The White Coach’s Burden

Courtesy: Sports Illustrated/The Dan Patrick Show

By Guest Contributor Dr. David J. Leonard

During my “glory days” playing high school football–among other positions I played linebacker–there was a game where, after several tackles (pretty amazing tackles if I remember them correctly), I found myself rolling on the ground in pain. Their running back decided to thrust his helmet into my gut leaving me gasping for air. I would later find out that the opposing coach encouraged his players to “take me out”: a helmet to the gut would do that for at least one play.

The fact that a nobody player in a nothing high-school football game between two tiny private schools in Los Angeles was “taken out” illustrates how encouraged violence is part and parcel to football culture, even if there were no “‘knockouts’…worth $1,500 and ‘cart-offs’ $1,000, with payments doubled or tripled for the playoffs,” rewards uncovered as part of the New Orleans Saints’ “bounty program” last week.

Yet, the NFL, much of the media, and others have acted as if the Saints’ actions are an aberration that can be easily corrected. As such, the league’s response was predictably clichéd:

The [anti-] bounty rule promotes two key elements of NFL football: player safety and competitive integrity. It is our responsibility to protect player safety and the integrity of our game, and this type of conduct will not be tolerated. We have made significant progress in changing the culture with respect to player safety and we are not going to relent. We have more work to do and we will do it.

The NFL wasn’t alone with its shock and outrage (and hypocrisy).  The Los Angeles Times’ Bill Plaschke referred to the bounty system as “sanctioned evil” that in one game constituted a “blatant mugging by the New Orleans Saints.” Eamon Quinn described bounties as antithetical to the values of sports: “Such malicious intent—regardless of whether the particular hit was legal by the letter of the law—totally undermines the camaraderie and goodwill inherent in participation in sports. It is diametrically opposed to the inherently benevolent nature of sporting competition.”  Similarly, ESPN’s Gregg Easterbrook identified the bounty issue as “Sinnersgate” which “is about being paid to cause injury, which takes a beautiful sport and makes it a low, filthy thing.”

Dave Zirin rightfully highlights the hypocrisy in the league’s resisting calls for reform while marketing itself on the “Orwellian staple” of comparing NFL players to warriors:

There is no morality in war — but that doesn’t stop our political and military leaders from insisting otherwise. Invariably, the enemy consists of immoral, medieval cave dwellers who respect neither human life nor the sacred rules of combat. Our side, on the other hand, engages in “surgical strikes” to limit “collateral damage” in a noble effort to liberate the shackled from tyranny. They tell us to ignore the innocent killed in drone attacks, the piling body counts, and just remember that our enemies are savages because they don’t play by civilized rules.

The moral indignity of the media is striking given its own promotion of on-the-field violence. The proliferation of a highlight culture dominated by jarring hits is as much a bounty as any direct or indirect payment system.

Courtesy: Associated Press

An ESPN culture that leads with bone-crushing, de-cleating tackles, turning relatively obscure defensive players into household names, illustrates the role of the media in offering incentive for viciousness on the field. The hypocrisy and faux-outrage from the media as well as fans, given the widespread acceptance of a culture of violence, seems more about disappointment the behavior of any coaches involved; bounty gate isn’t a challenge to perception of football and the NFL, but the league’s patriarchs – the coaches.

Sally Jenkins, a sports columnist with the Washington Post, highlights the presumed pedagogical power (or mission) of (collegiate) coaches:

The best college coaches teach sport as a set of problems and how to tease out the solutions. They don’t just teach content and skill, but how to transfer it into real-world performance through study, organization and communication under pressure. They ask, what happens if you follow a strategy to its logical conclusion? What are the consequences of making things up as you go along? Why do things break down? What are effective fallback principles when skill or strategy breaks down? What are the traits of successful organizations across professional boundaries?

While Jenkins celebrates collegiate coaches, the vision of all coaches as teachers, as sources of discipline, and as role models encompasses those within the professor ranks.

In this sense, the outrage instead reflects a certain level of shock, one based in a culture that celebrates coaches (white males) as a source of values and sportsmanship. Whereas athletes are imagined as lacking values, coaches are seen/represented as bestowing those desired values onto those otherwise “problem children.” The shock and disappointment stems from the following: when the “adults” are the source of those corrupting values, anxiety is sure to follow.

The anxiety reflects a disruption of the imagined role of coach as basis of values and goodness. It disrupts the valorization of Bear Bryant and Vince Lombardi, Tom Landry and Chuck Noll, and the cultural power of films like The Blind Side. Chronicling the rages-to-riches story of Michael Oher, the story celebrates the power of the “white coach.” Oher’s transformation results from his contact with and education from whites in his life, whether in the form of Sandra Bullock’s character, Leigh Tuohy, or his coach, Burt Cotton (Ray McKinnon).  Oher’s discipline and willingness to “do it the right way” comes from lessons learned from white people.  The film thus refashions the white coach as savior and source of discipline trope by moving to the sphere of the private (the family) and by feminizing this process.

