[Part 2 on the topic of me & sports movies here.]
I've been reading and watching movies about team sports recently. They're fascinating me.
They all seem to tell some version of this story:
Coach makes the guys run drills over and over again until they're puking on the gym floor. Afterward, the guys adore tough-but-fair Coach and become a family.
I know families like that: strong enclosures where people feel secure and cared for, and where they learn how to achieve material success. From these pods come heroic champions, or heroic rebels, or broken people who can't get put back together again.
Dictatorships work the same way--a strong father-figure molds a group, drawing them in towards his central will through the judicious use of love and fear. The ones who come together in the center are rewarded. The others go spinning off with centrifugal force.
The benign version of this doesn't look all that bad. It creates order and belonging and a strong bond of love.
I get the appeal of this.
I almost envy them, the ones who love Coach. The world is chaos, danger is all around. Being alone is the most vulnerable place to be, emotionally or physically. You're sad, and there's no one to hold you. You're sick, and there's no one to bring you water.
But I've always been the character who throws the towel on the floor and stalks off saying, This is bullshit.
My tenth grade English teacher followed the sports coach model. We read Shakespeare and diagramed sentences. She taught us how to construct a research paper. Her tests were tough. She publicly shamed the kids who did poorly--waved their red-marked papers in front of us. She held up the pleasing, smart kids. I remember she practically levitated a shy girl with her praise.
At the end of the year, she asked students to write down what they'd learned from her.
She knew what they'd write, year after year: Miss D. is so tough, but I learned a lot. I didn't always like her, but I respect her.
I wrote, "I learned I never want to be like you."
With that response I was, in fact, being like her: using unkindness and shame as power.
But I'd never learned the other kind of power: the kind where you step out of the way but stay in the game. Or where you play your own game, happily. Had I ever even seen this, at fourteen?
Sometimes the only power you have is to refuse to play, and that was my model.
But what then?
I see now that the sports movies I've loved are all the same: they're about the individual, not the team. They're about being whole, not about winning.
The boy in Breaking Away (Dennis Christopher, right) imagines his way out of his restrictive life through bicycle racing. Rocky is about a guy who's always been told he's nothing, who just wants the dignity to stand up and stay up. My favorite runner in Chariots of Fire is the Eric Lidell character who refuses to run an Olympic race on Sunday, because it violates his faith.
I understand that the love of team sports can be a good love, a true love. It's just not my love.