As 2022 winds down, Sports Illustrated is looking back at the themes and teams, story lines and through lines that shaped the year.
Performance of the Year: Chanté Adams, A League of Their Own
Thirty years after its release, Penny Marshall’s movie A League of Their Own remains a beloved family classic, and for good reason. But as it’s aged, it’s become more noticeable that the original—save for one scene—ignores the experience of Black women and sidesteps the idea that any player (even one played by Rosie O’Donnell) might be anything but straight.
Still, the movie’s enduring popularity made it ripe for a reboot, one that features a little more edge and a wider scope than the original. Abbi Jacobson and Will Graham have created a series for Amazon Prime that features two equally powerful story lines. One focuses on the members of the all-white Rockford Peaches—their play on the field as well as their romantic entanglements, many of which are intrasquad.
The second features Chanté Adams as Max Chapman, a beautician’s daughter who wants nothing more than to play ball. Adams was initially puzzled when she was offered an audition, given the original’s lack of Black faces. “I definitely remembered the movie,” Adams says. “But I also remembered the one iconic scene of a Black woman in the movie because that was like the 30 seconds that I got to see myself within the film.”
But Adams was intrigued by her character’s arc, which focuses on Max’s relationship with her mother (who disapproves of baseball), her sexuality and simply navigating life as a Black woman in the Midwest in the 1940s. At times baseball seems like an afterthought; Max barely touches a ball until halfway through the eight-episode season.
League doesn’t gloss over the difficulties faced by Max and those in her orbit, but neither does it ignore the flip side of the ugliness. “When you think of Black life during the Jim Crow era, usually the first thing you see when it comes to film and television is pain, struggle and torture on Black bodies,” says Adams. “We wanted to highlight Black love, Black joy and a successful Black family.” (Indeed, maybe the best scene in the series involves the quest of Max and her friend Clance to procure crabs for a crab boil. To be honest, a show about Max and Clance doing nothing but trying to buy seafood would be amazing to watch.)
To learn about the 1940s Black experience, Adams, who grew up in Detroit, delved into her family’s history. (Many of the photos in Max’s house are of Adams’s own relatives.) To prepare for the baseball, she and the rest of the cast were put through two boot camps.
Mild spoiler: The camp was one of the few times that she actually interacted with the actors who play the Peaches. To their credit, Jacobson and Graham never fully merge the two story lines. It’s a perfect Hollywood setup: Black pitcher wins over white players, who then give an impassioned speech to commissioner, who relents and allows her into the league. But that never happened in the 1940s, so it doesn’t happen here.
Instead, the season ends with Jacobson’s character, who has begun a relationship with a teammate, pondering the state of her marriage, and with Max trying to push ahead with baseball without blowing up that family joy.
Like the original, it’s wonderful to watch. Only this time it feels a little fuller, a little more real.
New TV: El Presidente
With World Cup season recently completed, fans looking for a reminder of how abjectly corrupt international soccer is are in luck: They’ve got options! Netflix’s FIFA Uncovered is an exhaustive four-part documentary (which probably should have been a punchier three-part documentary) focusing heavily on the bidding processes for the Cups in Russia and Qatar. It does, however, spend some time on the history of the governing body, highlighting the misdeeds of João Havelange, the longtime FIFA president.
Havelange is at the heart of the second season of Amazon Prime’s terrific El Presidente, a dramatization of the 2015 FIFA corruption scandal created by Armando Bó, the Oscar-winning screenwriter of Birdman. Sick of being looked down upon by the European officials who ran FIFA, the Brazilian-born Havelange mobilized South American and African nations to win the federation’s presidency in 1974. He ran the body for 24 years, growing the World Cup immensely by bringing sponsors on board and aligning himself with the occasional South American junta if need be. And lining his pockets at every turn.
It might not sound like a fun watch, but it is. El Presidente is smart and raucous, a series that shows how FIFA became the mess that it is that without inspiring bouts of hand-wringing from the audience.
• In a year without Ted Lasso, fans were able to satisfy their fish-out-of-water jones with Hulu’s Welcome to Wrexham, a surprisingly touching series about struggling club Wrexham United after it was bought by Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney.
