The race, religion, and ideology of sports

by Deborah Tudor

from Jump Cut, no. 33, Feb. 1988, pp. 2-9
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1988, 2006

HOOSIERS opens in transit as Norman Dale (Gene Hackman) drives through Indiana countryside in the early morning. His car approaches the camera and passes, the camera panning to follow him down a two-lane road to his new job as high school basketball coach.

Dale is going to Hickory Indiana, a place that cannot be found except by those who already know the way. "Hickory is so small," Myra Fleenor (Barbara Hershey) tells Dale, "that it doesn't even appear on most state maps." Hickory is a special place removed from the everyday world where normal conflicts are suppressed and race and class differences do not exist.

In Hickory, the fictional counterpart of Milan, Indiana, everyone is white and roughly equivalent in economic status.[1][open notes in new window] In fact, unpainted houses and beat-up trucks indicate that Hickory may be a poor town, more so than neighboring cities. Coach Dale alludes to this possibility when he tells his players not to be distracted by an opposing team's fancy uniforms. This lack of class distinction along with apparent uniformity of religious belief creates an image of the residents as a group who share beliefs. Phrases like "the way we do things around here" and "things and people never change" dot the dialogue and indicate the timelessness of Hickory's culture.

Hickory signifies unspoiled innocence, an image of small-town United States. Many of the residents who own small businesses, a diner, a barbershop, a seed store or family farm are self-reliant, independent individuals. There is only one church shown, implying religious unity and the church building is used for a town meeting, indicating a close link between government and religion. The form of the meeting itself — one person, one vote — implies the ideal of participatory democracy. Hickory is the small town often invoked as the "real" United States: a group of hardworking people with equal say in the affairs of the community, working together under God. It is a well-ordered totally white universe.

HOOSIERS' plot is simple. Coach Norman Dale is fifty years old, banished from the NCAA for hitting a player. Hickory is virtually his last chance; he is unemployable anywhere else. As an outsider with different coaching techniques, he meets opposition from the townfolk and especially from Myra Fleenor, the assistant principal. She fears that he will convince her student and former star player, Jimmy Chitwood, to rejoin the team instead of pursuing the academic course she has set up for him. The Huskers begin the season poorly and the town votes to dismiss Dale. Jimmy interrupts the voting to announce that he'll play, but only if Dale stays. Dale is immediately reinstated and his vindication is multiple. Not only does Hickory win the state title, but he is able to showcase Jimmy and win Myra's love. All this will occur before the final buzzer.

HOOSIERS is an engaging film. I saw the film first at a preview then at a suburban theatre. Both audiences cheered as the lovable Huskers won the state tournament. It would be hard not to cheer these underdogs from a small school or to cheer Dale's "comeback." HOOSIERS' heartwarming surface disguises the important work of the text: its demonstration of certain ideological operations of sports.

Sports and race

Before the Huskers meet the South Bend team in the state tournament final game, they play only all-white teams. The film is "realistic" here, the absence of blacks attributed to the setting: rural Indiana in 1951. Prior to the tournament, the only black face seen in the film is that of a black drummer in a high school pep band. This lack effectively pits our heroes, the all-white, rural Hickory Huskers against the urban, racially mixed South Bend Central Bears in the climactic game.

To read the absence of blacks as neutral or realistic ignores its signification in the context of current sports. Along with other forms of entertainment, sports provides a traditionally sanctioned means of upward mobility for black Americans. This myth however, works against black success in several ways. Black children who focus all their attention on athletics risk academic failure, and the odds against becoming another Michael Jordan are overwhelming. High school athletes who are not recruited for college often find this particular American dream is a dead end. Fastening all their hopes on sports as an escape deflects children from other career paths. The myth of upward mobility through athletics provides an unrealistic model for success, and so it becomes part of a mechanism which bars black children from more realistic goals. Simultaneously, the presence of so many successful black athletes perpetuates the image of an open society of equal opportunity. However, the percentage of athletes who make it from the playgrounds to the professional leagues is small.

