not feature are real teams from the National Football League (NFL). Given its presentation of what takes place in the world of professional football, I am guessing you will understand why the NFL did not grant licensing permission. What you do have are the fictional Miami Sharks of the equally fictional Associated Football Franchises of America (AFFA), a squad headed by the previously successful coach Tony D’Amata (Al Pacino). In the first game of the season, their star quarterback who helped lead them to many victories, Jack “Cap” Rooney (Dennis Quaid), is injured and forced to sit out. The second-string quarterback suffers a similar fate. Enter Willie “Steamin” Beamen (Jamie Foxx). Despite some visible nervousness, in the form of throwing up on the sidelines and not knowing all the plays, his performance gains the confidence of some of the onlookers. This includes team owner and general manager Christina Pagniacci (Cameron Diaz), who had taken over when her father passed away. Coach D’Amata remains loyal to Cap, and fixed on running the kind of offense that they tailored to their starter’s strengths. Christina favors Willie, and playing to his abilities, as does the Sharks’ offensive coordinator and heir apparent to Coach D’Amata, Nick Crozier (Aaron Eckhart). This feeds into Willie’s lingering distrust of coaches, something he picked up while playing for other AFFA teams who wanted to switch positions. As a result, he often changes the plays in the huddle that Coach D’Amata calls, furthering dividing the two players. What further complicates the situation is that the team enjoys a moderate degree of success, which goes to Willie’s head. The first crack in his personal life comes from his long-time girlfriend Vanessa Struthers (Lela Rochon). Willie’s growing popularity leads to indiscretions on his part, which Vanessa finds out from the wives of other players. Speaking of his teammates, Willie’s increasing prima-donna behavior alienates them as well, on defense and offense. This comes to a head when the Sharks’ leader on defense, Luther “Shark” Lavay (Lawrence Taylor), saws Willie’s car in half at a party. While the team slips further into turmoil, Coach D’Amata begins to wonder if whether or not he has what it takes to lead a professional football team. His attempts to reach Willie go unheeded, as when Coach D’Amata’s invitation to his private home goes unappreciated by Willie, and devolves into an argument. There are also lingering feelings of loyalty to Cap. Against Christina’s wishes, Coach D’Amata insists that the veteran will be the starter once healthy, no matter how Willie plays. Cap is doing his best to recuperate, but he can tell that this latest injury took a toll on him, particularly in regards to his brain. His injuries have him contemplating retirement, but he is convinced to come back for the final game. In it, Cap plays magnificently, and a repentant Willie watches intently from the sidelines. When Cap is forced to leave the game because of getting hurt again, Willie goes back into the huddle. His teammates look upon this with some trepidation, but he apologizes for his behavior and executes the offense as Coach D’Amata calls it. It results in a thrilling, last second victory for the Sharks and advancing in the playoffs. After the game, Coach D’Amata and Willie seem to mend their fences, with Willie talking about how he had learned a great deal from watching Cap play. The proceedings do not end with them winning the championship, however. At the end of the season press conference, with his job being taken by Nick, Coach D’Amata announces that he is leaving to coach another team and that he is taking Willie with him.
My description of Any Given Sunday might seem innocuous enough. What I did not talk about were the darker, more disturbing aspects of life as a football player that are shown. This includes Coach D’Amata’s relationship with a prostitute named Mandy Murphy (Elizabeth Berkley), their running back Julian “J-Man” Washington (LL Cool J) doing cocaine off the posterior of another young lady at the same party where Willie’s car is destroyed, and a number of similar such instances that need not be enumerated. I can be accused of being a holier-than-thou Catholic, though I try not to come off as too sanctimonious. I realize that there is a whole other side of life out there in which I do not engage because my Faith tells me that aspects of it are sinful. This includes sexual promiscuity and doing drugs. At the same time, these are the obvious ones for this Catholic reviewer to examine. One that is a little trickier to make a call on is the behavior of team physician Dr. Harvey Mandrake (James Woods). Often at Christina’s direction, he gives players medicines simply for the purpose of getting them back on the field, regardless of the effects on their long-term health. This includes ignoring symptoms related to brain injury as displayed by Shark. God did not make us invulnerable, though training as a professional athlete can help mitigate some of the risks. At the same time, football is a brutal sport, and the average career for a player in the NFL is less than four years. A primary reason for why this is the case is because of injury. The film does offer somebody who understands these dangers in the form of the team’s internist, Dr. Ollie Powers (Mathew Modine). He discovers what Dr. Mandrake is doing, and his reporting of these activities to Coach D’Amata lead to Dr. Mandrake being summarily fired. Yet, it seems that Dr. Powers falls for the same traps as Dr. Mandrake when he gives Shark more than the prescribed dose of a painkiller. As such, no one is above reproach in this film.
What Any Given Sunday attempts to do is to give a supposedly “honest” look at the NFL. When I think about this in regards to my cousin, it can be a little worrisome. I know his mom worries, and I pray for them all that he remains healthy. At the same time, some comfort can be taken from the fact that things have changed a bit since 1999. Brain injuries are still a concern, but they are taken much more seriously than they were over twenty years ago. With all this in mind, including the extremely objectionable material in the film, I would not recommend it to any audience. In the meantime, please join me in praying for my cousin to have a successful career.