Tribeca 2017: Year of the Scab
“Do you know who the first scab was? Judas.”
“I watched the Super Bowl from prison.”
I’ve always been a fan of ESPN’s 30 for 30; no matter what you think of sports, the ongoing documentary series makes each and every topic they handle inherently fascinating. I’m no sports fan, but I'm always on the edge of my seat by the end of a 30 for 30 doc, and Year of the Scab is no exception.
The film, directed by John Dorsey, chronicles the 1987 NFL strike, speaking with key figures, from former professional players to “scabs” who stepped in to replace them during the strike. It’s clear right away that the documentary is on the side of the scabs. We see what some of these controversial figures are up to now; they’re teachers, construction workers, architects — not exactly where you’d think former football players would end up. The strike only lasted three weeks, but it had a lasting effect on these men — we see one of them in physical therapy, still battling a fight that started 30 years ago.
The players and team owners had a strife over open contracts at the start of the 1987 season and a strike was called by the players’ union. The owners, wanting to keep the stadium seats filled, turned to outcasts to fill the professional players’ positions. There was an uproar. The film, as with every 30 for 30 production, has a plethora of archival footage to show off the anger felt by those on the players’ side. We see a bus filled with replacements coming into the stadiums, attempting to break through a picket line. One picketer from the outside slams his hand on the bus window, shattering it and frightening the people inside. “They’re firing at us!”, one replacement player remembers — it was just that heated, with foul language getting tossed around on both ends, as everyone made the whole affair deeply personal.
The Washington Redskins are primarily profiled; having no idea of the specifics of that particular season, I was quite shocked to see how the story unfolded. The Redskins, or “Scabskins” as they were known during the replacement season games, started winning, much to the surprise of everyone. They didn’t have the most conventional team — their quarterback was a former professional player who was pulled out of prison as part of a work furlough to play as a scab. The replacement team won enough early games to help get the Redskins into the playoff and the Super Bowl. Once hated, we see the tide turning for these scabs, but they don't have the happy ending you'd see in fictionalized sports movie.
The strike ends and some of the replacements are kept on the team, while others are dropped, left to obscurity. Some of those men who were there to help the Redskins reach glorious heights aren’t held to the same regard as the professional players. Year of the Scab does an excellent job of giving a voice to those forgotten by the NFL. The strike is treated as a dirty secret, a 24-day speedbump that left many men sidelined out of history. Year of the Scab is another essential documentary in the long line of expertly-made features from ESPN’s 30 for 30, filled with enough emotional twists and turns to keep any film fan engrossed.