Just in time for the Super Bowl, ESPN is delivering their latest 30 for 30 documentary, Al Davis vs. The NFL, which focuses on the outspoken late owner of the NFL's Raiders who moved the team from Oakland to Los Angeles and back (they now reside in glitzy Las Vegas), and feuded openly with the NFL's then-commissioner, Pete Rozelle. True to form, it's yet another 30 for 30 that tells a hyper-specific sports story that has maybe been forgotten or overlooked. It's also one more example of the show's historical fondness for the NFL. The franchise has made eighteen docs about the NFL in one way or another, with some true classics in there (and a few duds as well). On the occasion of this latest doc, we decided to rank the other seventeen NFL-themed 30 for 30s, all of which can be streamed on ESPN+.
Season 3, Episode 23
Air date: February 1, 2018
The Bills in this case are Bill Parcells and Bill Belichick, who won two Super Bowls together as head coach and defensive coordinator, respectively, of the New York Giants, then spent the 1990s in a bizarre dance where the latter kept trying to succeed the former as a head coach only for circumstance or ego to get in the way. Director Ken Rodgers gets the big coup as he puts Parcells and Belichick in the same room, but neither one of them is all that interested in hashing anything out, and the letdown of that takes the air out of the whole thing.
Season 1, Episode 14
Air date: May 11, 2010
Ice Cube directs and narrates this story about the relationship between the Los Angeles Raiders and the L.A. hip-hop scene in the late 80s and early 90s, especially Cube's N.W.A. His narration is lively, and we get to see him throw a football around in the L.A. Coliseum with Snoop Dogg, which is cool, but as the film itself readily admits, the connections between the Raiders and the gangsta rap era were not particularly strong.
Season 2, Episode 23
Air date: October 28, 2014
Brian Bosworth played linebacker for the Seattle Seahawks in the late 1980s, but his real position in the sports world was as a media lightning rod and self-styled in-your-face personality. "The Boz" was a persona not unlike a pro wrestling character, and director Thaddeus D. Matula lets Bosworth reminisce about his own past with some perspective. It's a decently insightful doc if you can get past the baseline unpleasantness of its subject.
Season 3, Episode 25
Air date: September 20, 2018
The story of San Diego Chargers linebacker Junior Seau is one of phenomenal athletic achievement on the field and a deeply shocking end off the field, with Seau having committed suicide in 2012. Kirby Bradley's doc is illuminating about our ever-more-troubling understanding about the long-term damage that concussions and head injuries inflict upon football players long after they've retired, but the film is often oppressively sad and a tough watch.
Season 2, Episode 8
Air date: April 23, 2013
The 1983 NFL Draft is famous for the Hall of Fame quarterbacks who were all selected in the first round: John Elway, Dan Marino, and Jim Kelly. And while the draft may not generally be the most compelling story for everyone, this particular draft had a ton of subplots, not least of which was Elway's refusal to play for the team that drafted him, the Baltimore Colts. Director Ken Rodgers delves into this wonky corner of NFL history in a way that makes it a real human story.
Season 3, Episode 9
Air date: May 14, 2016
30 for 30's genesis as the brainchild of ur-Red Sox fan Bill Simmons means the series has had a long preoccupation with tortured fanbases. This episode is about the long-suffering fans of Cleveland, Ohio, whose pro sports teams — baseball's Indians, basketball's Cavaliers, and the NFL's not-always-lovable losers the Browns — hadn't delivered a championship in generations. Much of the doc is about the Browns and their highly publicized AFC Championship Game losses in 1986 and 1987, but the redemption arc, which was filmed after the doc initially aired, belongs to Lebron James' 2016 Cavs.
Season 2, Episode 25
Air date: November 11, 2014
Randy Moss was an infamous figure during his NFL days, as notable for his incredible talent as he was for his attitude. But he entered the league under a cloud of controversy stemming from an assault conviction when he was a teenager. That, paired with a subsequent parole violation for testing positive for marijuana, cost him scholarships at Notre Dame and Florida St. And while Marquis Daisy's film is definitely about the issues of race and fairness in athletics, it's also an insightful story about how athletes and their hometown communities can affect one another.
Season 2, Episode 6
Air date: December 8, 2012
The story of Bo Jackson, the athletic phenom who played both football and baseball at a world-class level is a story worth telling, especially because Jackson's importance as a pro athlete seems to have waned in the public memory. Director Michael Bonfiglio harnesses Jackson as a compelling subject and guides viewers through his career-ending injury, one which was far more heartbreaking than you probably remember.
