'30 for 30: Brian and the Boz' Captures the Conflicting Incarnations of the NCAA

Brian and the Boz allows viewers to understand the contexts of star Sooner Brian Bosworth's life, including how the NCAA treats its players.

30 for 30: Brian and the Boz

Director: Thaddeus D. Matula
Cast: Brian Bosworth, Max Bosworth, Barry Switzer, Brent Musburger, John DiPasquale, Gary Gibbs, Spencer Tillman, Toby Keith, Ice Cube
Rated: NR
Studio: ESPN Films
Year: 2014
US Release Date: 2014-10-28 (ESPN)

Stepping onto the football field at the University of Oklahoma was a transformative moment for Brian Bosworth. As he recalls it, the moment was rife with energy, expectation, and all kinds of pride. "It was the highest high you can ever have," he says, "I threw up a little, I might have swallowed it back. You don't want to puke on the field."

No, you don't. Still, as typical as this observation may sound, it is vintage Bosworth. Which is to say, it's self-deprecating and self-celebratory, self-aware and a little clueless too. In its multiplicity, it's an apt summary of the story of 30 for 30: Brian and the Boz, a documentary that lets Bosworth explain his alter ego, the Boz, and also holds him at least partly accountable for it. The other folks accountable are other speakers in the film, including coaches and players and sports writers, people who watched, criticized, and made money off the spectacle of the Boz, who now look back and see the trouble that spectacle meant for Bosworth, but also exploited it at the time.

At first, it seems the film offers the former linebacker a chance to sort through his own history, to articulate what he sees as the difference between Brian and the crazy character who would entertain and irritate, rally teammates and rile opponents, propel and hijack Bosworth's post-college career. To this end, he worries about his father, Foster Bosworth. That the film manages this look back through an awkward staging of Brian and his son Max, not quite conversing, and certainly performing, is at once predictable and charming, a framework that suggests that families are ever toxic and necessary, bracing and horrifying.

Brian Bosworth was, of course, a star linebacker in high school in Texas, before he took up his mantle with the Sooners. At the University of Oklahoma, he was a phenomenon even before the Boz appeared. While Bosworth suggests this appearance was unbidden, that's as much a performance as any Boz might have managed back in the day. The film opens with Bosworth and his teenage son Max en route to a storage facility, where Bosworth's mother has stowed away all kinds of memorabilia, including boxes of notebooks, clippings, trophies, and other souvenirs assembled by his father, Foster, a tough military man whose expectations of his son were, in hindsight, crushing. Perusing one of his dad's notebooks listing numbers of sacks and such, Bosworth laments, "He kept his own personal stats. Why can't you just watch the game and be okay with it?"

It's a good question, but while it implies an answer (Bosworth's difficult relationship and set of expectations and disappointments with his father led to a difficult relationship and set of expectations and disappointments with his coach at Oklahoma, Barry Switzer), this answer is reductive, and pseudo-psychological, and doesn’t get at the many institutional frameworks in play, from the US military to the NCAA to the football entertainment industry. The film doesn't detail all of these frameworks, but it does acknowledge their influences.

So, as often as Brian might recall Foster or Switzer in a teary or angry interview here, or as much as his own performance with Max in the storage facility, and a photo or two. All the Sooner fans, coaches, boosters, opponents, and teammates do the same, including the man whom Bosworth embraced as another dad, Switzer. Here, as he remembers Bosworth as a tremendous player and a decent kid, Switzer also complains now about the Boz's escalating antics, his steroid use, his post-college acting (in the movie Stone Cold) and acting out (in, for instance, The Boz: Brian Bosworth, his 1988 book sensationalizing what went wrong at Oklahoma, including gossip about drug use).

Switzer, some of Bosworth's teammates, and assorted reporters take their turns s recall the notorious instance when Bosworth, suspended from the Orange Bowl because he was -- Switzer phrases it -- "popped" for steroid use, and came onto the field with his teammates with a homemade t-shirt condemning the NCAA as the "National Communists Against Athletes." It was, all agree, including Bosworth, a dub move, drawing attention to him and away from the team, revealing his egomania and also his bad judgment for a life in football going forward. But some observers, including Rick Reilly, note that he was also, in his way, "ahead of his time," making visible the hypocrisy and the abuses of the NCAA even then, and now that the NCAA is fighting lawsuits for its exploitations of college athletes, we might rethink Bosworth, and even the Boz, who was apparently the guy who made and wore the t-shirt. As Dale Hansen, another sports journalist says, "It might have been the one honest thing he said and we really should have listened to him when he said it."

With this, Brian and the Boz becomes another story. While the film traces Bosworth's personal and professional travails, and allows interview subjects, from Bosworth to Switzer, to recall their own histories, their grievances and their judgments, it also allows viewers to understand other contexts. If the history and the future of the NCAA are still in process, if they are being revised and reframed, we can yet see here, that Bosworth was, in his way, right, and that many other individuals and institutional elements have yet to be represented, in all their many conflicting incarnations.

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