Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Why Choose the Moral Life? See "Undefeated" for Answers

“You keep doing the right thing. And good things will happen to you.”Those are the words of high school football coach Bill Courtney to his team, the Manassas Tigers. Based on the incredible power of “Undefeated,” the film about Courtney and the Tigers, one has to assume that its directors, Dan Lindsay, and T.J. Martin, have been doing the right thing for a loooooong time. The film premiered at last year’s South by Southwest Film Festival, where it was quickly scooped up for distribution by The Weinstein Company. Now it’s nominated for the Academy Award for Best Documentary before it even opens in theaters. – Matt SingerI was asked to speak at St. Theresa’s parish in Oakland, CA to a group of 60 students preparing for Confirmation. My task was to challenge them to choose the moral life and explore “What’s so great about it? Where’s the joy? And does trying to be moral take all the fun out of life?” How did I do this? I provided them with a "Top 10 List of why it’s worth considering" (my next blog entry!). I didn’t quote Bill Courtney, but I wish I had.

At first glance such ideology could be reduced to Stage II of Kohlberg’s Theory of Moral Development: Individualism and Exchange-- a "If you scratch my back, I'll scratch yours” mentality. But to include his quote in the full context of the story is to understand how true it is, especially when you put others in front of yourself.

What you will witness in “Undefeated” the 2012 Academy Award for best documentary is far from cliché. Set in north Memphis, Coach Courtney does not coach one white athlete. Yet, for whatever reason, racial issues or tension is lacking.This film is one of the few football movies that doesn’t focus on the quarterback or a running back. Although these players drive the Tigers to a winning season, not once do they take the camera. You won’t even know their names.

I was moved by the team’s prayer circles; the players of a public high school gathered both on the field and in the locker room to give thanks to God. I have always been grateful for teaching at a place where I can pray with my athletes before contests. In San Francisco, as Scott James points out, that might not always be acceptable.

Catholics Gather Courtside to Put Their Faith on Display states “In a city where intolerance is otherwise vilified, it has become socially awkward to profess devotion to any mainstream faith. While mentions of spirituality, meditation and yoga pass without comment, those who follow organized religions face, at minimum, a Berkeley eye roll.” Those moments in “Undefeated” are intimate even though the prayer is public. From those moments, the viewer gains a sense of how these young men are able to put the team before themselves.

A film worth viewing!
Perhaps the only cliché you will encounter is in the opening scene when Coach Courtney remarks “Football doesn’t build character, it reveals it.” Although those words are not new, what Courtney brings out in his players is more than unexpected—they personally remain undefeated. The collective and individual character that is revealed is extraordinary. It’s so human and yet grace-filled. It is a wonderful example to me of what happens when you do the right thing—what’s great about it and where the joy is found.

As much as I enjoyed talking to my colleagues in preparing my "Top 10 list" and sharing it with the young and positive audience at St. Theresa’s, if I had to do it over again, I might simply request that we replace the meeting with a “Chew and View.” Order pizza, drink soda pop, eat homemade brownies and unpack what unfolds before our eyes. I encourage you to do the same.

Photo Credits

Undefeated Team
Coach Courtney
Movie Poster

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