Commentary

The Mag: Nerds level sports movie playing field

How the socially awkward and outcast have shoved the oppresive jocks into a locker

Updated: November 18, 2010, 12:44 PM ET
By Gabe Delahaye | Videogum.com

ESPN The Magazine Film IssueIllustration by Sean McCabeWith nerds shrugging off sports movies, we're left with new characters to root for.

There are two types of people: jocks and nerds.* And they've been at war since the jocks left the cave to hunt the mighty mastodon while the nerds stayed behind to invent the wheel, just to prove they could.

Nowhere has this split been better documented than in sports movies, which forsake metaphor to get right to who won. The jocks have long been dominant, but their perch is no longer secure. As the Elf Queen Galadriel, in that famous hiking film "The Lord of the Rings," says, "The world has changed. I can feel it in the movies."

For years, nerds yearned to be jocks. Take TBS' Sunday afternoon favorite "Lucas," about a nerd who sees a spot on the football team as the key to social acceptance, not realizing there's no place on the team for a skinny dweeb. It's a timeworn quandary: bow-shouldered outcast seeks solace in the very thing that is bent on destroying him. The Marx Brothers in "Horse Feathers." Ralph Macchio in "The Karate Kid." Michael J. Fox in "Teen Wolf." Ralph Macchio in "The Karate Kid Part II." Everyone in "The Bad News Bears." In 1963's "The Nutty Professor," dweeby Julius Kelp is so tired of being harassed by jocks he creates a serum that turns him into one.

But guess what, jerks -- er, jocks. The nerds have their own thing going on now. Nerds get girls. Nerds get rich.** Mark Zuckerberg doesn't have time to try out for the rowing team because he's too busy stealing -- oh, right, they settled -- its members' billion-dollar ideas.

It's not clear when this shift occurred, but it was probably around the time that having an iPod became cooler than having a letter jacket. So where does this leave the jocks? No one wants to cheer for guys whose only flaw is they may not be quite as good as the guys from the next town over. We much prefer the fat kid with fudge on his shirt scoring the winning goal. We root for him because we want to believe, despite our own failings (social, intellectual, emotional, fudge-based), we too can enjoy total victory over people who are, let's be frank, better. But now that the nerds aren't even interested in playing the game, sports-film underdogs are life's real underdogs, and real underdogs are too messy. Think Randy "The Ram" Robinson in "The Wrestler." Think Maggie Fitzgerald and Frankie Dunn in "Million Dollar Baby." Think Kenny Powers in "Eastbound & Down."***

Know what the jocks need to do to get back on top? Join the nerds. The nerds couldn't play sports because they couldn't play sports, but the opposite doesn't hold. Jocks can get book smart. They can treat people kindly. Quit the Kobra Kai. Vote for Pedro. Stop wearing Tap Out hoodies. Build it, so they will come. A jock-nerd hybrid would be unbeatable. So unbeatable. So Texas forever, Six.


* FOR MORE ON THIS SUBJECT, PLEASE SEE JOHN HODGMAN'S SPEECH AT THE RADIO & TV CORRESPONDENTS' DINNER, JUNE 2009

** OF COURSE, REAL NERDS ARE STILL NERDS. AMERICA'S HIGH SCHOOLS (AND COLLEGES AND TECH START-UPS AND WORLD OF WARCRAFT CHAT ROOMS) ARE FILLED WITH THE SOCIALLY AWKWARD AND PERPETUALLY OSTRACIZED. NEVERTHELESS, NERD AS CULTURAL ARCHETYPE HAS BEEN ELEVATED TO "POTENTIALLY COOL PERSON IN HIS/HER OWN WAY" FROM ITS FORMER STATUS AS "UNIVERSALLY REVILED LOSER."

*** "EASTBOUND & DOWN" IS TECHNICALLY NOT A MOVIE, BUT DON'T BE A NERD ABOUT THIS.