ESPN 30 for 30: Pony Excess (2010)

Directed by Thaddeus D. Matula

Football seems to have been the favored subject during the ESPN anniversary series 30 for 30, which kind of only makes sense as these stories are all taken from the 30 years in which ESPN was in existence and it is hard to argue that in America football has been the biggest sport in those years, professional, college and high school. This particular one deals with college, and a short lived dynasty that was before my time, so I will have no experience to pool any opinion from. That dynasty was the Southern Methodist University Mustangs and their NCAA best record from 1981-1984. However, they left just as quickly as they rose to domination in the hard fought recruiting ground of Texas, succumbing to the will of the NCAA and their newly adopted “Death Penalty”.

Recently, a major discussion in college sports, most notably football, is the topic of a playoff system to be able to find one true National Champion without debate. SMU would have perhaps benefited from this proposed system in its heyday given they were the most dominate team and the only to go undefeated in 1982, yet were denied a National Championship. But the other hot button issue is something the SMU Mustangs benefited from, but also what ultimately burnt their program to the ground: paying players. I could write an entire opinion piece on whether to pay players or not, but I should save that debate for another time, but I must comment somehow. Basically, I can see both sides: these players bring in millions to the program and are restricted from providing for their often low income families for another 4 years; but they are also provided with a college education, free of charge with their scholarships, which is payment and an investment to their future itself.

But what I do object to is lying and cheating, and that is exactly what SMU did. Skip Bayless comments in the film, quoting somebody whose name escapes me, “Show me a program that wins, and I’ll show you a program that cheats.” And I have to believe this statement is nothing but 100% accurate, as cynical as that may sound, but the state of college athletics, and in particular college football, seems to be fairly unsteady with the struggle for revenue and conference shifting, all for the sake of football. So what happens to all the other people at the universities and the student body? Well, ask SMU when it had to face the death penalty.

They lost their Saturday tradition and lots of revenue, meanwhile the players, coaches, boosters and administration who had overseen the wrongdoings were long gone, with no real punishment on their ledgers. This is the main point the interviewee experts provide for the death penalty being too severe, and the reasoning they give for it probably never going to be doled out again. I protest. If the NCAA never gives the Death Penalty out again under the current rules and structures, the organization will crumble under a mess of crooked, back room dealing, lying, cheating scandals because there would be no true threat. The Death Penalty sets an example and sends a message, as crippling as it can be, but Universities exist as institutions of higher learning. Sports are great, wonderful, and any other superlative you can think of, but it should be an added privilege and bonus for schools to have great programs, or programs at all.

So that brings me to the film itself and its merits from a composition perspective. Thaddeus D. Matula, the film’s director, delivers a very generic, straightforward, chronological presentation of the events that unfolded, which is similar to the majority of the documentaries included in this series. That’s fine because that was what the series was for, to simply capture the moments and stories of the last 30 years in sports. There seemed to be no lofty goals of groundbreaking filmmaking or investigative, impactful documentation. But what the film doesn’t tell you is its clear bias upfront. For those paying close attention, and doing minor research afterwards, Thaddeus D. Matula is the son of an SMU faculty member and himself the product of it’s film school. The film’s conclusion wears his regret and opinion on its sleeve with no real counterpoint to balance it out. The event is significant, but the documentary was slight.

**1/2 – Average

Adam Kuhn

Adam Kuhn was born and raised in Columbus, Ohio, where he attended Saint Charles Preparatory School. He studied History at the University of Cincinnati, where he was a contributor of The News Record, the twice-weekly, independent student news organization. He has been writing film reviews and blogging since 2009.

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