The most relevant film about the current state of big-time college football was made 22 years ago and can currently be seen on Showtime. It’s called The Program, and it’s a ridiculously underrated sports movie.
First of all, the cast is loaded. You’ve got Omar Epps in his fake-athlete prime (playing a true freshman tailback with blazing speed), Sports Movie Hall of Famer James Caan (as the morally compromised head ball coach who needs to reach a bowl game to save his job), Halle Berry in her mid-twenties (fresh off Boomerang) as the most gorgeous tutor in the history of the NCAA, a sports bra-wearing Kristy Swanson as a college tennis player with a pretty believable forehand… and a slew of other recognizable faces.
Including, of course, Andrew Bryniarski as Steve Lattimer, who’s more than a little enthusiastic about being named to the starting defense.
All these actors are anchored by the film’s protagonist, Craig “I was Brad Pitt’s brother in A River Runs Through It” Sheffer, playing the ESU Timberwolves’ cocky, gun-slinging Heisman hopeful. (So what if he was 33 years old in real life and had a noticeably receding hairline.)
On the surface, the movie may seem like schlock, but it’s actually quite insightful about the daily pressures of those involved with college football—from players and coaches to the women who fall for them. Directed and co-written by David S. Ward, who also made Major League and wrote The Sting, it’s got everything you’d want in a piece of sports fiction and more: career-ending knee injuries, steroid and alcohol abuse, illiterate linebackers, deadbeat dads, a near-rape scene, a full-size cardboard cutout of an overhyped quarterback being set on fire in a shower, real college football teams like Michigan, Iowa and Georgia Tech… even a cameo by Lynn Swann.
It’s also got controversy. Originally there was a scene in the movie (and, more importantly, the trailer) in which Sheffer and some of his teammates lie down in the middle of a road at night as cars speed by them, to demonstrate they’re fearless. But after teens imitated this in real life and were injured or killed, the scene was pulled from the movie.
Even without this sequence, the movie is jam-packed with action and drama that would seem completely over the top… if it didn’t actually happen on a hundred campuses every season.
As we all know on some level, the melding of football with higher education is like trying to fit a square peg in a round helmet, and nothing demonstrates the beautiful idiocy of this better than The Program. It’s a pleasure as guilty as college football itself.