Set in 1951, HOOSIERS takes place when integration in professional sports is just starting. It is only four years after the signing of Jackie Robinson by the Brooklyn Dodger organization and one year after the National Basketball Association drafted its first black players.[2] In professional baseball during the 1950s, there is evidence that an unspoken "gentlemen's agreement" existed, dictating the acceptable racial balance on the diamond. Four players out of nine was the approved ratio.[3] In the fifties, professional sports was a white man's club recently opened to a few blacks. Elevating a small number of black players to the major leagues allowed the white sports establishment to utilize previously unacceptable black talent while carefully controlling black entry into sports. This strategy avoided the appearance of absolute racism while slowing black entry into professional sports enough to prevent white fans' total alienation. In the eighties, professional black athletes are struggling to extend their rights to include management and ownership.

HOOSIERS reduces the race issue to a climactic black-white game. Through dialogue, sound and framing, the text establishes the opposing team as a disruptive threat to the harmony and stability represented by the Huskers. An extremely percussive music track dominates the audio. The music's beat emphasizes the sound of the basketball hitting the floor. Crowd noise is distorted and mixed down to a low roar, creating a menacing sound. When the Bears, with their tall front line, take the floor, a long shot displays them full length, tall and powerful. The cut to this shot is synched to a single heavy percussion "beat." A reaction shot of Coach Dale follows. His facial expression indicates anxiety and awe; his eyes are wide and mouth slightly open. This two-shot sequence implies fear of the opponent, of their superior height and strength. The Bears look intimidating.

They do indeed intimidate the Huskers, dominating the boards and controlling the pace of the game. The Bears' control is clear in a shot where the Huskers miss a field goal. The frame is empty except for the ball bouncing off the rim of the basket. The only sound is the music track, with the beat synchronized to the basketball hitting the rim. In slow motion, two black arms enter the frame from below and grab the rebound. Immediately the audience knows the opponent has the ball.

The lack of racial integration on the Huskers and the absence of even one black opponent in previous tournament games creates a situation that pits the small town Davids against the big city Goliaths. The film devotes one scene to the fact that the Huskers are from such a small town that they've never seen a building taller than two stories. When they enter Butler Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, they are nervous about playing in such a big auditorium in front of a huge crowd. However, no mention is made of the fact that they will be playing a black team for the first time. The text totally suppresses this issue at a manifest level. However, analysis reveals that the text creates an image of the opposition as a menace, a threat.

Sports and religion

Textual links between religion and sports clearly place the support of the institution of religion behind the institution of sports in this "struggle." As he has for all the games, the minister leads a prayer and reads a text from the Bible. This time, he quotes the David and Goliath story, identifying "the philistine" with the Bears. Philistine, with its connotation of barbarian, evokes a threat to stable harmonious society. The use of this particular verse, while overtly justified by the respective sizes of the opposing towns and schools, magnifies the final game into a conflict between the rural white team embodying the values of a traditional small-town United States and the urban, racially mixed team.

Early in the film, Norman Dale arrives at Hickory High School, entering a foyer lighted by amber sunlight streaming through two windows in the back of the hall in a little alcove. This light is reflected by a highly polished wooden floor reminiscent of a basketball court. The school is hushed; classes are in session. A shelf above the alcove holds basketball trophies and game balls. The soft lighting and lack of noise create a reverential atmosphere like that of a church. The camera, placed in Norm's position, pans across these trophies.

Norm's meeting with some of the local men in the barbershop further underlines the sports-religion connection. While shaking Norm's hand, the minister says that he knows Norm is a man with "high Christian morals who'll set a good example for the boys. Do you believe (pause) in a zone defense or man-to-man?" This question is uttered in a slightly emphasized "evangelical" tone of voice. The substitution of types of defenses for the expected phrase "the Lord" is funny and points out the equivalence between values like "decent and God-fearing" with belief in the value of certain basketball strategies. These points are equally important to the preacher. A belief in God and a belief in traditional basketball strategy are both highly desirable.

The town minister's involvement with the team goes deeper: his son Strap is on the team, he delivers locker room prayers before each game, and he drives the team bus to away games. Strap tells Norm that his father had a revelation from the Lord to paint his church bus red and gold (the Hickory colors) and drive the team. Norm starts to smile but as he looks at Strap, he realizes the boy is serious and tempers his amusement.

Religion also contributes to a Husker victory in the regional final game. Before entering the game as a substitute, Strap kneels in prayer on the sideline. He quickly scores two field goals, explaining: "I felt the power of the Lord." Through a handclasp, Strap transmits this power to Ollie, who shoots the game — winning free throws. Thus the institution of religion supports athletes and transmits a belief in a supernatural power that is on Hickory's side. Belief that the victory came from this power reinforces the correctness of the church's involvement in the team and justifies the faith of the believers in God, the institution and the values that it supports.