• Journalists are taught not to become the story, but we’ll forgive Marty Smith. The amiable cohost of ESPN’s Marty and McGee, one of the year’s most consistently enjoyable shows, set a world record on Nov. 5 when he drained a 76-foot cornhole shot.
• HBO’s Winning Time frequently went over the top, often to its detriment. But John C. Reilly thrived going broad in a perfect role: Lakers owner Jerry Buss. Reilly brought touches of Boogie Nights and Walk Hard to his performance, which was uniquely brilliant.
New Movie: The Swimmers
As elevator pitches go, you could do a lot worse than Olympic swimmer pulls a boatful of refugees to safety. In 2015, Yusra Mardini and her sister Sara left war-torn Syria. Their journey took them to Turkey, where they crowded onto an overloaded dinghy that broke down en route to the island of Lesbos. Yusra and Sara ended up hauling the boat to safety. That’s just one step on their journey to Germany, where they eventually found asylum and where Yusra was able to resume training for the Olympics. (She competed in 2016 and ’20.)
If there’s a flaw with the new Netflix release The Swimmers, it’s that the film occasionally tries to wring too much out of that story. When Yusra’s pool is hit by a missile strike, we know it’s traumatic without an extended shot of her screaming underwater as an unexploded bomb sinks to the bottom. But that’s largely nitpicking. Real-life sisters Nathalie and Manal Issa—neither of whom knew how to swim before being cast—deliver powerful performances. Director Sally El Hosaini has made a film that is visually striking, and one that it is at times a harrowing drama, a meditation on the plight of oppressed people and a good old-fashioned uplifting sports movie—without succumbing to the familiar tropes that have ruined so many films in each of those genres.
• Baseball fans are certain to eat up the archival footage in Say Hey, Willie Mays! But the best thing about the excellent HBO doc is the Kid himself reminiscing about his career and his place in history. May we all look so spry and happy in our early 90s.
• Oscar winner Mark Rylance delivered the year’s best performance in a sports movie in The Phantom of the Open, the true story of a duffer who conned his way into the 1976 British Open. It’s a funny story, but Rylance brought ample empathy to it.
• It was a good year on the Adam Sandler front. Not only were we not subjected to another Grown Ups sequel, but Sandler’s performance as a wearied basketball scout in Hustle once again served as a reminder of how good he can be when he tries, you know, acting.
New Book: Switching Fields
Ever since the U.S. lost to Trinidad and Tobago in its final qualifier for the 2018 World Cup, keeping the Yanks from making the trip to Russia, barrels of ink have been spilled and countless pixels have been, well, pixelated about what went wrong—how a country that dominates so many sports could be so unsuccessful at the world’s most popular game. Anyone who has followed George Dohrmann on social media knows he’s not shy about sharing his feelings about the state of soccer in the United States. Twitter, of course, is made for 280-character hot takes, and Dohrmann can fling them. But give him the time and space to dig into an issue and, as Switching Fields shows, the Pulitzer Prize–winning investigative reporter has few equals.
Dohrmann’s new book isn’t a postmortem on one particular failed qualifying cycle. Rather, it’s a meditation on what can be done to ensure it doesn’t happen again. Nor is it a series of riffs; it’s doggedly reported and gets at a host of subjects: Why does the U.S. dominate the women’s game but not the men’s? Why has an ethnically diverse nation historically failed to find ways to include players from outside of the suburbs? How has bad youth soccer coaching led to failure at higher levels? Switching Fields makes a strong case that these mistakes can be rectified. The resources are in place and the blueprint is there. Now, coming out of Qatar, it’s a matter of following it.
• Sometimes you do want to see how the sausage is made. Case in point: writer and director Ron Shelton’s wonderful The Church of Baseball, a look at the making of Bull Durham. It’s part Hollywood deep dive and part memoir of worshipping at the pastime’s altar.
• Lots of people will tell you what to do to raise an athlete. In Quarterback Dads, Teddy Greenstein offers something more important: how not to go about being a sports parent. More cautionary tale than how-to, the book is an indispensable eye-opener.
• Nathan Chen is one of the most decorated skaters of all time—and one of the most thoughtful, as evidenced by One Jump at a Time. The memoir tells the story of the sacrifices made on his path to gold in 2022 in Beijing, the city from which his mother emigrated.