Sunday, April 22, 2012


UNDEFEATED (Daniel Lindsay and T.J. Martin, 2011)

With many school districts struggling financially, the money funneled to athletics programs deserves scrutiny.  What is the value in having extracurricular sports when lack of funding may also require reducing academic offerings?  Are the education system’s priorities misplaced when a student with marginal scholastic achievements but superior and in-demand physical skills has a better chance of attending college than a classmate with a high grade point average?  What should be made of poor schools that, in order to have enough money to sustain their programs, travel significant distances to face wealthy schools that are paying them to play the games?  While the documentary UNDEFEATED concerns itself with seeking an answer to just the first of those questions, directors Daniel Lindsay and T.J. Martin don’t ignore the realities surrounding this inspirational tale of mentorship through high school football.

At the center of the film and the players’ attention is Manassas High School head coach Bill Courtney.  He’s in his sixth year volunteering to lead the North Memphis, Tennessee team as they begin the 2009 season.  From the first scene it is clear that Courtney isn’t giving his time and energy for the power or glory associated with the position in some communities.  In a couple weeks he must deal with more incidents of players getting shot and embroiled in legal trouble than many coaches will experience in a career.  The team has a losing history and a reputation for being undisciplined.  For toppers, Manassas has not won a playoff game in its 110-year existence.  Hopes are higher than usual for the upcoming season, but at Manassas nothing is guaranteed.

Three player stories come to the forefront in UNDEFEATED.  Senior offensive lineman O.C. Brown is unusually fast for his enormous size and thus attracts college recruiters.  The big question is if he can keep up his grades and score high enough on a standardized test to be eligible at the next level.  Senior Montrail “Money” Brown’s mental toughness and desire compensate for whatever physical shortcomings he may have versus competitors.  He wants to further his education and has the GPA to do so, but he’ll have to find a way to get there other than an athletic scholarship.  Junior Chavis Daniels returns to the team after more than a year in a youth penitentiary.  His anger issues threaten to be a problem for himself, his teammates, and the coaches.

UNDEFEATED follows the Tigers week by week as they make a push for the postseason, but the title does not refer to a lossless record--Manassas loses its first game--but a resilient squad.  In a refreshing break from the norm, the last game--the stereotypical big game--unfolds with the audience having a vested interest in the outcome yet with it ultimately being secondary to the relationships formed and life lessons learned.  The players and the coaches emerge from these months unbeaten by the setbacks and hardships they are dealt.  It’s about becoming a better person, not x’s and o’s or W’s and L’s.  
UNDEFEATED isn’t explicitly arguing for the necessity of competitive athletics at schools, even those with shrinking budgets, but it makes an effective case for how the character building that can come from playing sports is as valuable as anything in the curriculum.  Could a classroom teacher also occupy the crucial role that Courtney and his assistants fill in their players’ lives?  Certainly, although there’s a sense in the interactions here that sports and coaches have a way of getting through to them where regular instructors and courses cannot.  The reasons why aren’t fully articulated--Lindsay and Martin could stand to dig deeper with the players--but the results as presented are hard to deny.     

With a story that proves to be heartwarming and predictable, UNDEFEATED mostly plays according to the script familiar in its fiction and nonfiction counterparts. It does have the wisdom to dodge at least one problem inherent in the scenario, though. Typically a coach like Courtney would be viewed unquestioningly as a selfless man making a great sacrifice.  I’m not asserting otherwise or casting doubt on his intentions or achievements but pointing out that the person in this role is often held up as a saint. To his credit Courtney displays self-awareness of how his devotion to the football team means neglecting spending time with his wife and kids.  Like many of the details in UNDEFEATED, more examination would be welcome, but I appreciate that the sentiment is mentioned at all.

Race and class would seem to factor into much of what transpires, yet at best it is approached at arm’s length.  The potentially stickiest situation avoids the trap of hailing the white outsider showing the light to the black students.  Courtney is white and, by all appearances, economically comfortable while the inner city team looks to be entirely African-American and presumably disadvantaged.  The instance in which motives could be questioned--call it THE BLIND SIDE exception--doesn’t trigger any alarms.  

UNDEFEATED can be neat and tidy to a fault, but such quibbles seem minor when witnessing the positive example Courtney sets for his players and the affection they express for him.

Grade: B-

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