The Program/Rudy (1993)

Sports Movies, Part III

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I.

Hollywood doesn’t make many movies about college football, but in the fall of 1993, two of them were released within weeks of each other. This is one of those odd and inexplicable entertainment-industry convergences that I presume defies rational explanation, kind of like when all those body-swapping movies came out at the same time in the late 1980s. The interesting thing is that these two college football movies had very little in common: One was a saccharine tale inspired by real life about a walk-on at Notre Dame, and the other was a cynical tale of a fictional program riddled with moral failings.

“They haven't made a good movie about college football since ‘Knute Rockne -- All American,’” wrote Washington Post columnist Norman Chad, in reviewing both films at the time, but I would go further than that, because, as I’ve written in the past, Knute Rockne: All-American is not a particularly good movie, either. There have been great documentaries about college football, of course, but I would argue that there has never been a great feature film about college football. And I think it’s because the view of college football is so often shrouded in these polar cliches: Either it is a sentimental throwback to a nostalgic past, or it is a dark pastime that reflects America’s ugly and exploitative underbelly.


II.

Such was the polarity of those two 1993 movies, both of which were helmed by undeniably talented artists: Rudy, about a Notre Dame walk-on who refuses to quit, was created by the team behind Hoosiers. The Program, about the misdeeds and ethical lapses of a fictional football program, was written and directed by David S. Ward, who wrote both The Sting and Major League. Rudy is, I guess, most notable for Sean Astin’s performance, which toes the line between maniacal determination and painful naivete; The Program is most notable for a scene in which several players lie down in the middle of a road divider, which spurned real-life copycat incidents that resulted in at least one death. (I have a college friend who, whenever he got several beers into a Friday evening in 1993 and 1994, would lie down at the edge of the road and shout, “What movie is this?”)

But the truth, for those of us who love college football, lies somewhere in the vast gray area in-between Rudy and The Program. College football can be beautiful and college football can be terrible; college football can lift people up and college football can break people down; college football is both moral and immoral, often at the same time. In recent weeks, horrifying sexual-abuse revelations at Michigan have tarnished the reputation of legendary coach Bo Schembechler; a decade earlier, the same thing happened to Joe Paterno at my alma mater, Penn State. It is now possible that of the three legendary coaches who came to define the Big Ten in the late 20th century, Woody Hayes—who ended his career by punching an opposing player—may be the only one not tarnished by a staggering off-field scandal. This is college football: Just when you think you’ve made sense of it, you realize you haven’t even come close.


III.

College football is my favorite sport; it is the sport I grew up with, and the sport I’ve written the most about over the course of my career. Yet so much has happened over the past year that it’s been hard for me to focus much on college football, which, last fall, served largely as a proxy in the ugly culture war that defined the tenure of a failed president of the United States. Over the past few weeks, so much new shit has come to light that its impossible to digest what it all means. The Supreme Court has essentially forced the NCAA’s hand, meaning players will immediately begin to profit off their names, images and likeness; the path toward further paying players, and perhaps creating a free-enterprise system in a sport that has fought against this system for over 150 years now seems closer to reality than ever. The NCAA itself might even be a dead organization walking.

What does this mean for college football? I have no idea. I’m not sure if any of us knows. The question becomes, How do we reconcile the Rudy-ishness of a sport that traffics on sentimentality and nostalgia with the Program-ness of a sport that has always felt a little dirty and skeevy in its attempts to maintain that air of nostalgia. Can we reconcile these two poles? Can college sports exist in that vast gray area? What happens if college football becomes a more honest version of itself? Does it somehow lose its charm?

There are no great feature films about college football because none have ever explored that gray area the way that certain documentaries about college football have, and the way that films about other sports have. There is only one pole or the other. But we don’t live in that world anymore. College football is far more complex than it’s ever been. The cliches don’t measure up. In a way, all of this is a mirror of the larger conversation we’ve been having in this country about our own history, about how we reconcile the ugliness and the beauty of a nation that has long struggled to honestly come to terms with its own complexities, its own flawed ethics, its own moral failings. What movie is this? I’m not sure we really know anymore.


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