I’ll begin with a confession: I’m a sucker for a good sports movie. The beat-for-beat predictability is comforting, especially when you’re watching an underdog rise up against all odds and defeat the opponents when no one sees it coming. Points are scored, hearts are warmed and I leave the movie-watching experience with a smile and a fuzzy feeling in my chest.
“Home Team,” by premise alone, could have some of those fuzzy feelings if not for one glaring little detail: In order to talk about “Home Team,” we need to talk about Bountygate.
For those of you who don’t know, Bountygate occurred during a period from 2009 to 2011 when the Saints gave bonuses to players for injuring opposing players. These “bounties” are one of the worst scandals of the NFL (which is saying something) and resulted in harsh punishments from NFL commissioner Roger Goodell in 2012 that included a year-long suspension for Saints head coach Sean Payton. During that year, Payton ended up coaching his son’s middle school football team, which is certainly an odd twist for a man who oversaw a bounty program.
Happy Madison Productions, helmed by Adam Sandler (“Hubie Halloween”), saw this hellish plot and turned it into a family-friendly sports comedy, a choice that certainly raises a lot of questions. Based on the true story of Bountygate (but with the Bountygate part helpfully glossed over), “Home Team” follows Sean Payton, played by Kevin James (“Paul Blart: Mall Cop”), as he spends his year off by joining the coaching staff for his son Connor’s (Tait Blum, “For All Mankind”) middle school football team, led by head coach Troy Lambert, played by Taylor “I have a mustache now” Lautner (“Twilight”). As expected, swapping out his Saint visor for a Warriors one is not an easy switch: The Warriors are objectively bad but with a lovably enthusiastic attitude even in their losses.
Like in all of his movies, Sandler is seemingly determined to hire only his friends and family: His wife Jackie Sandler (“The Wrong Missy”) plays Payton’s ex-wife Beth, while his longtime friend and SNL alum Rob Schneider (“The Animal”) plays Beth’s new hippie husband Jamie. Other family members, including Sandler’s nephew and brother-in-law, made their way into the cast and crew. Even James as Sean Payton feels like part of a conspiracy to get Sandler’s friends jobs. And, frankly, there are times where it shows: in the lazy screenwriting, in the cheap jokes, in the attempt to turn a screwed-up system based around heavily injuring the opposing team into something lighthearted.
Parts of “Home Team” do capture the best elements of sports movies. Sean and Connor Payton’s rekindled father-son relationship is one of the best parts of the movie — decidedly because of Blum’s quietly angsty and earnest performance as Connor, not James’s Sean Payton, who reads like an awkward, intense guy who’s a bad dad. Also, the team’s overall enthusiasm is wholesome and enjoyable, giving me that smile on my face that good sports movies can give me. Their utter joy when they score their first touchdown of the season captures something that I truly believe when it comes to my own underdog sports teams (and I have played on many): If you have the right attitude, every small victory should still be something worth celebrating.
But those moments of pureness, joy and kindness in sports and family, are tainted by three major caveats.
At times, the film is overrun with a determination to wedge in things that don’t matter, simply for the purpose of “humor.” There’s an unnecessary love story about two 12-year-olds that revolves around a decade-old fun. song. There’s a disgusting scene that uses about ten gallons of fake puke that throws hippy Jamie (and all people with even vaguely alternative lifestyles) under the bus. There are substantial chunks of time where “Home Team” (if you’ll excuse me using a cross-sport metaphor) doesn’t keep its eye on the ball, and instead is distracted by the weird guy dancing in the stands.
I was also furious about the way the film chose to unnecessarily alienate and mock women in sports. A Saints intern named Emily (Chloe Fineman, “Saturday Night Live”) represents the worst possible male-gaze-dependent idea of a ditzy blonde who doesn’t know football. My frustration with the character is not because of Fineman, who is a fairly new face in the “SNL” cast and probably just wanted the chance to be in an Adam Sandler movie; instead, I’m mad at the echo chamber of white men who thought it would be funny if her character thought that RB stood for, and I’m quoting here, “russell brouts” instead of “running back.” And it’s downright insulting to insinuate that a woman who literally works for an NFL football team wouldn’t know that Roger Goodell is the NFL commissioner — especially considering that many non-NFL fans know who Goodell is simply because of all of the scandals during his tenure.
The writers, creators and directors of this movie should be ashamed of themselves for this joke alone because this is why women in sports aren’t taken seriously. Years of sexist, misogynist bullshit have created an image of women who couldn’t possibly understand the basics of sports, let alone work for a team. Perpetuating this idea for “humor” only reinforces it. My blood was boiling every time she was on screen because I’m so tired of women who work in and around sports — or who simply like them! — being treated like a joke.
But the final caveat of the movie, the thing that ruins any wholesome family-friendly sports value that it might have, is the very subject matter itself. Because the truth is that Sean Payton’s year of suspension, and therefore the movie itself, wouldn’t have happened without Bountygate — a horrible chapter that represents the worst parts of NFL football. Bountygate is a result of valuing winning and money over health, dignity, sportsmanship, teamwork and hard work — which are the things that I personally love most about sports. “Home Team” might gloss over it completely, sticking to one or two mentions of it, but Bountygate is the elephant in the room throughout the film.
Sean Payton, regardless of the innumerable father-son bonding scenes thrown into the film, is not a sympathetic character. He’s a win-at-all-costs kind of guy who’s easily annoyed by small inconveniences. He takes his son’s football team, full of 12-year-olds, way too seriously. He’s the definition of a workaholic absent father who has barely seen his son during his entire life; he is a coach who does not know when to stop coaching. And at the end of the movie, he returns to the Saints (greeted by the actual Sean Payton in an unfortunate wig), and is implied to be slightly less impatient than before — and we’re supposed to accept that as growth.
Given Sean Payton’s recent retirement, “Home Team” has gained a little bit of steam as a way to look at Payton’s potential future in the NFL. There are also those who believe that Payton’s retirement, announced three days before the film’s release, may have been directly connected to the film’s premiere. It may sound like a minor conspiracy, but truthfully it feels like it might have some steam solely because this movie does not show Payton in a good light. There’s something particularly ironic about a character complaining about the overblown violence and ineffective conflict resolution in football while literally talking to Sean Payton.
Like I said, I’m a sucker for a good sports movie, but “Home Team” is not a good sports movie. I’m happy to root for the kids (many of whom had my heart from the minute they started cheering about their first touchdown), but I find no joy in watching them try to humanize a millionaire who allowed his team to injure other players for money. Truthfully, I can’t imagine anyone who would. And so, with this main character, “Home Team” is doomed before it even reaches the line of scrimmage.
Daily Arts Writer Kari Anderson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.