Season 3, Episode 27
Air date: January 31, 2019
Of the two 30 for 30 profiles on two-sport athletes, Bo Jackson's story is more personally compelling, but Ken Rodgers and Erik Powers' film on Deion Sanders — narrated by Ludacris! — works overtime to entertain, mostly via Sanders himself, who tells his own story with all the panache of P.T. Barnum. This doc does exactly what you want a 30 for 30 to do: take a deep dive into a peculiar sports moment — in this case, Sanders attempting to play both an NFL football game and a Major League Baseball playoff game in the same day — and peel back all its layers.
Season 1, Episode 6
Air date: November 10, 2009
Director Fritz Mitchell tells the story of the famous (and eventually infamous) NFL gambling guru, whose time on CBS's The NFL Today pregame show ended when he made some wildly racist remarks about black athletes on a local news report. It's an illuminating story about a complicated man, but it does make you wish it were more about the inner workings of The NFL Today, especially about the title subject's contentious working relationship with Phyllis George.
Season 1, Episode 2
Air date: October 13, 2009
Oscar-winning director Barry Levinson (Diner; Tin Men; Avalon) will forever be associated with Baltimore, so he was the perfect person to direct this story about the Baltimore Colts' marching band, whose team left them for Indianapolis in the middle of the night when the Colts so notoriously relocated. This is a story that exposes the deeply-dedicated emotional ties between a community and its sport team.
Season 3, Episode 6
Air date: February 4, 2016
Director Jason Hehir cranks up the sentimentalism to eleven on this heroes portrait of a team that many consider to have played the most dominant season in NFL history. It's structured around the contentious relationship between head coach Mike Ditka and defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan — an oddly recurring dynamic in 30 for 30 docs — but plenty of other colorful characters from the Bears also have their moments, from Mike Singletary, to Jim McMahon, to Richard Dent, to Steve "Mongo" McMichael.
Season 1, Episode 12
Air date: April 27, 2010
Ricky Williams was a phenom in college as a running back for the University of Texas Longhorns, but his pro career was troubled by mental health problems and media controversy over marijuana. Directors Sean Pamphilon and Royce Toni let Williams tell his own story, which makes the film feel a bit gauzy at times, but the reward is a look at a sports figure who felt constrained by the way we characterize athletes in this country, leaving no room for a searching soul with unreal athletic talent to find his place.
Season 3, Episode 20
Air date: September 12, 2017
John Dorsey's film revisits a period of NFL history nobody talks about anymore: the 1987 players strike that led to three weeks of games with picket-line-crossing replacement players (the titular "scabs"). Pro athletes' labor disputes don't always get framed the same way as other labor unions, and it's fascinating to watch the '87 strike play out among the players, fans, and owners of the time, with special focus on the scabs themselves, who were reviled but who were also living their dream of playing NFL football. One of the more illuminating 30 for 30 installments.
Season 4, Episode 3
Air date: January 30, 2020
Stanley Nelson's two-part documentary is ostensibly about the celebrated Atlanta Falcons quarterback who went to prison for his involvement in a dog-fighting ring, but the doc as a whole draws a fascinating portrait of a mold-breaking quarterback who kept having to prove and re-prove and re-prove his immense and obvious talent. The doc is a smart and empathetic look at race, maturity, and the way the sports media treats its superheroes.
Season 3, Episode 5
Air date: December 12, 2015
The famous four-time failure of the early-'90s Buffalo Bills to win the Super Bowl is documented in full and oftentimes excruciating detail. If you've ever been curious about the tortured roots that birthed the modern-day "Bills Mafia," here's your history lesson. But it's also a portrait of a deeply likeable, wildly talented team. The most affecting part of Ken Rodgers's documentary is its focus on Scott Norwood, the kicker whose missed field goal cost the Bills their first Super Bowl, and the way the city of Buffalo and its fans, so often painted as lunatics, rallied around the ostensible goat.
Air date: June 11, 2016
The obvious choice perhaps. Though it didn't air as part of a 30 for 30 season, O.J. Made in America was billed as a 30 for 30 miniseries. It won the Emmy and the Oscar, and it's one of the greatest sports documentaries ever made. The O.J. Simpson story is one of the juiciest (no pun intended) and most multifaceted in recent American history, and director Ezra Edelman leaves no stone unturned, from O.J.'s identity as a Black celebrity, to his NFL career, to the roles that celebrity, race, and the media played in Simpson's famous murder trial — it's a whole meal and deeply satisfying.
30 For 30: Al Davis vs The NFL premieres February 4th at 9:00 PM ET on ESPN.
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Joe Reid is the Managing Editor at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.