ESPN 30 for 30: I Hate Christian Laettner (2015)

Directed by Rory Karpf

I Hate Christian Laettner presents a bit of a conundrum for me in that it features a famed sports figure, whose limelight came before my time (I was alive, just too young to care/remember); explores an integral aspect to the sporting world, hate; and is directed by a filmmaker, Rory Karpf, whose output for this series with which I have yet to connect with. Taking this formula, you can somewhat accurately project my response to the film. While Karpf is exploring some essential aspects of sports, and what makes sports such an easy thing to root for, and against, he is also fumbling about with his own biases and in a time period/sports figure I really could care less about (which I admit is my own perspective shortcoming and not that of the film or the director).

So Christian Laettner, right? If you are a fan of sports you probably have a player or team you root for that everyone else hates. Or perhaps you have a team/player that you may even say that you “love” to hate. For me, as an Ohio State fan, the answer is obvious. “That Team Up North”; most others may know them as the University of Michigan (though most OSU fans refuse to even speak their name). But the case of Christian Laettner is somewhat different because he was not a team, he was a player. So what Karpf is setting out to explore is why, if we don’t necessarily hate the team associated with a player, do we hate the player? For instance, I hate Tom Brady, but more for him having gone to Michigan than any particular, individual aspects (though “deflategate” is a bit pressing). So for many, Duke may be part of the equation, but certainly Laettner himself brings enough to the table to hate on his own.

Having ragged on Karpf enough already in this review, I must say I appreciate his ambition with this film, seeking a more universal explanation of why fans hate players the way they do by exploring a case study, and perhaps the most prominent case study in the field: Christian Laettner. Any sports fan will be able to connect with the sentiment put forward here by plenty of talking heads. Karpf explores this hatred by splitting the film into the five prongs of Christian Laettner hate: Privilege, White, Bully, Greatness, and Looks. Each has their annoying attributes, elements that incite rage if held by an opposing player and not a player on your team. The film’s greatest strength is found in its ability to humanize the villain.

By making Laettner at least relatable, Karpf deflects some hate towards the man. Laettner’s depiction in the film is that of a hard working student from a middle class family that, yes, has good looks, and yes, has somewhat of a temper, and yes, remains cocky enough to instill at least a little hate in any viewer. The film does not absolve Laettner of his past crimes, it reveals them as part of his character. The film does not try to tell us we shouldn’t hate Laettner, instead it looks to find out why we hate him, so that we can not only better understand the players we hate, but so we can also better understand our own biases. What does the sports fan bring to the equation of hate?

Sports are a roller coaster ride from start to finish. As Wide World of Sports put it, it’s the “Thrill of victory and the agony of defeat”. I think this lends itself to explaining the many nights of lost sleep, unable to rest, wired full of adrenaline of either victory or defeat. So while Karpf does a good job of investigating why we as a culture seem to band together to hate a certain player or team, it raises another question I don’t even think it knew it was asking, and therefore never attempted to answer: why do we care so much about sports in the first place? I think the answer to that question is far more complex than the 30 for 30 series aspires to, but it is one that, I think, drives the series success, just as it has ESPNs.

**1/2 – Average


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