Football season begins. Years ago, football, especially college football, displaced baseball as the center of American sport obsession. It also became the locus for narratives America tells itself about itself through movies,
With the start of college football, I want to remember an iconic football movie central to America's sense of itself and its story about race relations, human relations and what sport can accomplish. In my ethics classes for our intercollegiate athletic program, students regularly use Remember the Titans as one of their iconic film movies. Why?
Remember the scene. America grapples with desegregation; war occurs in the streets, people die in the south, riots hit the cities. No one knows how the court ordered experience of integration will work. A few think of how the military has managed integration after being ordered. It shines as one example, imperfect, but real, where a relentless meritocracy and insistent commitment to common goals plus facing a common enemy united races in ways no where else in American society.
No whites wanted Alexandria, Virginia desegregated. A white enclave accustomed to sport dominance, its pride and joy school suddenly had to desgregate. Now I will go with the movie, not the history, for we know this story through the movie.
Remember the Titans hinges around the political spoils decision of the Alexandria School Board to appoint black Herman Boone, Denzel Washington, coach of its football team, the Titans. To do so they pushed aside a well loved and successful coach Bill Yoast, Will Paton. Later we discover after rock throwing and fights, that the Board has declared that if Boone loses one game, they will replace him.
My point focuses upon its lesson about bringing together races; a very football, American, military lesson. Coach Boone exemplifies old school football and reminds me of my Fort Polk drill instructor. He launches a boot camp taking the team away from the chaos of the city to Gettysburg College for practice. When the white and black players get on separate busses, he stops them and in front of horrified parents demands that they sit on defense and offense buses regardless of race.
When the players self segregate he requires them to room with each other and learn and recite facts about each other publically. He subjects them to brutal debilitating two a days, sometimes three adays. Players vomiting; heat stroke hovers. Coach Yoast warns against treating them badly, but Boone persists in his Bear Bryant imitation. Players suffer together; they hate the coach and hate each other. But slowly, uncertainly, survival and shared suffering bring them together as a team, even if it is against their crazed coach.
The crux lies in old school coaching, high demands, relentless pushing, humiliation and the promise of success. Boone is not an upbeat positive modern coach; he pounces on failure; humiliates players publically and exacts reprisal to motivate. Failure results in pain. "We will be perfect in every aspect of the game. You drop a pass, you run a mile. You miss a blocking assignment, you run a mile. You fumble the football, and I will break my foot off in your John Brown hind parts and then you will run a mile. Perfection. Let's go to work."
The players struggle to survive and learn new systems. Like all football practices, violent competition competes with cooperation. Players fight, push shove because the stakes are high--they want to start--and the means are violent. Coaches have to manage it constantly and when the team grows, its own leaders will break up the fights and focus the anger on playing.
A midnight run leads the team to Gettysburg battlefield. Exhausted, lost, angery, Boone reminds them of the pain and loss of the battle. A battle they are still fighting on the team. "You listen, and you take a lesson from the dead. If we don't come together right now on this hallowed ground, we too will be destroyed, just like they were. I don't care if you like each other of not, but you will respect each other. And maybe... I don't know, maybe we'll learn to play this game like men."
Behind the entire approach lies Machiavelli's maxim that common danger, common enemies will build common community across barriers. The team must develop a commitment to perfection beyond its commitments to self, clan or race. For Boone success lies in the ability of players to see each other as companions in the quest for perfection and victory.
The whole approach depends upon absolute clarity that he plays the best talent, not by race. Football players are used to abusive coaches, not a good thing, but they will live with it because they believe it prepares them for the game. They will live with it if they believe the best players play.
Boone's ultimate success and credibility lies in his race blind assessment. He knows race pervades everything but must prove to the players that he plays by merit. It lies in the fact that he replaces a black player with a white player or a white player with a black player because of talent despite the mutual race based anger of the parents. When Paton asks him to take it easy, Boone replies with a rooted lesson that drives him and this dream of racial reconciliation, "Now I may be a mean cuss. But I'm the same mean cuss with everybody out there on that football field. The world don't give a damn about how sensitive these kids are, especially the young black kids. You ain't doin' these kids a favor by patronizing them. You're crippling them; You're crippling them for life."
The other side lies in the inability of this unity borne of shared suffering and common commitment to carry over into school and society. There simmering hatred and resentment and rejection in bars remain the norm. Playing together creates a possiblity for themselves, for the society, but does not transform it. But the players, for a moment, discover that black and white united in a common cause based upon merit can come together. The same lesson as the military, the lesson of football and sport. It is real but isolated; bars, houses, parents, girlfriends reject the bond they have formed.
Coach Boone, who throws up before the first game, reminds himself, "it's only a game but I love it." Good to remember but we Americans take our games very very seriously as avatars of our identity and community, as morality tales of our own hopes, failure successes and as remembrances of times and moments of sorrow or triumph.
The lesson of football for live and race and America? This is not the fairy tale of Blind Side, but it involves a deeper level of conflict that football admits it cannot resolve in society at large. But the story remains--groups of persons of wildly diverse backgrounds and race will have conflict and anger. They will carry it with them into life and to each other. This will not be abolished. Neither will the racist structures of society go away because of football.
BUT. A common goal and a common enemy can bring them together. Moral competition for excellence and a relentless leader can demand that race be superceded by merit, but he or she must be utterly transparent in their demands and discipline and merit based promotion. Finally, intense badgering almost brutal physical demands coupled with intellectual demands can mold people together in common pain and suffering. Through shared pain comes unity and the possibility of excellence and glory at the other end. Competition metamorphosizes into combat.
Remembering the Titans means remembering that race matters in America. It means to remember that it has not gone away. It also remembers and reminds that common pursuit of excellence, perfection, in Coach Boone's words, can bring people together across race. But this is not easy and takes constant effort by coach and player and maybe some day by society.