On September 29, the cover of Time Magazine will feature a photo of a high school football player named Chad Stover, with the dramatic headline “He Died Playing This Game.” The accompanying story will detail how Stover died of a traumatic brain injury incurred during a 2013 game and raise the larger question “Is Football Worth It?”
Given the sudden focus on the inherent morality of football, not just in the NFL but at the high school level, it’s an opportune time to examine two new films that take a more forgiving view of the role America’s favorite sport plays in our educational system. Or at least try to.
The first is called in We Could Be King, a gripping new documentary about the Martin Luther King High School football team, which is struggling to succeed in one of Philadelphia’s poorest neighborhoods. What’s most striking about this film, however, is the genuinely terrifying moment that comes toward the end.
During a late-season practice, a slight, handsome kid named Sal Henderson, one of the team’s stars, takes a hand-off from the quarterback. A hulking defender breaks into the backfield and takes him down with a vicious clothesline tackle. For half a minute Sal lies motionless on the ground. An eerie silence descends on his teammates. It seems quite possible that Sal is dead. A coach finally revives him, but Sal remembers nothing of the play. Even minutes later he can barely stand. In other words, he has suffered a significant trauma to his brain.
What happens next is even more astonishing. The team’s other star, a giant lineman named Dontae Angus, begins to question his coaches. “Why’d you have him in full contact the day before a game?” he demands. “Shit like this happens when you go full contact.” Dontae, a good friend of Sal’s, is weeping by now and lurching about inconsolably. “Yo, this could have happened to anybody!”
“You’re right,” his coach says, in an effort to soothe him. “That’s what happens in football, every day, any day.”
It takes a moment to register, but what’s actually happening in this scene is almost unprecedented in the gauzy world of gridiron filmography. That is, a teenage boy is having a morally appropriate reaction to the inherent savagery of football and to the grave risks it poses to him and his teammates.
As it turns out, Dontae is not your average high school football player. He’s a shy, insecure kid who just happens to be six feet, six inches tall and 320 pounds, “with the feet of a ballerina,” as one coach explains. Significantly, we learn that Dontae never played football as a kid, and thus was never indoctrinated into its codes of valor. He hasn’t learned the trick of suppressing his empathy. When a friend appears to have been killed right before his eyes, he reacts with a hysterical grief that would be described as perfectly natural in almost any other context.
We Could Be King is, of course, part of a larger emergent genre, that of the high school football hagiography. Spurred on by the monumental success of Friday Night Lights—the bestselling book and hit TV series about high school football in small-town Texas—filmmakers have been turning out films meant to celebrate what has become, by any standard, a vast industry.
More than 1.1 million boys play high school football in America. The biggest programs operate in much the same way college programs do. The high school game has become so commercialized that big games are now broadcast to a national audience on ESPN. Which is why Dontae Angus, as he sits in his squalid basement apartment playing with a kitten, fields phone calls from unctuous college recruiters.
Of course, We Could Be King isn’t an expose of the game. It’s pitched as stirring account of athletic redemption. The arc of the film traces the unlikely resurrection of the MLK Cougars, a team that has been forced to absorb rival players from the recently closed Germantown High. The Cougars, led by an earnest volunteer coach, lose their first two games, but then go on an unlikely streak and wind up winning the city championship.
The problem is that the filmmakers keep capturing these unsettling moments in which the misplaced priorities of football fans come up against the grim economic realities of education in our urban centers.
We learn early on, for instance, that the Philadelphia school system faces a $300 million budget shortfall. Thirty seven schools have been closed. Four thousand workers have been laid off. Arts programs have been shut down. Kids complain that they don’t have books. And yet the voices we hear over the footage of school closures lament the potential loss of … football.
“I can’t imagine Philadelphia without high school football,” one pundit intones. “We currently have half a dozen players in the NFL that played in the public league. That might be a thing of the past.” Yes, and so might literacy.
Michelle Grace, an assistant coach at MLK, offers what we are supposed to regard as an inspirational speech at a meeting of the School Reform Commission. “Without football,” she declares, “these students have no reason to go to school. They have no reason to behave or to pay attention.”
What has become of our cultural priorities if students believe that the only reason to attend school is to play a sport? Let alone a violent sport that recent medical research suggests can lead to diminished brain function in teens, even those who never receive concussions?
The essential con of the high school football film genre is that it treats high school itself—the dull business of educating students, preparing them to contribute to society—as a backdrop. The real action is always on the gridiron.
It’s no surprise that the players themselves feel this way. Sal Henderson, for instance, tells us that football is the only thing that makes his life better. But a kid Sal’s size—two of him might equal one Dontae—has almost no chance of making a career in football. According to the NFL Players Association, only 215 of the 100,000 high school seniors who play football will go pro, or one in 500. What about the other 499?
This is a question that We Could Be King, for all its gritty pleasures, never dares to raise, let alone answer.
Of course, the prevailing mythos presents high school football as the ultimate builder of character. Yes, the game is an education in and of itself, one that instills all the standard Christian virtues: discipline, courage, self-sacrifice, and the importance of tackling low.
This is the essential pitch of the just-released When the Game Stands Tall, an insipid fantasia about De La Salle High, a tiny Catholic school located in Concord, California, 20 miles east of Oakland.
The plot is based on fact—De La Salle’s 151-game winning streak—and centers on the team’s saintly head coach, Bob Ladouceur, who not only runs his boys through drills in the blistering heat but schools them in scripture.
Ladouceur is played by Jim Caviezel, most famous for bleeding profusely in Mel Gibson’s BDSM epic, The Passion of the Christ. We are meant to see Coach Lad as a gentle shepherd, full of lessons about humility and brotherhood. Naturally, the whole team kneels in prayer before the big game, reciting the Lord’s Prayer. Then they go out and deliver big, bone-crushing hits unto their enemies, just like Jesus taught them. All of these hits are lovingly choreographed, eerily amplified, and filmed with a barely suppressed eroticism—soft-core porn for the nostalgic jock in all of us.
It will not come as a shock to anyone with a functioning frontal lobe that When the Game Stands Tall was released by Sony’s faith-based imprint, Affirm Films. The film is clearly aimed at those viewers who have somehow convinced themselves that the Gospel of Jesus Christ involves exhorting young boys to play a violent game. As it is written in the Book of Matthew, But Jesus said, Suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me: for of such is the kingdom of heaven.
This would certainly help explain why star running back Chris Ryan (Alexander Ludwig) insists on staying in a big game, even though he’s had his nose bloodied and, mostly like, his cerebellum scrambled. “The only way I’m going out of this game is on a stretcher,” he snarls.
Or on a cross, presumably.
I’m sorry if this seems flippant, but movies of this ilk peddle a hypocrisy so brazen it feels provocative. At one point an assistant coach exhorts his players never to “let a game define who you are. Let the way you live do that.” And yet the raison d'être of the whole film is to celebrate the team’s march toward victory. That’s the way it works in this particular racket, whether you’re in the slums of Philadelphia trying to eke out some school pride, or on the softly-lit playing fields of Northern California burnishing a legacy.
If these two films suggest anything, it’s just how deeply the twisted psychology of football has infiltrated our culture. The game has become our modern Passion Play, self-destruction as our highest form of heroism. The moral duties and doubts of adulthood are swapped out for the histrionic creeds of adolescence. And nobody ever stops to wonder how a violent form of entertainment became the sacred heart of our educational system.
Why bother with such earthly mysteries when we can watch a grisly spectacle in which the suffering body replaces the soul, and the intellect, as an instrument of salvation.