[Each of the last six years, I’ve used the Super Bowl week to AmericanStudy some sports histories and stories. This year I’ve decided to focus on sports movies and what they can tell us about American culture and identity. Be a good sport and share your responses and nominees in comments for a crowd-sourced weekend post that’s sure to take home the championship!]
On the American obsession with lovable losers, and a problem with it.
One of the best sports movies of all time, Rocky (1976), features a protagonist whom I’d call a heroic loser. That is, even before Rocky Balboa went on to win all the climactic fights in his subsequent films, his initial losing effort against Apollo Creed was a reflection of his heroic qualities: his grit and perseverance, his desire and ability to “go the distance.” Well, that’s not the kind of loser I’m going to focus on in this post. These losers are the drunken coach and his team of misfits and outcasts who lose the championship game and then start a brawl with the winners (The Bad News Bears), the drunken career minor leaguer who ends his career setting a record that nobody will remember and then quitting (Bull Durham), the drunken washed out golfer who blows his one chance at redemption due to a stubborn insistence on perfection over success (Tin Cup). Other than drunkenness, what defines this bunch is precisely how anti-heroic they seem.
But on the other hand, they are the heroes of their stories, each of which culminates very fully with a moment that asks us to cheer for the protagonists—often in the precise moment of their lovable losing (such as Tin Cup’s catastrophic final hole), and always in triumphs that are framed as far more important than the actual on-field victories would have been (the Bears proving that they’re a team, Costner’s characters getting the girl). Concurrently, their stories’ actual victors are typically framed as either unlikable snobs (the Yankees in Bears, Don Johnson’s rival golfer in Cup) or at best clueless jocks who will never understand what’s most important (Tim Robbins’ star pitcher in Bull). In a nation that was created out of a revolution that pitted farmers against the world’s greatest army, a nation whose general and first president pretty much never won a battle in the course of that revolution, it’s easy to see where this embrace of losers over snobs, the flawed but lovable everyman against the powerful champion, arises—and easy to embrace it ourselves as well.
I enjoy those characters and their stories as well, and am certainly not advocating rooting for the Redcoats during the Revolution (you definitely lose your AmericanStudier card for that one). But I think there’s a subtle but significant problem with these lovable loser stories, now more than ever: they make it much easier to swallow substantial inequalities, to see it as sufficient to achieve pyrrhic victories against the powers that be and thus leave those powers ultimately unscathed. That is, whereas Rocky hit the unbeatable champion Apollo hard enough that he famously noted, “There’ll be no rematch,” in these lovable loser stories the champions don’t seem much affected at all—it’s simply about the little guy achieving whatever victory he can reasonably get, and us all being happy with that. And at the end of the day, that seems like a recipe for giving up even the idea that either side can win—an idea that, mythic as it may too often be, is to my mind at the core of the best version of American identity and community.
Next MovieStudying tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other sports movies you’d highlight?
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