Sports as an industry

Hickory provides an unchanging isolated locale for the mutually supportive work of religion and sports. Myra Fleenor voices this quality of life in Hickory when she tells Dale that while she left Hickory to attend college and graduate school, she returned:

"Father always said I'd come back … it's a place where things never change … where people never change … it makes you feel real secure."

This security provides a stable place for "pure" athletics, free from economic and industrial concerns.

Athletics exists in tension between the concepts of sports as a "pure" endeavor, a "real" accomplishment and the reality of sports as part of the entertainment industry. Even at college and high school levels, designated places of amateur play, sports is commodified. College recruiting is a high-pressure, hard-sell business practice. With some exceptions, college recruiting has depended upon perks to sway undecided athletes. Extra money, cars, and sexual favors have been offered as bait. The recent recruiting scandal at Southern Methodist University is an example. This "seamier" side of athletics is at odds with its image of purity.

But Hickory insulates its amateur athletes from the business side of basketball. Norm Dale asks Myra Fleenor why a basketball scholarship isn't feasible for Jimmy. She responds that nothing ever comes to Hickory. No recruiters will see Jimmy play, eliminating his chances to compete for athletic scholarships. Jimmy's talents exist outside the athletic career track, endowing his play with dual meanings. Jimmy plays for the pure enjoyment of sports, not as a means to an end. However, basketball is a dead end for Jimmy, the "glory days" of his youth.

Ideology of athletics

Isolated from the economic, race and class issues, HOOSIERS resolves several pairs of contradictory values appropriated from the discourse of athletics. With other institutions, athletics works to reproduce dominant cultural values while simultaneously eradicating any conflict arising from the fact that several of these values oppose each other. Antimonies like natural talent versus hard work, individuality versus team identity and competition/winning versus sportsmanship exist in the everyday discourse of both professional and amateur sports. Taken separately, these qualities are values in the Western personality. However, any one of them poses a potential threat to cultural harmony is pushed beyond a certain limit.

Casting these attributes into pairs contains their subversive potential. These sets of paired opposites form a large part of the ideology of athletics. For instance, winning is valorized by sporting institutions but not at the expense of sportsmanlike behavior (at least in public). Individual excellence is rewarded as long as it does not obstruct team effort. Thus, a basketball team's best shot is censured for failing to pass off to a teammate with better position to make a crucial basket. A naturally talented athlete, called a "phenom" is a valuable asset, but if he is unwilling to work hard, then he will "fail to live up to his potential." Discourses of the institutions surrounding sports such as broadcast and print journalism, constantly re-establish these paired contradictions as qualities that are inherently "athletic."

Cutting across these sets of antimonies is the opposition of orthodoxy-heterodoxy, which subsumes all these pairs. The work of sports in culture creates unity in the field of endeavor by smoothing out the appearance of heterodoxy. Individual differences in the practice of athletic concepts are suppressed. Professional baseball umpires conceptualize the strike zone differently. These slight variations of the rulebook strike zone apparently constitute an unfair obstacle to players. This could be seen as an example of "individualism" defeating the rules governing the play of the game, as it introduces the element of arbitrariness into a well-regulated universe. However such variations are suppressed by the discourse of the game. Throughout the game, sportscasters remind the audience that, although different umpires call balls and strikes differently, each calls them consistently that way. Therefore, learning the umpires becomes another facet of the game for the players to master. This lack of uniformity is disguised as the "human element" of the game. Thus, individualism is institutionalized within the discourse of the sport.

Individual vs. team play

One of the most prominent antimonies of athletics is individual versus team play. The points of view of announcers, managers, coaches and players are often encoded in various clichés. Statements that valorize the worth of the individual are: "One man can make the difference between winning and losing," or "This man is the franchise." Keeping individual statistics such as points, assists, field goals, etc., validate individual play and reward it with honors such as Most Valuable Player and contract monies.

However, should a player carry his quest for personal excellence too far, he is quickly censured. An athlete who plays for his own stats is deplored. Even though individual excellence is rewarded, a player must simultaneously be a team person. He must play within the team's system, or he will most like be traded for someone who does. Incorporating the individual players into the team presents itself as a situation that benefits both "star" player and the rest of the team.

