Character and Sports and “Undefeated”

“Undefeated” — the Oscar-winning documentary about the Manassas High School football team, continues its run at the Malco Paradiso this week.
After all the Oscar and Hollywood hoopla, it is worth seeing because it is a movie that affirms and challenges who we are.
After seeing it Saturday night, my first thought is that Money and Chavis, two of the players, are the stars. They become, quite unexpectedly, the two characters you remember for a moment that even the best screenwriter couldn’t have dreamed up.
But that’s another story. And no spoilers will be revealed here.
The moment I’d like to address is something the coach, Bill Courtney, says near the beginning of the film.
He challenges an idea that anyone who has ever considered playing sports as a child has heard repeatedly.
Baseball builds character. Track builds character. Basketball builds character.
Not true, Courtney says. “Football,” he continues, “reveals character.”
It’s a saying that should be painted on the wall of every locker room in town in my opinion.
It’s very difficult to tell a player who has done well through middle school and high school that the chances of them playing professional anything are slim to none. It’s understandable that that is a tough sell to a teenage student athlete. It probably should be a tough sell to them.
But the tougher sell is to those whose playing days and on the field or court glories are long gone.
Those who argue for sports as a template for life without pads and helmets and mouth guards and nets and backboards have a point.
But I think in many cases, they are pointing at the wrong expectation.
Some time ago, then Mayor Willie Herenton really put his finger on it — or in it depending on your opinion — when he said he was sick of hearing Tiger basketball fans say Tiger games are the only time the city really comes together racially.
It was easy to dismiss as Herenton veering from one topic to another in the series of encounters with the press that marked his last year or so as mayor. It was something he threw in that had little to do with what he came to talk about. But it was on his mind at the time and so out it came.
Sports events make attractive settings for analogies to larger life. But there is a great temptation to forget that those struggles in a controlled environment with rules and referees are only a reflection of a larger life. They can’t be a complete foundation on which to build the life of an individual or of a city.
The film offers a glimpse of that at the end of the Manassas-Trezevant game when the two teams are forbidden from the traditional handshakes at the end of the game by Memphis Police officers who rush onto the field before the two teams have a chance to move toward each other.
“Undefeated” makes it clear that there is life after the game and during the game just as there was before the game. And their coach pulls no punches with his team about what matters most in the long run. One team member wants to quit going to school when he can’t play anymore. He is told by his coach that he will continue to go to classes.
The athletes we want to make our symbols for what should be often have to be more realistic about what the adulation means and its short shelf life when there aren’t victories.
“Undefeated” is a call to those of us in the stands to stop relying on those games to give us good feelings about what happens when the clock runs out. That’s when it is up to us to come off the sidelines and get to work on the city where those games are played.

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