Movie Review by: Courtney Carr, American University
Coach Boone’s unrelenting disciplinary procedures and almost insane insistence on having the entire team’s respect for his authority was probably the only method of leadership that would make that team succeed. The team needed strong leadership and a disciplined team to combat the opposition to desegregation, which threatened to tear apart the team and destroy moral. The team also had to win every game they played or Coach Boone would be fired, due to a racist hiring procedure. I came to this conclusion after reading Chapter 12, the chapter about the struggle for educational opportunity, in Sadker and Sadker’s “Teachers, Schools and Society”. I considered the desegregated situation that the team faced and the prejudiced expectations for the desegregated black students, before I could decide how I felt about Coach Boone’s strategies for discipline, as exemplified by his statement, “I don’t give a damn how sensitive these kids are, especially the young black kids. You ain’t doing these kids a favor by patronizing them. You are crippling them, crippling them for life.” At first, Coach Boone seemed to expect too much of his students because of the pressures he faced, where he might be fired if the team lost one game. Then I realized that it was more than Boone’s job that was at risk: at risk was the entire desegregation movement, the fight against racism, and the players’ futures.
As Rosenthal and Jacobson’s classic study on expectation theory tells us, the expectations that teachers hold for their students determines the outcome (Sadker and Sadker, 474). Coach Yoast questioned Coach Boone’s harsh disciplinary procedures without realizing the philosophy behind that discipline. It was Boone’s high expectations for all his players that called for strong team discipline and obedience to the team. According to expectation theory, if Coach Yoast, or any other coach, had taught the team, he might have foreseen most of the black students not succeeding at the same rate as the white players, due to impossible obstacles beyond their control… and the black students wouldn’t have been held to the same expectations in their performance and self-discipline as the other students. Spending time on a group that would fail, sooner or later, would be a silly exercise in the inevitable failure of the desegregation movement. However, Coach Boone saw the same obstacle in a different light. He saw that the necessary level of success for his black students and his desegregated team, in order for them to be accepted in a racist community, was going to have to be set higher and they would have to learn to set these expectations for themselves, in order to win the game of life. Coach Boone had in mind a different game plan: beat the odds and be the best, or lose everything.
Coach Boone’s coaching philosophy could be explained by teaching theory. Coach Boone’s coaching style was a combination of direct, teacher -centered teaching and student -centered teaching. Boon’s coaching is primarily teacher-centered. The primary reason his approach is teacher-centered is because of the essence of football teams, the focus on testing, which were games and scrimmages, and motivating through competitions or games. Other reasons include the call to the past, the downplaying of individuality within the team (“there is no I in team”), the coach-led discipline and coach-developed “curriculum” of study, and the rigorous attempt to overcome the threat of failure against the segregated teams. For example, the team was called the “Titans” and Coach Boone invoked team spirit at the beginning of the summer camp by telling a story about the epic strength and heroism of the Titans.
However, while he showed them how to fight on the football field, he also took them to the cemetery at Gettysburg Academy to show them another type of fight, that of equality among the races and the fight against slavery and racism. The reasons that Coach Boone’s coaching approach was sometimes student-centered include his focus on inner motivation, the feeling of success as a team through cooperation, and the direct social action projects, including the exercise on getting to know every other teammate thoroughly before the end of the summer practices.
Still, while the film showed a team’s success in the battle against racism, the film only hinted at the fight that had not yet been fought, in the 1960’s, against sexism. Both coaches had only daughters, and ironically, the daughter of Coach Yoast, who might have been too soft on his team if he had been the head coach, was more supportive of equality for his daughter than was Coach Boone. Coach Boone saw his daughter’s appropriate role as wearing dresses and playing with dolls, not wearing pants, playing with footballs and climbing trees. While the men were making strides against inequality regarding race, the women were also held to the same types of expectations for failure as was the desegregated team, but there was not yet an arena for their success in sports. The comment by Coach Boone to Coach Yoast’s daughter that really struck home for me, was when he asked if she couldn’t play with some dolls instead of messing around with football, implying that there was no place for her in the men’s world of football. However, the film indicated that there was hope for the women’s movement in sports, since Yoast’s daughter continued to avidly support her father’s team for years after that momentous season. I often wonder what the hidden expectations are for women athletes and what the success or failure of women athletes might mean for those whose expectations are set lower for women than for men.
In all, the team, their families, and their community faced many odds, including racism, lack of unilateral support for desegregation, and a lack of team moral, at the beginning of the movie. The team was facing possible failure every minute of every game and every practice, considering the odds they had to compete against. If the players became too full of themselves for their successes, or if the coach loosened up on his discipline, or if the coach expected less of some students than of others, failure was a possibility. The players can’t be trained to be soft, to feel sorry for themselves, and be easily hurt when the world was all too ready to have them fail. It was an ironic twist that one of the team’s top leaders was crippled in a car accident when his mind was in the clouds instead of being focused on his game, during an after game celebration. However, failure was not a possibility for Coach Boone.