ESPN 30 for 30: Catholics vs. Convicts (2016)

Directed by Patrick Creadon

Much of the drama of sports comes from the idea of the “haves” and the “have nots”. They come in many different forms, but at the end of the day the best underdog stories are not only the most popular, but also the most dramatic and inspiring. University of Miami versus Notre Dame is not inspiring, however, but it is still a story of the haves and have nots. In 1988, the team college football teams squared off in what has become known as “Catholics vs. Convicts”, in large part thanks to a famous t-shirt that was illegeally created and distributed by a group of Notre Dame students who had taken offense not only to Miami’s unnecessarily running up the score in their previous meeting in 1985, but also to Miami’s tremendous swagger and reputation as “bad boys” on and off the field.

The phrase has been debated quite a bit since, especially since it uses a rather unfortunate descriptor for the Miami Hurricanes, “Convicts”. What all started as a harmless joke exploded way more than any of the students could have imagined. One of the students was now filmmaker Patrick Creadon. In returning to this game, director Patrick Creadon attempts to tell not only the dramatic story of the game and rivalry between the two teams, but also the little known back story to the infamous moniker that now persists whenever the two teams are mentioned in the same breath. Notre Dame is of course a prestigious, Catholic, and predominately white university with a rich football history. Miami on the other hand, as chronicled in another 30 for 30 film, The U, does not have a rich history, is made up of predominately poor African Americans, but plays with a sharp swagger which gives them an incredible edge. The haves and the have nots.

The history of the two teams, and ultimately the game itself seem to take a backseat to the more personal, unknown story of the t-shirts, which is a nice change of pace from most of these types of films from the 30 for 30 series. However, by not focusing on the game as much, the recap felt a little bit of a letdown. Creadon tries a balancing act where he gets the best of both worlds, the game feature recap and the personal, quirky t-shirt story. What ultimately happens in the outcome is a little bit of a mess where neither aspect feels as complete or polished as I am cure Creadon would have hoped for. Getting to know his friends, Pat Walsh, the t-shirt mastermind whose dream it was to walk-on to the Irish basketball team, and Joe Fredrick, the captain of the Irish basketball team, is where the film is at its best, exploring this small story in connection to the larger, more familiar sports event (the game). But it’s not enough to fill the entire film.

I wonder whether this film might not be a little better, a little more taut in its storytelling if it were actually a little bit shorter. At 102 minutes, the film spans too much for its own focus, but at 75 minutes, let’s say, it may have been a little more succinct, to the point, and ultimately more engaging overall. By bloating the film with needless back story on the football teams, the connections between the coaches, the past successes and failures, it detracts from the t-shirt story and the drama of Pat Walsh and his circumstances surrounding the t-shirt in question. That is the true drama, and yet Creadon sacrifices it for the requisite game recap. I keep coming back to the fact that this is a film that tries to be two things and as a result fails to be either, and what a shame that is.

At this point, I am not surprised to start seeing some of the 30 for 30 films overlap, as the game is touched on in The U, as I mentioned earlier, and even a game from earlier in Notre Dame’s season against Michigan is chronicled in the short film Student/Athlete. Both of those film are more successful and engaging than Catholics vs. Convicts because they deliver on their premise by maintaining a precise focus throughout. Catholics vs. Convicts fails to find its focus, resulting in a rather average, standard, and meandering documentary that, like many other films in this series, depends on the viewer’s affinity for the subject and story to draw them in, as opposed to earning the interest by telling a compelling, human story that is undeniably dramatic.

**1/2 – Average

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