Natural talent versus hard work

HOOSIERS uses the figure of Jimmy Chitwood to resolve this contradiction and secondly that of natural talent versus hard work. Natural talent is the quality that determines if a player becomes one of the elite, the athlete-hero. This attribute expresses itself in truisms like "He has a natural shot" or "You can't teach quickness." However, natural talent will only carry its possessor a certain distance. Hard work must turn raw talent into polished, mature play. For a season or two, the excuse, "These are the mistakes of youth," will cover the athlete's failings. However, if he lacks the ability to work hard, he will be dismissed in a few years. On the other hand, an athlete who works hard without the benefit of exceptional natural skills will be commended for "making the best of his talent," for "fighting his way into the lineup" by taking extra batting practice or extra scrimmage. The limit placed on natural talent's value by the value of hard work assures the mass of people who are spectators that even though they lack the gifts of Magic Johnson they could have an opportunity to be a big time athlete. Sports promotes an elite class of heroes while claiming at the same time that really, anyone could join this privileged class through hard work and dedication. This image, of course, denies the restrictions that exist on entering professional sports.

Although Jimmy Chitwood is the town's outstanding shot, he refuses to play for personal reasons. Fatherless, he mourns the death of Dale's predecessor who was "like a father" to him. Jimmy's mother is an invalid and Myra Fleenor helps take care of him. She tells Dale that "she and Jimmy have decided that it would be best for him not to play ball." However the students and townfolk feel Jimmy must play if the Huskers are to be competitive. The Hickory principal, Cletus (Sheb Wooley) tells Norm that everyone feels Jimmy is necessary. Dale replies with a sports truism that denies the value of the individual: "No one is irreplaceable." In this scene and several others, Dale asserts that basketball is a team sport with much more to it than just shooting.

During the pre-season pep rally, the students begin to chant, "Jimmy, Jimmy" after the team is introduced. Dale takes the microphone and chastises them, stating that these boys are "their team" and they deserve the school's support. Here Dale asserts the reciprocity of school athletics. The players work, sacrificing personal time to give the student body (and the town) a team to support. The non-players must recognize this to validate the players as their team. The implication here is that the boys play for the team, the school and the town, not for individual recognition.

Dale's practice sessions stress the teamwork necessary to set up good shots and play good defense. This strategy which often has the boys practice drills without the ball, directly contradicts the style of the "old coach," whose practices were more or less scrimmages and who subscribed to the "run and gun" style of play.

Jimmy as structuring absence

Jimmy is the epitome of the silent loner. He is first seen alone in the gymnasium, shooting baskets. When Cletus tries to introduce Norm Dale, Jimmy just looks at him without speaking. In fact, Jimmy speaks only twice during the film. However he is constantly spoken about: by Myra, Dale and the residents. His screen time is limited as well, but his off-screen presence structures many scenes where he is physically absent. During that pep rally, he is absent as the students chant his name. He watches practice occasionally, peeking through the gym door. He shoots baskets alone. He is not integrated into Hickory society. Although Jimmy is outside Hickory, he is the focus of much of the text. He integrates Norm Dale into Hickory and is the initial catalyst for the relationship between Norm and Myra Fleenor.

Myra Fleenor wants Jimmy to escape small town life. Her point of view opposes that of Norm Dale, that of the townsfolk and that of the film. She does not want Jimmy to be like Norm, "coaching in Hickory when he's fifty." Myra wants Jimmy to succeed in a career that will endure. She derides the notion of the athlete-hero, saying,

"Heroes come pretty cheap around here … if you can put a ball through an iron hoop, people treat you like a god."

Dale replies that most people would kill for the chance to be a god if only for a moment. Although the text vindicates Dale's point of view about sports, it does provide elements that contradict this view. However, all these contradictions are neatly resolved before the final game.

The character of Shooter (Dennis Hopper) supports Myra's point of view. He is an alcoholic ex-Hickory player whose son Everett now plays for Dale. Shooter is a bum, begging small change and launching into stories of his playing days. Although he is unsuccessful in life, Shooter really does have a good mind for basketball. He understands the game and has an encyclopedic knowledge of the teams in the region. After Cletus suffers a heart attack, Norm gives Shooter a chance to coach. Through this experience, Shooter regains his self-respect, the love of his son, and the strength to enter a hospital to dry out. Sports may have sidetracked Shooter, but it is his ultimate salvation that reconnects him to life. Basketball is a clear inspiration for Shooter's redemption; this mitigates Myra Fleenor's anti-athletic viewpoint.

