J Is for Jock
It’s a well-known fact that progressive politics sound best coming from a butch guy. When Bruce Springsteen questions the class system, or calls for an end to unfair banking practices, or disputes the morality of the war in Iraq, people listen; when a scrawny eco-nerd tries the same thing, eyes roll and television sets are switched off. Another pampered squirt come to tell us how to behave: nothing cripples a campaign like a stereotype fulfilled. The late Macho Man Randy Savage was, and remains, our most celebrated vegan feminist. On the other side of the coin, I hope Julian Assange doesn’t turn out to be a sex offender, but…
Activists for social justice – keep your yogurt-nibblers out of the spotlight. Let them do the research. By all means let them write the manifestos and design the posters. But for God’s sake, leave the tough stuff to the jocks.
This, I argue, is what Hollywood has been doing for the past ten years or so. The 2000s have seen jocks become the film industry’s prime conveyors of liberal politics. Whether on the football field, the basketball court or the athletics track, jocks have played, fought and cried (and cried and cried) for civil rights, penal reform and economic fair play. All this may sound strange given what we know about jocks. Years of stealing lunch money and screwing cheerleaders have eventually taken their toll. As prodigal sons they have returned – cleansed and chastened – ready to put their bleeding hearts on the line. They may not be particularly subtle. They certainly aren’t radical. But we should embrace these new jocks, for they care. Dammit, they really care.
Cue the rousing music
‘They’re Mustangs, Coach. They accepted the challenge.’ (Gridiron Gang).
American film has long used the sports field as a crucible within which to examine and resolve ideological tensions of the day. Aaron Baker’s pioneering book, Contesting Identities: Sports in American Film, argues that Hollywood sports films have traditionally promoted conservative values of extreme individualism and white male superiority. The general message, in Baker’s view, is: hard work and dedication will achieve the fabled American Dream. Of course there are a few clauses. If you’re a woman, then avoid nagging your man – don’t complain about his dedication to sports; support him/make his dinner etc. If you’re black you must remain humble and deferential to the white public (e.g. The Joe Louis Story). Film scholar Elizabeth Rawitsch sees in baseball movies like Take Me Out to the Ball Game (1949) a paean to the ‘melting pot’, where ethnic characters succeed by relinquishing their cultural identities and adopting traits associated with ‘traditional’ (read WASP) America.
When it comes to politics, according to these accounts, the classical Hollywood sports movie is about as limp-wristed as a New York Mets batter. They casually bolster the status quo and shore up all the old class, race and gender inequalities. More recent productions have also come in for a critical drubbing. Since at least the release of Remember the Titans in 2000, it has become de rigour to mock the constant stream of ‘inspirational coach’ movies appearing on the big screen. While the 1980s and 1990s produced the odd Hoosiers or League of their own, the 2000s have turned such pictures into a staple: Titans, The Replacements (2000), Miracle (2004), Million Dollar Baby (2004), Coach Carter (2005), Glory Road (2006), Gridiron Gang (2006), Friday Night Lights (2006), We are Marshall (2007) to name but a few.
I’m surprised by the scorn that has greeted these films, for a number provide valiant (if sometimes heavy-handed) attempts to engage with controversial subject matter. Remember the Titans explores issues no less vexing than affirmative action – the preferential hiring of minorities in the workplace – and public school busing (that is, the transportation of black and white children to unfamiliar neighbourhood schools in order to ensure racial diversity). Unlike conservative commentators, Titans refuses to dismiss the need for such programs. Coach Herman Boone (Denzel Washington) gets the head coach job thanks to affirmative action. He is hired in front of the more experienced white coach Bill Yoast (Will Patton), but quickly proves he was the right man for the job. A combination of civil rights legislation and communal activism here brings about a gradual coming-together of the races.
Other movies have followed Titans’ lead. Glory Road takes us back to 1965, and college basketball team the Texas Western Minors’ championship winning season. The victory of an all-black Minors team over the all-white Kentucky in the championship final is depicted as a turning point in not only basketball but also civil rights history. With its promotional tagline, ‘winning changes everything’, Glory Road equated basketball success with social transformation. Coach Don Haskins’ (Josh Lucas’) decision to field the all-black team in the final game works as an allegory of affirmative action – the players afforded a headstart in an attempt to counteract the racist basketball establishment. Haskins attacks prevailing views that black players are empty-headed athletes without ‘the intelligence’ to beat a ‘real team’. The Minors victory puts paid to such prejudice.
