Revisiting Blue Chips 20 Years Later [Movie Review and Commentary]

I watched Blue Chips again recently for the first time in at least a decade. Essentially, Blue Chips is about corruption (paying players to join amateur teams) in college basketball, and I cannot understand why it isn’t more well regarded – its main arguments are true, focusing on the pressures of winning and generating revenues in major sport college athletics. There is the hypocrisy of asking young athletes to sacrifice their bodies for the equivalent of full time jobs, and then throwing those athletes aside when convenient, yet the “adults” reap huge financial benefits.

With books like The System, about the business of college football, and the most recent lawsuits regarding college “amateur” athletics (see Ed O’Bannon, Northwestern Unionization), if Blue Chips had been released today, perhaps it would have been more acclaimed as a scathing review of the amateur system, instead of “A deafness-inducing but otherwise ho-hum would-be expose of shady recruiting practices by college basketball programs.” (from Variety)

I rated the movie 7/10 on IMDB, with the following thoughts (tons of spoilers) on its oddities and how it could have been a lot better:

1) My guess at why Blue Chips isn’t considered more seriously is its simplified demonification of college boosters. Happy (the primary booster) clearly tells the audience why there is a need for boosters. Coach Pete and programs make a lot of money from winning (Coach Pete has a big contract and a six-figure TV show), while the players get nothing. It’s said (in the movie) that to successfully recruit a top player, one must buy him. Pete gets upset at this because paying “amateur” players is against college rules. He refuses to see his hypocriticalness until the end of the movie, when he quits coaching. Happy is portrayed as a villain, a rich and pompous douche. Yes, he obviously wants to win, and he sees giving players and their families what other schools are already offering an easy way (for him) to do so. The movie doesn’t get into how much these benefits mean to the players, however. In real life, it’s a big deal. If you (as Penny Hardway’s character Butch McRae could) could get your mom a new job and a new house by committing to a specific school at the age of 18, why is this a bad decision on your end?

I’m trying to get my parents a new house NOW, and I’m 33 years old! I would definitely take a way to get them more money.

If Happy had been portrayed as more of a normal non-douchey rich guy just trying to help the team win while helping kids, I think the audience could have empathized more with the players’ side. At the end of the movie, Ricky, who was seen as a greedy amateur athlete by Coach Pete, is shown to have injured his knee and returned home to run his dad’s farm. This is a perfect example of why Ricky (technically, his dad asked for a new tractor to do farm work) was in the right to accept (and even ask) for compensation – he got injured, and now has nothing. He’s in French Lick, fighting poverty for the rest of his life. Meanwhile, the business of college athletics goes on.

2) Another reason the movie might not be so well-loved is that Blue Chips is not a great basketball action movie. The basketball scenes are not well shot. You would expect a movie with Shaquille O’Neal, Penny Hardaway, and other pros like Calbert Cheaney and Bobby Hurley would to be much more exciting. I do not think a non-basketball fan would enjoy the action. Compare it to Above the Rim, which I feel is a basketball movie with great action.

3) I do not understand how they got so many real players and coaches to be in this movie, when the movie clearly states that programs paying players was the norm in both college basketball and college football. It implies that everyone (in real life) in the movie was dirty, yet you still see Bobby Knight, George Raveling, and Rick Pitino in the movies with their real names. Jerry Tarkanian, a noted “cheater”, is in the movie as well! As a side note, what I remember most about Bobby Knight (I like Coach Knight) was that he said Calbert Cheaney rode a bicycle his four years in Bloomington.

4) Clearly, Coach Pete is supposed to be Bobby Knight – he kicks chairs, curses at everyone, was focused on a clean program, yet still cares for his students, making sure they graduate from school.

5) Champion made the jerseys for Western University but not for Indiana University (the Hoosiers have no branded jerseys). I thought this was a bit odd as they’re essentially identifying themselves with college cheating. Gatorade is featured in the movie as well. This makes me question how the movie was originally marketed. I get the feeling (watch the original trailer above) that Blue Chips was supposed to be a typical sports movie talking about “dirty” sports, but with more of a pop-entertainment tilt by showing off Shaquille O’Neal (this is how I thought of the movie as a kid). At the end of movie, I feel like the audience can just say, “oh well” and forget about things as if these problems are not that big of a deal, as if perhaps these issues are exaggerated for the movie. That is why I think the movie missed a big opportunity in its commentary on college athletics.

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