Writing about the recent Oscar-nominated documentary Undefeated, which chronicles the on-the-field maturation of a “cauldron of troubled inner-city kids”  Patrick Goldstein locates it within a larger tradition:

Watching the film, I couldn’t help but ponder whom I’d want to cast as Courtney in the remake. After all, it’s easy to assemble a who’s who of great actors who’ve played football coaches, including Gene Hackman (“The Replacements”), Denzel Washington (“Remember the Titans”), Al Pacino (“Any Given Sunday”), Billy Bob Thornton (“Friday Night Lights”), Dennis Quaid (“The Express”) and Ed Harris (“Radio”).

With the exception of Washington, those coaches are all white, which raises an unsettling question: Why do so many movies about African Americans have a white protagonist at their core? As the Wall Street Journal’s John Anderson put it, the feelings the kids in “Undefeated” might have about their white coach is a question “that crosses a viewer’s mind, and one that doesn’t get an answer” in the film.

It is not a coincidence that the majority of these coaches are white given the power of the White Coach’s Burden narrative. The allure of a coach that is a cross between Rudyard Kipling and Vince Lombardi explains the power of sport films. Yet, it also illustrates the spectacle–the shock and claims of disbelief–that has resulted from Bountygate. The New Orleans coaches failed to not only uphold the tradition of Lombardi but most certainly failed to “take up the White Man’s Burden”:

Have done with childish days –
The lightly proferred laurel,
The easy, ungrudged praise.
Comes now, to search your manhood
Through all the thankless years
Cold, edged with dear-bought wisdom,
The judgment of your peers!

This failure is failure is particularly devastating given the ways that the Saints have been elevated for saving New Orleans in a post-Katrina environment. New Orleans as a city, like the black athlete, has been consistently represented as needing to be saved, needing discipline, and needing a new set of values. The fact that it was coaches for New Orleans shown to be teaching the values of violence and “winning at all cost” is anything but ironic given this larger history.

It is clear that we’ve reached a moment where we can start asking football to pick a simile–warriors or educators, mentors or hitmen–and stick with it. Because they can’t have it both ways. Having experienced the “lessons” of opposing coaches, I have a hard time believing in The Educator Narrative.

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Racialicious is a blog about the intersection of race and pop culture. Check out our daily updates on the latest celebrity gaffes, our no-holds-barred critique of questionable media representations, and of course, the inevitable Keanu Reeves John Cho newsflashes.

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  • greenscribe

    Dr. Leonard, I think your assessment about the Saints and the city of New Orleans is projecting.  The Saints organization has done a lot to resurrect New Orleans from its turmoil through charity and positive spirit.  It’s interesting you never hear about these stories through the sports media.  Instead, they rather continuously report about the questioning of a player’s character once he’s gets arrested or another scandal.  This time it’s the New Orleans Saints.  From day one of this scandal, the Saints have been used as a scapegoat to an existing issue that has been going on in the league for ages, which the commissioner is trying to rectify in light of these recent lawsuits.  Since day one of this scandal, the players on up to the coaches have admitted this ‘pay for performance’ scheme was nothing new and has been league wide for ages.  Also, you fail to admit that several former Saints players have filed suit against the league (In fact, in a few days before this scandal broke.), because of lingering injuries sustained in the game. 

    The Saints players and the coach centered around this scandal have admitted to the ‘pay for play’, but denied the intent of ever injuring their opponent.  According to a report in the Wall Street Journal, only 16 opponent injuries — zero concussions and nothing career-ending — were recorded against the Saints during this three-year investigation.

    I’m all for player safety as well, but this whole thing has been blown way out of proportion.  It’s no secret there are those who take issue with the city of New Orleans as well as the Saints organization.  Read these opinion columns from some of these sports writers.  Each one would admit the Saints are not ‘the beloved team’ unlike the Steelers and Giants.  Makes me think if the scandal was on either one of these teams, it wouldn’t generate so much outrage and quickly swept in a mere footnote.

    • David J. Leonard


      None of your points really connect to the
      argument here that the reason the story received so much coverage is because of
      the value provided to (white) football coaches.  Your commentary seems to be based on a different article

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  • PatrickInBeijing

    I stopped watching American football a long time ago.  I remember articles about how college football was nothing but a business, and how athletes, especially athletes of color ended up exploited and discarded.  I can remember such articles in Sports Illustrated a long long long time ago.  But nothing ever changes.

    And now, we are learning more about concussions and the cumulative effects of the kind of battering practiced in football on the human brain (and other body parts, as well).   A sane civilized society would demand that football change or cease to exist.  We won’t.

    Thanks so much for this article.  It is important that the information about what the sport is, as well as what it could be, is visible for people to see.  Especially thanks for showing us the relationship between race and sports and power in American culture, which we mostly ignore or gloss over.  

  • Tom Houseman

    Our idolization of coaches makes people much quicker to forgive them for their wrongdoing. Just look at the Penn State student body’s reaction to the firing of Joe Paterno.

  • Tom Houseman

    Our idolization of coaches makes people much quicker to forgive them for their wrongdoing. Just look at the Penn State student body’s reaction to the firing of Joe Paterno.