It’s a cliché, I know. But it’s totally true. Men love sports (or at least 80% of us), and sports movies hit us in ways that rom-coms don’t. Watching two star-crossed lovers on the silver screen might provide its own comfort, but it doesn’t reliably incite waterworks like dramas of athletic glory. “Boy’s Don’t Cry,” as the saying goes. I wish it weren’t so, of course. I don’t get to make the rules. Masculinity is equated with strength — the kind that doesn’t permit public displays of emotion. Call it stoicism or sexism, men don’t often let their guard down to feel so obviously. Sports movies are something of an exception to the rule.

Sports films enable otherwise emotionally bottled-up men to feel what is deeply buried. During sports movies, the dams barricading the heart burst forth with literal salty streams or uncomfortable lumps in the throat, bringing out what most didn’t know was there. Indeed, the reason for the welling up of emotions is often veiled to the viewer and the process is largely inexplicable to the male viewer. The psychological word for this is abreaction. Sports movies are the kind art that bypasses cultural constructs and personal defense mechanisms to bring to life what was forgotten or ignored, usually some unspoken pain or grief. The dynamics of the inner life are brought to the surface, if only for a moment, and the tears bring catharsis and relief.

Tales of athletic conquest shouldn’t be confused with elite dramatic art. The genre depends upon a high degree of predictability that’s incongruous with its emotional effect.

Every time I watch Miracle the result is the same. In the 1980 Olympics, the USA hockey team faced off against the feared Soviet Union powerhouse, a matchup of college kids versus future hall of famers. For two countries in the midst of the Cold War, the crowd in Lake Placid, NY, fully expected an embarrassing loss to their Soviet rivals. For the pregame speech, Coach Brooks recognized the colossal challenge ahead of his team: “If we played them ten times, they might win nine. But not this game. Not tonight.” Skating circles around the wearied Red Machine, the USA pulled off what became known as the “Miracle on Ice.”  By the time I hear Al Michaels’ iconic play-by-play — “Do you believe in miracles? Yes!” — the deluge has begun.

The classics of the sports movie genre are all well-known: Brian’s Song, Rudy, Chariots of Fire, Miracle, Remember the Titans, Rocky (any of the eight films), or Hoosiers. The common theme to each of these is the triumph of the underdog against insurmountable odds. The opponent is more physically gifted, intimidating, and adored for their success. The protagonist faces them down and perseveres to win by sheer effort and heart, overcoming pain and exhaustion on the path to victory. They train harder, push themselves further, to become the champion they have longed to become (usually set to a catchy montage).

Seeing average athletes be transformed into champions might lead one to believe in the power of the human will to accomplish anything — the kind of platitudes so many coaches love to tout. Mind over matter. Effort is the difference between impossible and possible. Set your goals high, and don’t stop until you get there. You might even get the dream girl along the way. 

The themes of the classic sports movies make for great motivational speeches, don’t they? But men don’t reach for Kleenex boxes over motivational speeches. Sports movies are inspirational stories, yet their power is stronger than any “try harder” truism.

Sports movies make grown men cry because they touch upon a truth deeply hidden in the male psyche: an overwhelming sense of inadequacy.

The road to athletic glory is paved with numerous obstacles to overcome: judgmental naysayers, trials of penultimate disappointment, and past demons to be exorcised. It is a struggle from start to finish. Men identify with this journey of doubt, failure, and discouragement in lockstep with the everyman protagonists of sports films. We all remember the coach who didn’t believe in us, the self-inflicted setbacks, the tragic failures, and the parent (or spouse) who scolded our aspirations.

We can argue all we want about how men are privileged with cultural expectations they do not deserve, but expectations and judgment are near-synonyms for a reason. That unfounded confidence men often project betrays an insecurity no one sees. Criticisms of masculinity, however right they might be, can often feel like another naysayer on the journey, one that doesn’t understand the anxious panic of trying to live up to its crushing ideals. 

Men cry at sports movies because they identify with the kid who gets cut from the team, wishing they were more than they were. Most never win “the big one,” whether it be in sports or work. If there was once a time when the impossible seemed within reach, that dream has or is fading. The young, promising up-and-comer eventually settles into mediocrity. Sports movies are a microcosm of life, but with a happy ending that makes the years of training and misery worth it. 

In this way, the catharsis of seeing Rudy carried off the football field is a picture of grace, of undeserved victory. No amount of heart or willpower can hide that David was shorter than Goliath. There isn’t any montage long enough that can change the basic facts of DNA. Victory could be said to be earned, but it’s called the “Miracle on Ice” for a reason.

Seeing red, white, and blue jerseys dance across the ice celebrating an impossible win, I am reminded again that sometimes we don’t get what we deserve. The expression on the players’ faces is as much surprise as it is joy. The tightness in my chest as I watch is the same I felt when I first heard the tidings of great joy proclaimed from an unassuming preacher. Failure is not the final word. Miracles can happen.