It used to be that jocks won on the sports field, but lost everywhere else. Bookish types could sleep sound in the knowledge that their foes’ high-school glory days would soon give way to poor academic performances, low-paying jobs, shotgun weddings, alcoholism – and always that pathetic desire to relive the past. No longer.
Now the sports film’s closing captions tend to read: ‘so and so did not win the championship that season, but [insert positive contribution to society here]’.
In Coach Carter the boys are taught that success need not come on the basketball court. In fact, when their grades drop, they are banned from playing. Education comes first. Many would go on to enjoy successful careers, go to college, become role models.
Winning is not everything; in many of these films it’s nothing.
Gridiron Gang is less concerned with how well the young offenders play ball than with teaching them their own civic value. Football is an escape from gang life and a road to success in other careers. Leaving inmates to rot in prison, says Gridiron Gang, is a surefire route to reoffending. The Express’s main character, Ernie Davis (Rob Brown), doesn’t live long enough to really make his mark on professional football. But his contribution to the civil rights struggle is what makes him truly great. Both The Replacements and Moneyball (2011) provide an attack on extreme individualism, emphasising instead the value (spiritual or monetary) of ‘the team’. And perhaps this is the most prominent characteristic to have emerged from all these films. They are always about dialogue, debate, negotiation and communal action. There is no one person with all the answers. The team always prevails. This in itself is quite a departure from the standard Hollywood emphasis on individual heroism and ‘great men’.
All that said, I’m not trying to promote the sports film as some kind of liberal Utopia. Inequalities still prevail. For all its efforts, Million Dollar Baby seems to be less about calling for gender parity in boxing than about Clint Eastwood’s personal redemption (see the film’s end). Films like Titans and Coach Carter seem to actively play down or even demonise (as in Titans’ racist cheerleader) women’s social contribution. It is really left to smaller independent productions like Girlfight (2000) to provide a more powerful engagement with feminist issues. Therefore, and while the sports film is providing a forum within which to debate certain important subjects, it may be doing so at the expense of others.
There is one last thing that sports films do a lot of – crying. Men and women, but men especially, cry in sports films. All the time. When the team win they cry; when the team lose they cry; whenever anything happens they cry. By my reckoning We Are Marshall features the most weepy scenes. Nate Ruffin (Anthony Mackie) alone cries on about seven different occasions. Gridiron Gang also puts in a solid performance with Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson blubbing at least twice. Even the female-centred sports film remake, Ice Castles (2010), finds its emotional climax with blokey tears (the boyfriend). The new jock is the latest version of the so-called ‘new man’, that softie metrosexual beast of the 1990s. He has all the intelligence and sensitivity of the old new man, but has a muscular physique to boot. He’s the guy that the women in pseudo-feminist shows like Sex and the City yearn for. Brawn, brains and a few noble ideals .
The athlete activist is ubiquitous. We get them in the movies; we’ve always had them in real life (Billy Jean King, Tommy Smith, John Carlos, Max Baer etc). More recently, Olympics sportspeople have become associated with a cause: Jessica Ennis (women in the boardroom), Mo Farah (image of Somalis in UK), Oscar Pistorius (equality for the disabled), Bradley Wiggins (Save the Mods). Jocks dominate the soapbox. And for those of us without the muscles and the stamina, but who still want to get our message across, only one course of action is now possible.
We must contact athletic clubs, football teams, boxing gyms and find ourselves a sporting avatar. I’ve just hired a strapping young boxer, Tony, to take over all my public engagements. For a small fee he will say the things that I want to say against our current government, against the banks, against injustice and inequality. He will proclaim the beginning of a new political and social order.
People will take heed, for he is a jock.
And Jocks inspire a generation.
Baker, Aaron, Contesting Identities: Sports in American Film (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2003)
Rawitsch, Elizabeth, ‘ “It’s Strictly USA”: The Performance and Ethnic Assimilation of Take me out to the Ball Game‘, Journal of Popular Film and Television 39.3 (2011), 124-131.