12 'True Story' Sports Movies That Are Anything But True
Real-life sports heroes are immortalized in cinema all the time, but their stories often need a “touch-up” before making their way to the screen. In order to make real events fit the structure and themes commonly found in sports movies, details are often tweaked for the sake of the narrative.
From turning a coach who was an essential part of the real story into a villain to inventing entirely new people to make the story simpler, changes occur in almost every movie that claims to be “based on a true story.” As a result, some films are far more accurate than others. While changing facts in the name of artistic license is often necessary, altering historical facts, even in a work of fiction, can come off as disingenuous and misleading. This list identifies movies that took major liberties with the true sports stories they were based on.
- Photo: Universal Pictures
While Cinderella Man may have accurately represented the life and boxing career of James Braddock, his famed opponent Max Baer got a different treatment. Framed as heartless and evil, Baer’s character constantly boasts that he has killed two men in the ring, which couldn’t be farther from the truth. While Max Baer did end the lives of two opponents, these events haunted him for the rest of his life. After Frankie Campbell's death, Baer put on an exhibition fight with the proceeds going to Campbell’s widow. He wasn’t a ruthless villain who got off on the destruction of others, but a compassionate athlete who regretted these accidents.
Baer's son has since been adamant about how the events affected his father, and how the film's depiction of him is “wrong and inaccurate.” Max Baer Jr. lamented the damage to his father's legacy: “They turned a good-hearted, fun-loving, friendly and warm human being who hated boxing into Mr. T from Rocky III with no redeeming characteristics.”
The main reason the average American knows that bobsledding is in the Olympics, Cool Runnings is a sports comedy that tells the “true” story of an unlikely competitor at the 1988 Winter Olympics: the Jamaican Bobsledding team. The first to represent a Caribbean nation in the event, the team were trailblazers, even with their 26th-place finish.
The film deviates from historical accuracy quickly, beginning with three sprinters failing to qualify for the Olympics due to a crash, then joining forces to qualify as a bobsledding team. In real life, these were not average athletes manning the sled, but rather athletic military officers who had been hand-picked for the speed. Depictions of certain individuals are also flawed: in Cool Runnings Coach Blitzer is drunk and disgraced, while the real-life coach George Fitch was unhappy with this false characterization. Fitch claimed the plot of the movie is “About one percent … true. What is fact is the crash, everything else is fiction.” In the same interview with ESPN, Fitch called the depiction of the team “an embarrassment,” although he appreciated how it immortalized this otherwise underrepresented team.
- Photo: Warner Bros. Pictures
When The Blind Side first came out in 2009, it captured audience's hearts with the feel-good story of a physically gifted African-American teen named Michael adopted by a wealthy white southern family. Though Michael lacks experience with sports, his natural protective instincts make him an instant asset on the football field. The Tuohy family tirelessly assists Michael in getting his grades up so that he can become one of the most sought-after players for every college team in the country. There’s only one problem with this amazing story of kindness and familial love: the real-life Michael Oher said it is basically a fabrication.
In 2014, Oher published his memoir, I Beat The Odds, explaining the inaccuracies in the film version of his story. For one, Michael had been playing football long before he met the Tuohy family. In the movie, 12-year-old S.J. goes through a long training process with Michael showing him the Xs and Os of how football works, but Oher clarified that he was already familiar with the rules: “I’ve been studying - really studying - the game since I was a kid!” Oher also expressed frustration with how the film “portrayed [him] as dumb,” instead of a student who succeeded once he was given the proper instruction and opportunity to do so. In this light, The Blind Side is far less heartwarming given its less-than-fair portrayal of its protagonist.
- Photo: Warner Bros.
Bloodsport is such an undeniably fun movie-watching experience that it hardly matters that the source material for the film, The Secret Man, is widely speculated to be utterly false. The autobiography of Frank Dux, self-proclaimed underground fighting champion and secret CIA operative, tells a wild tale of his rise through the ranks of martial arts. Bloodsport shows Frank becoming the first Westerner ever invited to an underground fighting competition called Kumite, where he's crowned the champion with a record-setting 56 consecutive knockouts. He even receives a ceremonial sword for this feat.
If Dux’s story sounds too good to be true, it may just be. Dux can’t back up many major events that happened in his life - for example, he claims to have earned a secret Medal of Honor, which military experts have dismissed as highly unlikely. Additionally, Dux does not possess the sword he supposedly won, claiming he sold it to pay for a mission to save children from being trafficked by pirates. Stranger still, his trophy from the Kumite fighting championship that took place in the Bahamas just happened to be made in the San Fernando Valley. With so many suspicious details, the authenticity of any element of Dux's story feels shaky. However, while the real Frank Dux may not be even a fraction of the action hero he alleges himself to be, it doesn’t stop the movie that brought Jean-Claude Van Damme into the spotlight from being an entertaining martial arts flick.
- Photo: TriStar Pictures
Rudy is named by some as one of the most inspirational films ever made, with lovable underdog Rudy Ruettiger at the heart of it. While relating Rudy's difficult and moving journey to play in a Notre Dame college football game, the film took heavy liberties.
The emotional climax comes when the entire team goes into the coach's office one by one to turn in their jerseys, stating they want Rudy to take their spot in the last game of the season. In reality, it was Notre Dame coach Dan Devine's idea to allow Rudy to dress for the game, as well as deciding put him in for the final play. Devine was told by the screenwriter that he had to play “the heavy” in order for the film to work emotionally, and he coach consented to this portrayal. Still, after seeing how villainous he came across in the film, Devine was upset: “The jersey scene is unforgivable. It’s a lie and untrue." It's understandable that Devine, the only person who would give Rudy a chance, was uncomfortable being shown as the number one obstacle standing in Rudy's way.
Additionally, Rudy might not have been as beloved by his teammates as the movie depicts. Hall of Fame QB Joe Montana, who was a member of that Notre Dame team, recounted on Pardon My Take that Rudy was lifted onto the shoulders of “two of the biggest pranksters on the team” and implied that Rudy's treatment by the other players was more sarcastic than uplifting. Though it's easy to see why the filmmakers changed these details to yield a more heartwarming story, the truth puts Rudy's moral victory in a harsher light.
- Photo: Universal Pictures
One of the most common themes appearing throughout sports movies is rivalry. For the sake of drama, these fierce competitions are frequently exaggerated, or the case of Rush, made up from scratch. Telling the story of two of the most famous F-1 drivers to ever race, Niki Lauda and James Hunt, the film positions them in unrelenting competition throughout their careers. The truth is that Lauda and hunt were not only friends, but also roommates back when they were still competing in F-3. Lauda even helped Hunt get back on his feet after he had gone down a dark path of alcoholism and bankruptcy, and the pair remained close until Hunt passed away in 1993.
While it may be a more interesting story to feature two drivers constantly fighting and trying to sabotage each other on the racetrack, director Ron Howard’s version of the story is more fiction than fact. Although Lauda and Hunt both cared deeply about their sport, depicting them as anything other than friends is a misrepresentation of history.