Among the groups you’d expect to receive sympathetic treatment from a Morgan Spurlock documentary, sports agents rank somewhere between the current crop of Republican presidential nominees and climate-change denialists. As someone who has made a name for himself pointing out various aspects of American culture that are broken or backward, people who’ve had a hand in turning the sporting world into a cutthroat business would seemingly land squarely in the director’s crosshairs. It’s entirely possible that Spurlock’s documentary for ESPN films, The Dotted Line, began its life as an expose on the corrupt methods and crooked dealings that occur behind the doors of the power brokers negotiating multimillion dollar deals for the stars of MLB, NBA, and NFL. (According to Spurlock’s voiceover at the end of the film, there are only three major professional sports in the United States—is that an inadvertent dig at the NHL or an acknowledgment on the U.S.’ unfortunate apathy toward hockey?)
Unfortunately, when those same wheelers and dealers are also brokering endorsement deals with the multinational conglomerates like the one that Spurlock ground into two all-beef patties and served up with special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, and onions (on a sesame seed bun) in Super Size Me, they’re less likely to submit to questioning. And while Spurlock secured talking-head interviews with some big names—most notably FAME founder David Falk, whose personal castle of Air Jordans assures that he needn’t worry about ever offending a potential business associate—the final version of The Dotted Line sets its sights much lower. Rather than contributing to the vilification of the sports agent, Spurlock seeks to humanize the occupation, focusing on three agents who buck the three-piece-suit clichés and manage to come off as human beings who see the athletes they represent as more than just physically gifted livestock.
Not that there aren’t vestiges of that other potential version of The Dotted Line. The middle section of doc follows the precipitous fall of Josh Luchs, a former NFL agent whose violations of the NCAA’s rules against agents contacting and/or paying student athletes were the subject of a 2010 Sports Illustrated cover story. In a flash of that unmade documentary, Luchs drives the camera crew to a well-known, unguarded piece of real estate on the campus of UCLA, which Luchs assures us is a prime spot for agents to grab some time with members of the Bruins’ football squad as they walk between the locker room and the practice field. As there aren’t any players milling about during the scene, we have to take Luchs at his word. Somewhere in an alternate universe, a raven-haired, clean-shaven version of Morgan Spurlock, replete in the Evilest Suit Ever Sold, smirks knowingly.
But evil Spurlock’s film would be crushingly dull—who needs a documentarian to point out the fact that rule-breaking and cheating are accepted, unacknowledged truths of professional sports? (It’s like a documentarian illustrating the fact that eating nothing but fast food for 30 days may result in catastrophic health problems.) No, Spurlock was wise to limit the scope of The Dotted Line to people like Luchs and Eugene Lee, an up-and-coming NFL agent whose recruitment-to-draft-day progression provides the main narrative arc of the documentary. In fact, it might’ve been wisest to follow only Lee—with talking heads, archival SportsCenter clips, and infographics providing the proper contextual padding. At the running length of 60 minutes, Spurlock barely has enough time to get all that across while also dealing with Luchs and Peter Greenberg, the baseball rep who helped make Johan Santana the highest-paid pitcher in the history of the MLB. There’s a whole additional movie to be made about the bilingual Greenberg and his efforts to recruit talent in baseball-hungry Venezuela, but that story is rushed through the first act of The Dotted Line. We get some significant face time with Santana but don’t really learn what has become of his fellow countrymen that aren’t signing $150 million contracts. Spurlock is dealing with a wide-ranging issue here, but a tighter focus may have given the documentary a stronger point of view. Even though Spurlock remains a behind-the-camera presence, the documentary largely coasts on the built-in aspects of his authorial voice and editing style—but in this instance, kinetic infographics and “You didn’t think about it this way, didja?” can only go so far.
Of course, Lee isn’t the most engaging subject for a documentary. As evidenced by the montage of his recruiting sessions, he’s a smart guy who has a few too many stock negotiation tactics and go-to means of persuasion. (As he not so convincingly tells one prospective client presented with a clipboard of forms, “This is the thing Peyton Manning signed.” Dude, it’s a contract—not a shoe or a sports drink.) And while the aim of The Dotted Line is to humanize the members of Lee’s profession, we don’t get to see what he’s like outside the job. Sure, getting things done for NFL players is a 24-7 job, but what does Lee do when he’s not sucking down Sugar-Free Red Bull and attempting to sell scouts on his clients’ “power and explosiveness”? Who is Lee when he’s not in negotiation mode?
The Dotted Line is not a wholly unsuccessful endeavor. If you go into the documentary with the reductive view that all sports agents are reptilian businesspeople whose only concern is the bottom line, you’ll be surprised to find that some agents are legitimately concerned with exposing the corroded underbelly of the business or elevating their clients’ station in life. (The most poignant moment of the Greenberg segment is where he admits that he frequently goes unpaid by his clients—because they don’t reach the minimum salary required to pay Greenberg a commission. It’s corny, but I like that the documentary is unafraid to say that Greenberg is in the business of making big-league dreams come true.) But those familiar with Spurlock will be disappointed with the surface-level treatment he gives to a subject outside his normal scope of interest. There are three good-to-great documentaries within The Dotted Line; unfortunately, it seems that Spurlock only had the resources and time to make an amalgamation of those docs. Evil Morgan Spurlock, meanwhile, managed to make all three—and is busy working on the theatrical feature that will deliver Evil Herman Cain to the Evil White House.