Monday, December 14, 2009
On The U and The Greatest Game Ever Played
It is not difficult for me to recall the very pinnacle of my existence as a sports fan. That would be January 2, 1987. I was fourteen years old. I have this theory that, in the lives of themajority of American males, the love of sports peaks at approximately the age of fourteen; at this moment, you are old enough to understand the nuances of the game but too young to be unenthralled by media construction and the inevitable failings of human behavior. And so for me, it all came together that night: Penn State defeated Miami in the Fiesta Bowl, in a game no one thought they could win, in a game against perhaps the most talented team in college football history, in a game that had been hyped as a literal confrontation between good and evil. It was a wonderful (if largely false) mythology, and it fit perfectly with the age; I write about it extensively in my book*--in fact, it is not an exaggeration to say that this game inspired the entire book, though it comprises just one chapter--but I was intrigued to see the situation portrayed by someone who grew up from an opposing perspective, that someone being Billy Corben, who directed "The U," ESPN's 30 for 30 film about the University of Miami football team in the 1980's.
I should say this: I thought Corben's first film, "Cocaine Cowboys," was a wicked piece of entertainment. And I feel the same way about "The U"--as an entertainment, as a presentation of a singular and oft-exaggerated viewpoint, it works beautifully; it was so effective in drawing out the visceral hatred of my childhood, I actually had to pause it a few times and walk in circles around my living room to cool myself down. But it should be said: Corben's made a propaganda film. There are no opposing voices. There is no one to point out that when the Miami players accuse Penn State of making racist remarks, they are referring to Penn State's (now deceased) punter, John Bruno, who, in what I can only assume was an attempt to defuse the racial tension in the room, made a joke about Penn State allowing the black players to eat at the training table once a week; there is no one to point out that Bruno also mocked Jimmy Johnson's hair, which is such an obvious and open target for ridicule that the Miami players do it themselves in the documentary, or that Bruno delivered the greatest line uttered by a punter in the history of football, when he refuted Jerome Brown's statement about the Japanese not dining with Pearl Harbor before they bombed by saying, "Didn't the Japanese lose the war?" And there is no one to point out that Miami did not merely lose that game because Vinny Testaverde threw five interceptions, but because Penn State's defensive backs intimidated Miami's receivers by jarring them with hard hits, and because Penn State's defensive coordinator, Jerry Sandusky, designed a brilliant game plan that Johnson could not solve. And it's not just the Penn State game--there are moments like this throughout the whole film, when Corben seems so determined to present a sympathetic and entertaining picture of this team he adores that he glosses over the truth.
I mean, I understand the intent: I feel like Corben, as a Miami fan, set out to make a film that would purposefully and defiantly goad me, the fourteen year old kid who grew up sheltered in Central Pennysylvania and was utterly perplexed by the Miami ethos. (If that's the case, he succeeded.) I feel like Corben, a few years younger than me, possessed the reverse negative of my own worldview at age 14; maybe when Penn State beat Miami, all Corben could see, like Jimmy Johnson, was that the better team had lost, that the racism and stodginess of middle America had prevailed, that the team he loved was misunderstood and discriminated against. Of course, there is also much I know now that I did not know when I was adolescent, about race and poverty and African-American culture; there is much I can sympathize with, even if I can't bring myself to swallow it completely. It was the eighties, after all; everything was exaggerated.
And yet there is one moment in "The U" that breaks through Corben's protective screen; it comes when Miami players are decrying their image, and the media's portrayal of them. And it comes from--of all people--Michael Irvin.
"There was no conspiracy against us," he says. "We were just baaaaad boys."
And for a moment, when I heard that, I felt fourteen again.
*Ahem...available for pre-order.