The Legend of Jimmy the Greek

(Note: part of ESPN’s 30 for 30 series of films)

Jimmy “The Greek” Snyder seems almost impossible to imagine these days.  Sure on Sportscenter, you see Hank Goldberg make his weekly picks with the gambler in mind (trend analysis, picking against numbers etc) – but an actual gold chain wearing gangster?  But indeed, Jimmy the Greek was for real, a professional gambler who set lines in Vegas and went on to be the handicapper on CBS’ then-iconic The NFL Today.  His rise on TV is known, and his famous slave theories about African-American athletes is the stuff of TV legend.  But of course like many gamblers, he was shrouded in mystery.  Fritz Mitchell’s The Legend of Jimmy the Greek tells the story of Snyder from start to finish, focusing especially on the rise of gambling in America.  While the film is skillfully made, it does not really add much to the Greek story, so if you know it, you know it.

Gambling is the NFL’s dirty secret.  Of course, this secret might not be seen as mysterious when every schmoe out there is in a fantasy football league or a pick ’em league – often involving money (or in the case of your intrepid reporter, involving losing money).  The league is very reticent about going into Las Vegas, and disassociates itself with gambling – all while mandating that teams publish specific gambling information weekly for no other perceivable reason.  In any case, point spreads are common knowledge among fans now, and each NFL pregame show proudly displays its picks segment.  The surprise is not that Jimmy the Greek came along, but that it took him so long.

Fritz Mitchell worked on the CBS pregame show during much of that time period, and so his insight into Jimmy theoretically would weave a full picture of him, and his role in the explosion of all kinds of betting.  However, Mitchell does not really get there.  One of the big problems in the movie is the first person narration in a voice that is clearly not Snyder’s.  While Mitchell probably believed this was the only way that exposition might have occured, the actual end result is a distracting back and forth between the real life Greek and this fabricated one.

Also, there is not a lot new unearthed in the material about the Greek.  Mitchell presents the obvious NFL Today stalwarts, Brent Musburger, Phyllis George, Irv Cross and lets them all speak – and the opinions and stories are well known – from his arrival to his friction with George (to the point that they prerecorded his segments) to his grisly departure over the slave breeding comments he made regarding the superiority of the black athlete.  But there is not a new angle to speak of, or a new philosophical change that made the show MORE compelling.  It feels like replaying old tapes.  For those who are not familiar with him, it is an interesting film, but for the other .0001% of us?

There is a lot of expositon, as is typical with the documentary form, but ultimately not enough primary information.  In the vernacular of creative writing instructio, Mitchell tells us a lot about Greek but does not show the layers behind the man or the phenomenon effectively enough to qualify as truly revelatory.

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