Dale at first observes Myra's admonition to leave Jimmy alone. However he talks to Jimmy, who is shooting baskets alone outside the school. An establishing shot "proves" that the youth can indeed shoot; he makes several baskets in a row. As Jimmy shoots, Dale tells him that his talent is his own and that he doesn't care if Jimmy plays or not. Jimmy gives little acknowledgement of Dale's presence, except to miss a shot as he leaves. This break in his equilibrium is quickly restored; Jimmy returns to shooting a string of baskets.

Jimmy, silent, alone in the frame, not only represents the individual but the natural. Norm's final statement to Jimmy indicates that he adheres to his "no one is irreplaceable" dictum. However, Norm's speech can be read as a deliberate attempt to upset Jimmy, to break through his reserve. Contrasted to Myra's highly directive speech about Jimmy's future, Norm's speech seems ambiguous, apparently leaving Jimmy freedom of choice. The mention of Myra, however, indicates that Norm wants Jimmy to consider a choice other than her goals for him.

"Let's do it coach's way"

At this point in the narrative, the Huskers are losing games. The text justifies these losses by pointing out that the team members refuse to follow Norm's game plan. In the locker room following a loss, one players tells his mates, "Let's do it Coach's way." At this point, it is not the lack of Jimmy's natural talent but the failure of obedience to authority that costs Hickory games. The team does not want the work of following Norm's plan and reverts to old style play.

Ray breaches Norm's rule of four passes before shooting, scoring a few quick points but destroying the game plan. Norm benches him, even though the field goals narrowed the deficit and may eventually have rallied the team to win. Winning is important but only if accomplished within the system established by rightful authority. The team loses until Jimmy's return. However, the above justification mitigates the importance of the individual, the natural, for winning by stating that winning comes from disciplined team play.

The text also asserts the importance of the individual, however. Despite his assertions to the contrary, Coach Dale credits some of his team's resurgence to Jimmy: "With Jimmy, we've come together, all pistons are firing." This statement resembles sportscasters' references to the "X effect." "X" is one athlete of stellar quality whose presence in the lineup coincides with an upswing of team fortunes. Like other truisms, this one has glaring exceptions. Despite the addition of superstar Andre Dawson to the lineup, the Chicago Cubs finished the 1987 season in last place in the National League Eastern Division. One man may make a difference but only in the presence of other conditions.

Dale's statement about his new lineup reconciles the two elements of individual play and team effort. After all, no matter how good Jimmy is, he cannot compete without a team. No glory accrues to sandlot players. Although Norm overtly states that Jimmy's talents are his own, the film denies this and defines Jimmy's talents as rightfully used in the service of the school and the town. People may possess the right to do as they please with their talents. However, society pushes people into situations where their talents are at the disposal of the community, to be consumed by others. Natural talent gets no reward; natural talent developed through hard work under an acceptable culturally appointed authority figure garners considerable returns. Fame, honor and for professionals, money — all these belong to the naturally talented individual who yields to group needs and is successfully integrated into the team, and by extension, society.

Sport as socializing force

The importance of school and school athletic programs as socializing institutions lies in their ability to channel the students into structured activities that reproduce dominant values. From earliest school days, playtime is directed; it is structured into "recess" periods supervised by teachers. Play changes over the course of school years from nonhierarchical participatory activity performed for its own sake to intramural and/or competitive sports. Free play, according to Stanley Aronowitz, can break the activity that reproduces dominant values; it contains the potential for subversion of values. Therefore it is discouraged.[4]

Athletic programs differ from play; they are hierarchical. Participants follow rules, obey coaches.

"Play is an activity that human beings create in which the person sees him or herself in the object produced. It presupposes equality … we play neither with inferiors or superiors; we play with our equals" (p. 62).

Sports also divides the worlds into players and spectators. Spectatorship becomes an increasingly large mode of activity within the world. Since sports programs are limited by funds and time, only a small number of students participate; the rest watch. The effect of spectatorship is that spectators forget that their actions create the world; instead, they begin to see the world as created for them to consume (p. 67). Sports programs then affect non-participants by helping to condition them to spectatorship as a way of living. They become objects acted upon rather than active subjects in the world.

