ESPN 30 for 30: Year of the Scab (2017)

Directed by John Dorsey

In 1987, the Washington Redskins won the Super Bowl, their second of three under legendary head coach Joe Gibbs. And yet, most of the players that won a ring that day didn’t play in three of the teams regular season games. Meanwhile, the players that did plays those games, ended up without a ring at all. The Replacements is an admittedly forgettable, but fun, movie about a ragtag bunch of replacement football players, led by Keanu Reeves washed up QB Shane Falco and coached by legendary actor Gene Hackman, playing in place of professional players who are on strike. They say truth is stranger than fiction, and while that may not be the case here, replacement players, or “scabs” as they were called as a slur, really did take the field in the NFL in 1987. And those that suited up for the Redskins proceeded to go 3-0 in their higher paid counterparts stead.

While I am an avid lover of the game of football, I am not an expert in its past and history, such as I am in baseball (in large part thanks to Ken Burns’ incomparable Baseball documentary – football lacking its own comprehensive history documentary). I knew of strikes and work stoppages in the leagues past. I knew of the Redskins prowess in the 1980s. I did not, however, know the full story of the replacement players which helped the team win three regular season games on their way to winning a championship. In its latest 30 for 30, ESPN has commissioned this story to be told, the forgotten replacements who can claim three beautiful NFL games, three victories for the Redskins, but no championship ring. Football is a business, and when the business side rears its head, it’s not always pretty.

In retrospect, it may be easy to say, “Wow, what an incredible thing the replacements did winning three games, including one over the Dallas Cowboys after most of Dallas’ star players had crossed the picket line! It makes no sense that they wouldn’t have been recognized and loved by the organization, rewarded with Super Bowl rings.” But what John Dorsey’s documentary manages to accomplish is perspective. We see this story in perspective, but in reality it took place in the heat of a work stoppage, in the heat of a playoff run, in the heat of a multi-million dollar business decision. Sure, the owners appreciated what the replacement players did for the organization, they did sign the players for three games after all (and subsequently released them), but they also know the NFL is a business, one which fuels itself on its top of the line product, which includes popular, exciting, and highly paid, high profile players. Not replacements.

Theirs was a thankless job. Literally. And yet as the film progresses, taking its time interviewing each former replacement player, each one looks back on their brief time as an NFL player fondly. They were given a chance to live out their dream, which they may have otherwise never had the chance to pursue. Tony Robinson was literally let out of jail to pursue his dream. He was forced to turn himself in after his release to finish his jail sentence. What they did on the football field was special though, and timeless. They were a ragtag team of replacement players, led by rejects and jailbirds under a legendary head coach in Joe Gibbs. As a result of them living their dream just long enough, the dream of the multi-million dollar athletes became a reachable dream when they returned to a divisional lead in the standings.

Director John Dorsey sidesteps the issues which largely caused the strike in the first place, namely free agency, focusing instead on the story of the “scabs”. As he should, since this is a film about them, not the full-time players, but a separate film could be made about professional sports relationships between owners and players. That business side may seem boring to some, but I think could make for a fascinating study. Year of the Scab is not a film which inspires much. It’s not revolutionary documentary filmmaker, or even one of the better 30 for 30 installments, but it remains solidly entertaining and interesting. If nothing else, ESPN continues to find good stories to tell within this medium, which is half the battle. When they find a filmmaker as ambitious as Ezra Edelman when he made O.J.: Made in America, that is where the series will make a name for itself.

*** – Good

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