The Athletes-in-Movies Awards: 20 Years of Great Performances

Sid QuashieFeatured ColumnistJanuary 26, 2017

The Athletes-in-Movies Awards: 20 Years of Great Performances

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    Jonathan Short/Associated Press

    Oscar season is upon us, but it’s not just film lovers that are excited. There’s no better time to present the athletes-in-movies awards for outstanding performances by sports stars on the big screen. The films that the athletes on this list appeared in do not have to be sports movies, which is why LeBron James makes the cut for his fine work in Trainwreck.

    For inclusion on this list, the athletes must have achieved some success, such as All-Star games, All-Conference honors, playoff wins or championships. Or they must have achieved notoriety and fame in their chosen sport, so that would include WWE wrestling.

    This list is presented to mimic the Academy Awards, so each slide will be a category and the nominees and winner are presented within the text. So as future Hall of Famer Terrell Owens would say,“Getcha popcorn ready,” and let the debate begin.

    Note: Eligible performances are taken from movies released in the past 20 years, so 1997 is the cutoff for this list.

Best Performance by an NBA Star: Comedy (Video Contains Adult Language)

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    LeBron James: Trainwreck (2015)

    Dennis Rodman: The Comebacks (2007)

    Rick Fox: Meet the Browns (2008)

    Kevin Durant: Thunderstruck (2012)


    If you’ve never heard of Thunderstruck, you’re not alone. Per Box Office Mojo, the Warner Bros. film was released in 250 theaters and grossed $587,211. Durant plays himself in a movie about a boy who magically inherits Durant’s basketball talent, robbing the NBA star of his skills. Durant has charm, but his performance is wooden and self-aware.

    Rodman is Rodman in The Comebacks, which means he’s not believable.

    So it’s down to James and Fox, and though Fox is always smooth, James is a revelation in Trainwreck. Per Extra Mustard (via, critics raved about his performance, with Ian Crouch of the New Yorker writing, “James is the funniest person” in the film.

    And the Award Goes To

    LeBron James

    Critical accolades and the fact that Trainwreck grossed $110 million put James over the top.

Best Performance by an NBA Star: Drama/Action

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    Ray Allen: He Got Game (1998)

    Rick Fox: He Got Game (1998)

    Rick Fox: Holes (2003)

    Allan Houston: Black and White (1999)


    Allen is the fulcrum in He Got Game, one of the better sports-based films of the past 25 years. In a review of the film, noted film critic Janet Maslin of the New York Times wrote, “In terms of acting, Mr. Allen plays comfortably in the same court with Mr. [Denzel] Washington, giving a likable, unaffected performance that would be fine even if he weren’t an NBA star.”

    Fox’s role as Chick Deagan is artful and entertaining, but he’s like a relief pitcher in baseball, meaning he’s only used in a select number of scenes. And Houston is solid in Black and White, but the best performance in that film belongs to the rapper, Power.

    And the Award Goes To

    Ray Allen

    In his first film, Allen manages to express confusion and conflict as a young phenom trying to decide where to attend university.

Best Performance by an NFL Star: Comedy

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    Brett Favre: There’s Something About Mary (1998)

    Terry Bradshaw: Failure To Launch (2006)

    Lawrence Taylor: The Waterboy (1998)

    Fred Williamson: Starsky & Hutch (2004)


    This category comes down to Favre and Bradshaw, as Taylor was far more effective in Any Given Sunday, and Williamson was just OK in Starsky & Hutch.

    Favre is confident and funny in his big scene with Cameron Diaz, Ben Stiller and Matt Dillon. Per Kevin Seifert of, Favre was the third choice to play the role. The directors of the film, Peter and Bobby Farrelly, wanted Drew Bledsoe first, then Steve Young, but both turned them down.

    Bradshaw plays Matthew McConaughey’s father in Failure To Launch, a romantic comedy about parents trying to get their slacker son (McConaughey) to leave the nest. Bradshaw has a famous nude scene in the movie that he shrugged off in an interview with the Associated Press (via USA Today). “Once I dropped my boxer shorts and exposed myself to the entire crew, it was kind of refreshing in a way,” Bradshaw said.

    And the Award Goes To

    Terry Bradshaw

    Favre is great, but Bradshaw has more work to do in his film. He is a natural fit in Failure To Launch, with Kathy Bates playing his wife, despite the fact that the romantic comedy isn’t very good (24 percent on Rotten Tomatoes).

Best Performance by an NFL Star: Drama/Action (Video Contains Adult Language)

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    Jim Brown: Any Given Sunday (1999)

    Lawrence Taylor: Any Given Sunday (1999)

    Howie Long: Firestorm (1998)

    Fred Williamson: Shaft (2000)


    Long loses cool points because he’s nominated for a performance in a forgettable action flick. Williamson is always suave and watchable, but his screen time is too brief to win the award. So, it comes down to Brown and Taylor for the football opus Any Given Sunday.

    Brown plays an assistant coach in director Oliver Stone’s raw look at how football exacts a terrible price on the men who play. Brown gives a quiet, powerful performance, but Taylor is even better playing an aging linebacker who is destroying his body for one last payday. Adam Swiderski of ranked Taylor’s performance as the ninth finest in his list of the 13 best football stars in movies, citing both his physical scenes and his emotional moments with Willie Beamen (Jamie Foxx), the brash young quarterback who needs to mature.