The figure of Jimmy, which is integrated into the team and community, also exemplifies the athlete as valued commodity. He is quiet and obedient (except in the final game where he disagrees with Dale). He is not a "hot dog" on the court. He plays within Dale's strategy. His presence on the team coincides with better days for the teams, and the town's unified support around the Huskers is assured. Norm Dale's position within the community is also stabilized.

Dale's unorthodox coaching methods contradict local basketball wisdom. The town distrusts him from the beginning; some of them openly question Cletus' decision to hire him. Dale further defies local custom by closing practices and dismissing a local man who wants to assist him. Banning spectators from practices raises the question of control over the team, who are sons and neighbors of the residents. Hickory feels close identification with and heavy investment in the team. They want the Huskers to stabilize things, to ensure that the town's way of life remains as it is. Dale threatens this role, but he also embodies the icon of "head coach" as ultimate authority over the team and its conditions of existence.

Dale does have backers among the residents however, such as Paul Butcher. His son Buddy was kicked off the team by Dale, and Paul brings him back to apologize. Butcher also clears the gym of onlookers, demonstrating his faith in the rightful authority of the man occupying the position of head coach.

Dale's team loses the first two games and the town's unhappiness grows. The conflict between Dale and Hickory leads to a referendum on his suitability to coach. The vote goes against Dale (68-45). As the votes are being tallied, Jimmy enters the church. He approaches the podium and asks to speak. He tells the assembled folks, "I don't know if it'll make any difference, but I figure it's about time I started playing." The crowd cheers. However, Jimmy adds, "I play only if Coach stays." Dale wins a quick re-vote by a large show of hands.

Coach Dale's victory also valorizes the importance of the naturally talented individual and emphasizes the importance of winning, even at partial loss of control over the team. This is a delicate balance. The town wants the Huskers to remain the way they want but also wants a winning team. It's important that the Huskers be an institution that reproduces the town's values, the stability referred to by Myra. However, it is vital that they win, and they believe that one person, Jimmy, will make the difference. Therefore, they will tolerate Norm Dale and their fear of loss of control.

Women, sports, romance

Jimmy also provides the impetus for Norm and Myra's relationship, which begins in conflict over him. Myra's views on Jimmy and sports pit her against Norm. It also makes her somewhat of an outsider in Hickory. As a teacher, she attends pep rallies and games but does not "boost" the team in any extraordinary way. In fact, she does not subscribe at all to notions of the value of sports. Rather, she views sports as a sidetrack, which blinds participants and spectator alike to other more lasting achievements. HOOSIERS positions Myra as an outsider in several ways: she is often framed alone, as she keeps to herself and is unfriendly to Dale, the protagonist. She left Hickory but returned, speaking glowingly about its lack of change.

She tells Dale about basketball's importance in her childhood. Her mother was so involved with her brother's playing that the mother lost sleep before and after game days. But unlike her mother, Myra cannot understand what all the fuss was about. Opal Fleenor accepts athletics as an important part of small town life and family life as well. An enthusiastic Hickory booster, she is friendly to Dale and invites him over for supper and cuts his hair. This is in contrast to Myra, who speaks to Dale only when necessary. Opal is warm and folksy — much like the common image of small town residents. More pointedly, she accepts easily the position that team athletics gives to women: mother, spectator, cheerleader, booster. She is unable to convert Myra, who wonders why "nothing I ever did was as important" as her brother's basketball playing.

Myra's portrayal in the film makes her point of view unattractive. She is a harsh character compared to good ole Norm, whose dry wit and easy ability to handle bad situations make him a sympathetic protagonist. Myra is suspicious and unfriendly; she digs up Norm's past and discovers the NCAA ban. Her body and facial gestures are very stiff and controlled; her clothing and hairstyle are severe and prim. When she speaks, her mouth is drawn into a harsh, straight line. Barely controlled anger exists in the undertones of her voice. As a woman spectator, I responded positively to Myra's independence. However, I think that the a more general reading of Myra would be as a sexually repressed woman, who, if she would let Norm Dale make love to her, would relax and realize the importance of sports and a woman's place in the world. Indeed, this is what happens.

