The best ESPN documentaries of 2022 – and why you should watch them

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Join us as we take a look back at the best ESPN documentaries 2022 had to offer.

Sports are called America’s “civil religion,” and that may be the case for many people. But while the idea that sport has somehow filled the void that the spiritual community once filled in our lives is a nice thought, the sentiment is probably overblown. Yes, sports provide a meeting place, a specific focus (at least if you’re following a team), and inspire many, many prayers. In my opinion, sport is more like pop music. A small elite can participate and attract the attention of millions. Some fans build their schedules and countless conversations around the topic, and for many (like me) it’s just… there. On the radio, in the background on TV – omnipresent.

If sport is pop music, then ESPN is 30 for 30 is the new behind the music. Even when they covered a band I didn’t like, I was smitten. I never liked Motley Crüe. Does that mean I skipped her episode when it came up? Not once. (I know everything about this band except what their music sounds like.)

ESPN’s 30 for 30, named after the 30 documentaries ESPN planned to make to mark its 30th anniversary of sports coverage, started in 2009. Something was going well because it’s now 2022 and they’ve produced 117 films. Today we look back at the best moments from ESPN documentaries of 2022.

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The Best ESPN Documentaries of 2022:

1. Shark

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Aired: April 19, 2022

If most other sports are pop music, golf on TV is smooth jazz. Or so I thought. 30 for 30 has a knack for taking small moments and fulfilling them with extremely high stakes. Or maybe sports like baseball and golf have a knack for building up such tensions themselves.

Enter Greg “The Shark” Norman. Norman is an Australian golfer who, after learning golf from his mother as a teenager, went on to become the world’s top golfer. Most of the document shows Norman as a young man holding up trophies from places like the British Open, then inevitably shots of Norman as an older man looking sad at the Masters. What went wrong? Why did Norman fight so hard to earn a green jacket? That explores this hour.

Why you should see it:

Was Norman a collar? Did he let the pressure get to him? No one seems to think he’s overrated. If you’ve ever felt like you screwed up at a pivotal moment in your career, this documentary is for you.


2. The Tuck Rule

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Aired: February 6, 2022

If you’re old enough to remember the NFL before the red flag (and missed it when the umpires didn’t stop play to review a game), this episode is of 30 for 30 would probably be a torture to see. In fact, if you don’t like Tom Brady, this episode could be torture.

Before deflategate, before spygate, there was the “tuck rule” controversy. Honestly, it’s not much of a controversy since it was in the NFL rulebook from 1999 until it was banned in 2013. Still, that didn’t stop players and fans from discussing a single-down from a 2002 Patriots/Raiders game and checking it was the Zapruder movie.

Why you should see it:

Rather than setting up the ante of a tense battle between two great players, this fun (or frustrating, depending on your perspective) doc puts Tom Brady and cornerback Charles Woodson in the same room to discuss the infamous game. They bicker and laugh and never quite agree to disagree. More interesting, however, is the final observation that without this piece there might not be a Tom Brady as we know him today. A fun watch and definitely one of the best ESPN documentaries of 2022.


3. The greatest mixtape of all time

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Aired: May 31, 2022

After all, music and sport collide, as we have always suspected. This documentary might be the lowest-stakes hour in the series, but that doesn’t make it any less enjoyable to watch.

In the ’90s, there was an alternative to the NBA that connoisseurs viewed with the same awe as pro basketball: streetball. Instead of counting triple-doubles and arguing about which player is the GOAT, streetball fans tuned in for the flashy moves and highlight reels. One day, DJ Set Free added a bunch of hip-hop tracks that perfectly matched the big moments in the games, and the rest is history.

Why you should see it:

Well, there’s quite a lot to correct for the mistakes made by releasing a volume without paying the players (or even telling them it’s featured), but still, most of those mistakes are corrected. (Also, I personally now have a better understanding of where the AND1 shirts and tournaments came from.) A great story with great music. When we get to mixtape number 4 we have Common, Outkast, Snoop and Killer Mike on the tapes. Chef’s kiss.


4. Dream on

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Aired: June 15, 2022

A three part series on the trials of the 1996 US women’s Olympic team whose gold medal winning event eventually led to the formation of the WNBA. Knowing all this information might sound like a spoiler, but this documentary serves as proof of how hard winning an Olympic gold medal is and how much depended on the team’s success.

A great thing about 30 for 30 it never shies away from explosive topics. The OJ Simpson episodes do not attempt to hide the resentment of the black community during the trial, nor does the filmmaker allow audiences to forget Simpson’s desire to “transcend” race. While Team USA’s history isn’t nearly as bleak, it does raise the question of why the weakest link in the roster – the one who gets the most media attention – just so happens to be white and straight. The images of the players are becoming as important as the victory itself, which none of the women take lightly. Race, class, gender, sexism and homophobia collide in this series with a grueling schedule and a borderline abusive coach.

Why you should see it:

There are moments in it keep on dreaming related to The last Dance, where Michael Jordan knows what an idiot he is on the court but also says he’s won championships with it. Was Tara VanDerveer’s tactic necessary to earn the team a gold medal? Did she have to put pressure on certain players by going to the press and threatening to cut them? We will never know. What we do know is that the sacrifices these young women made and their perseverance made the entire world appreciate women’s basketball. A great watch.


5. Jeanette Lee vs.

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Aired: December 13, 2022

Speaking of documentaries that take the race head-on, director Ursula Liang follows Jeanette Lee (aka “The Black Widow”), an Asian-American from the predominantly black neighborhood of Crown Heights, Brooklyn, who became the number one billiards player in the world became In the 1990s.

Jeanette Lee overcame her scoliosis and feelings of being an outsider as the daughter of Korean immigrants at age 12 and turned to drugs as a teenager. Eventually she found billiards and became the best in the world, thanks in part to billiard halls that became popular in New York in the ’80s.

Why you should see it:

It’s a great story! It’s also worth checking out to see how calm and cool The Black Widow demolishes her opponents. (And the trick shots are fun, too.)


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Jaclyn Diaz

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