    And the Award Goes To

    Lawrence Taylor

    He may have drawn from his own personal demons, but Taylor nails his performance with a lived-in authenticity that can’t be faked.

Best Performance by an MMA Star: Drama/Action

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    Gina Carano: Haywire (2011)

    Andrei Arlovski: Universal Soldier: Regeneration (2009)

    Randy Couture: The Scorpion King 2: Rise of a Warrior (2008)

    Cung Le: Pandorum (2009)


    Couture plays the Scorpion King in one of his first starring roles and doesn’t have much to do other than snarl and fight, which is an accurate description of Arlovski’s role as well.

    Le is quiet and intense in his role as Manh, an agriculturist traveling on a space ship in the year 2174, but he’s not in the film after the first 30 minutes.

    That leaves Carano in a taut thriller directed by Oscar winner Steven Soderbergh that is lean, mean and filled with fantastic Bourne-like action. The film scored 80 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, and Soderbergh was smart to give Carano very few lines and surround her with elite-level talent such as Academy Award nominee Michael Fassbender, Academy Award winner Michael Douglas and Golden Globe nominee Ewan McGregor.

    And the Award Goes To

    Gina Carano

    In 93 minutes of action, she has maybe 20 lines. But she plays a one-woman wrecking crew who is on a rampage after she is betrayed by her spy agency.

Best Performance by an MMA Star: Comedy

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    Ronda Rousey: Entourage (2015)

    Bas Rutten: Here Comes the Boom (2012)

    Quinton “Rampage” Jackson: The A-Team (2010)

    Cain Velasquez: Term Life (2016)


    Rousey plays herself in the Entourage movie, and while her few scenes are entertaining, she’s not asked to do much other than look and act tough.

    Jackson takes on the role of Sergeant B.A. Baracus made famous by Mr. T in the 1980s television series. And though Jackson is funny, he’s hamstrung by comparisons to Mr. T, who has no equal.

    In his film debut, Velasquez plays Marco, a hit man for a mob boss who pursues Nick (Vince Vaughn), a thief whose latest heist goes awry. Much as in real life, Velasquez says very little and looks intimidating, and he handles the action scenes well.

    Rutten, however, is the revelation of all the nominees. He plays Niko, a former combat sportsman who trains Scott Voss (Kevin James) in MMA fighting. Per Houston Mitchell of the Los Angeles Times, Rutten “steals the show” and outshines James in the comedy that grossed $45 million in the U.S, despite a 38 percent Rotten Tomatoes score.

    And the Award Goes To

    Bas Rutten

    The former UFC champion is charming, funny and steals every scene he’s in with James.

Best Performance by a WWE Star: Drama/Action

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    John Cena: The Marine (2006)

    Dave Bautista: Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

    Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson: Pain & Gain (2013)

    Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson: Snitch (2010)


    Johnson has a 50 percent chance of winning this category, something he did often when he played on the defensive line for the 1991 Miami Hurricanes team that won the national title.

    Crews is solid and moralistic in the nasty dirty-cop drama that is Street Kings, but he gets killed at the end of Act One, robbing the film of his much-needed presence.

    Of his two nominations in this category, Johnson received the best reviews for Snitch, the true story of a father who goes undercover into a Mexican drug cartel to free his son who is in jail for transporting a package that he did not know contained drugs. The film has a 56 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes, but the critics’ consensus is that Johnson’s performance is strong and “thoughtful,” as he sheds “The Rock” persona and digs deep into the heart of a father willing to sacrifice everything for his son.

    But Bautista also got rave reviews for his role as Drax the Destroyer in Guardians of the Galaxy, with Peter Travers of Rolling Stone writing, “WWE wrestling champ Dave Bautista brings ferocity and feeling to Drax the Destroyer, the tattooed hulk who wants to crush Ronan [the villain] for killing his wife and daughter.”

    And the Award Goes To

    Dave Bautista

    Johnson is good in Snitch, but Bautista’s role as Drax the Destroyer has become legendary among comic book fans. He brings real emotion to his role as a muscled giant who just wants his family back.

Best Performance by a WWE Star: Comedy (Video Contains Adult Language)

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    Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson: Central Intelligence (2016)

    Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson: The Game Plan (2007)

    John Cena: Trainwreck (2015)

    Kevin Nash: Magic Mike (2015)

    In Central Intelligence, Johnson plays a CIA agent who was overweight and insecure in high school. He is forced to recruit his old tormentor, played by Kevin Hart, on a secret mission. The film has a 69 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes and earned $127 million at the box office.

    Johnson’s role in The Game Plan, about a pro football player who learns he has a young daughter, has some cute moments, but the story is generic. And while Nash scores laughs as Tarzan in Magic Mike, he doesn't make a huge impression.

    That isn’t a problem for Cena, who steals every scene he’s in with star Amy Schumer in Trainwreck. He plays Steven, Schumer’s character’s boy-toy and in a review of the film, Jason Guerrasio of Business Insider said that Cena “shows off some impressive acting chops” in the comedy.

    And the Award Goes To

    John Cena

    His role as Steven was hilarious, but he also brought some humanity to it that was unexpected.