Myra is also an outsider precisely because she is a woman. An integral part of the U.S. notion of team sports is that of the father passing the torch to a son. Sports texts contain many examples of the importance of the father-son sports bond. In THE NATURAL, Roy Hobbs' knowledge of his son's existence gives him the strength to hit the climactic home run. As Rob Silberman observed:

"We all know if, at the end, he'd been told he had a daughter, he probably would have hit a single at best instead of a home run."[5]

The literary discourse of sports history also provides examples. Ex-Brooklyn Dodger shortstop Peewee Reese expressed his disappointment at having only daughters: "I must be shooting blanks," he told writer Roger Kahn.[6]

Myra's attempt to be Jimmy's mentor and lure him from the basketball court disrupts the traditional pattern of father-son bonding in athletics. Myra cannot occupy the place of the father. This disruption is smoothed over when Jimmy accepts Norm and rejoins the team.

Myra's relation to sports is crucial to the text. She voices many of the unattractive aspects of sports. Much of what she says is a rational critique of the overwhelming emphasis placed on sports at the expense of other types of achievement. However, this critique is undercut by the film's harsh portrayal of her and her suspicious denial of Norm. "I know all about men like you," she tells him early in the film. Her struggle with Norm over Jimmy can be read as based on jealousy rather than on concern for Jimmy's future.

However as the story progresses, Myra converts to Norm's point of view. She expresses admiration for his "noble experiment" with Shooter and for his courage in following his convictions about coaching. The conventions of Hollywood romance also operate here: initial dislike often masks "real love" and evaporates in the face of undeniable attraction. A series of reaction shots of Myra's face displays her gradual change. The hard lines around her mouth vanish; her face becomes softer in expression. At the climactic game, Myra becomes the supportive woman in the bleachers, nervous at the game's progress. When the Huskers win the title, Myra and Opal embrace for the first time. The end of the game has Myra and Norm beaming at each other. Norm has won Myra's heart and her support.

A moment of godhood

The final game also gives Norm a chance to repay Jimmy for saving his job. Down by one point, with twenty seconds remaining, Norm decides to use Jimmy as a decoy and have another player take the final shot. The well-disciplined Huskers balk at this. Jimmy speaks only for the second time in the film. He looks at Norm and says, "I can make it." Norm hesitates only a second before agreeing. This allows Jimmy to make the final jump shot that wins the game. It is his moment of "godhood" spoken of earlier by Norm, and his chances of being recruited increase.

Hoosiers' nostalgia

HOOSIERS offers a nostalgic look at a time when, it is widely believed, Americans held a set of common values. The myth of white domination was largely unchallenged, at least in the imaginative memory of the 1980s. Women were traditional conventional supporters of the active man's quest for success. In short, HOOSIERS is a retrospective fantasy about a time and place where societal problems do not exist. People like Myra Fleenor who challenge the system of values simply do not have the power to withstand the recuperative force of dominant culture. Athletics, religion and romantic love combine in a formidable "natural" order. Like the playing field, Hickory constitutes a privileged space where the "political issues" of a culture that creates and consumes athletics to maintain itself are suppressed. Since sports is often read as a simple metaphor for the state of society, the lack of racial and class distinctions can be read as an indication that society at large is also classless and unproblematic. HOOSIERS allows filmgoers in the 1980s a breather, a timeout from an increasingly puzzling relationship of sports to culture. Denial of the "political" nature of athletics is widespread even in the face of the current attention on the biased hiring practices of professional sports. Driving to Hickory, along with Norm Dale, the spectator leaves all this behind and revisits an uncomplicated vision of patriarchal white United States.


1. The Milan Indians won the Indiana High School state title in 1954. With an enrollment of 160, they were the smallest school to win the one-class Indiana state tournament in the modern era. Don Snider, "The Real HOOSIERS Story," The Chicago Sun-Times, March 1, 1987, p. 119.

2. The 1950-51 National Basketball Association season featured the first black professional players. The New York Knicks obtained Nat "Sweetwater" Clifton from the Harlem Globetrotters and the Boston Celtics drafted Chuck Cooper of Duquesne. Zander Hollander, ed., The Modern Encyclopedia of Basketball, Rev. Ed. (New York: Four Winds Press, 1973).

3. Roger Kahn, The Boys of Summer (New York: Harper and Row, 1971), p. 172.

4. Stanley Aronowitz, False Promises (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1974), p. 69.

5. Rob Silberman, "THE NATURAL — Mr. Smith Goes to the Ballpark," JUMP CUT, No. 31 (1986), pp. 5-6.

6. Kahn, op. cit., p. 169.