Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Haunted by the American Dream: American Sports Movies

At the beginning a new year I think it makes sense to remember why so many people take sports seriously. This passion arises from community and loyalty where fans weave sports affiliation into their own complex identities. It arises from the power and warmth of memory and community of family, friends, college and community. But it sustains itself because sports narratives both in reality but also as enshrined in movies articulate, reinforce and revise the narratives that supports American aspirations and dreams of itself as a culture and as individuals. Sports and athletics through movies highlight three enduring aspects of the  American Dream.


  • First, sports stories emphasize that each individual can dream. 
  • Second, they emphasize how individuals can make their dreams happen with unending work and effort. 
  • Third, they emphasize how individuals in sport prove the basic meritocracy of American life by overcoming odds and rising from dire straits to achieve their dreams.

Movies represent the most powerful American art form and help shape collective understandings and shared narratives for our culture. With the demise of westerns, post-apocalyptic fantasies or space operas displaced war and courage narratives. But the sport movies have endured for fifty years as a consistent vehicle to explore and defend the basic American dream of individual achievement of a dream against all odds. Sports movies regularly stand at the center of American myth telling and reinforce the American dream that any individual can seek and achieve their dreams by overcoming adversity based upon effort and talent. A student of mine called it “the American heartbeat.”

A cluster of fine movies such as Remember the Titans or Glory Road address sports as a collective endeavor that can overcome racism through collective sacrifice in face of hostility. Another cluster such as Rudy or The Rookie  or Invincible describe how one person’s spirit and never quit attitude can overcome parental and social and repeated failure to achieve a dream. Others trace the dogged, complicated and sometimes corrupt path of someone navigating immense social and racial disadvantage as well as corruption to achieve something resembling dignity and a dream as in He Got Game or Above the Rim. 

Finally triumphalism movies such as Miracle or Invictus tell the tale of how competitive sport not only can weld diverse teams together for common purpose, but can help unite a nation. Beneath these movies and some of the others lies another lesson, less compatible with the American dream, that for a team to succeed an individual must learn to give up their selfishness and subordinate their skill and drive to a larger purpose--to win and enable their teammates to flourish. In this moral maturation, the individual learns the meaning and purpose of contributing to a larger and deeper purposes.

The movies reinvent and reiterate these variations on the dream-effort-adversity theme time and time again. They may be one of the last bastions of the myth and story and inspiration in American popular culture. The associated sports based advertising align with this narrative, remember  Just Do It.

The reality of sports achievement and dreams remains far more elusive and problematic. I remember Jesse Jackson’s complaint that “Johnny does best what Johnny does most,” as he lamented the endless hours young black males devoted to basketball, not mastering math or writing.

Sports beckoned as the only domain they felt valued and at home, the only world where heavily advertised role models called to them. These young minority males do not believe American will provide an avenue to a realistic middle class life. They do not trust the educational system nor the economic system to give them a fair chance to succeed. In the United States social mobility has reached its lowest ebb and is declining ever more. American dream is fast becoming a fairy tale, not a reality. So these young minority males undertake the high risk and futile dream that they can earn a life through NBA  or NFL riches.

The sheer reality of sport life is that the vast majority of athletes fail in their dreams. The reality of athletics, like the reality in life, is that dreams are not enough and hard work is not enough. Any successful professional, athletic or any other domain of achievement, requires hard work, lots of hard work and effort. To focus that work and draw self-discipline to have a chance at success needs a vision, a dream or goal to motivate, evaluate and drive oneself. But dream-effort is necessary but by not means sufficient to achieve in sport or in life.

People can have as much tenacity as Rudy or the Rookie or as great a coach as in Remember the Titans, but they fail. Individuals fail through bad luck; they fail because others are better; they fail by being against the wrong team at the wrong time; they fail because they lack elite skill. Young aspiring athletes regularly fail when they do not get a college scholarship or even a community college invite. All those thousands of hours to master a sport with an expiration at the age of 17, 21 or at best 25. They end up without a viable high school education and no where to turn but MacDonalds or the street. Even more disturbing no dreams talk about the 50-70 percent of pro athletes who leave their brief careers in bankruptcy with no reasonable skills or jobs.

The truth of sports movies would be more like One Cup of Coffee or Sugar. Men fight to carve out a place on a team amid brutal competition and heartless displacement if they are not good enough. They live a life where they are only prepared to succeed in the game and the game betrays them. All their preparation prepares them for nothing but the sport that rejects them. They end on the streets or pulling in minimum wage dead end jobs.

The subterranean reality of the American dream is not dream+effort+adversity, but rather the story of how every individual  needs help and community. They are stories of resilience and how we all fail and then we get up and refashion the dream. Many do not, and sports obsession leads them to forgo the other skills needed to launch a new area. Failure in sports can be especially brutal because they leave you with so little when they cast you off. But we when we do pull ourselves up, we need the capacity for dreaming another dream, not the movie myth.

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