Since 2007, TV Club has dissected television episode by episode. Beginning this September, The A.V. Club will also step back to take a wider view in our new TV Reviews section. With pre-air reviews of new shows, returning favorites, and noteworthy finales, TV Reviews doesn’t replace TV Club—as usual, some shows will get the weekly treatment—but it adds a look at a bigger picture.
As evidenced by the fallout surrounding Penn State legend Joe Paterno in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky scandal, raising a successful human football coach to the level of an infallible, godlike figure is dangerous. These are men who tell college athletes how to hit other people and move a ball around a field. The biggest problem with Showtime’s documentary Against The Tide is that it subscribes to a mythic idea of Alabama’s legendary football coach Bear Bryant. Bryant retired as the winningest coach in college football, with six national titles, and the undying adoration of a state that has no professional sports teams to root for. Yet in 1970, the University Of Alabama football team remained an all-white program, despite the wealth of football talent leaving the state for integrated schools. This is the setting for the season-opening game in 1970, when Bryant arranged for his Crimson Tide to play the USC Trojans, coached by John McKay, who popularized the I-formation and had already integrated a football program that came to be known as “Tailback U.”
It’s certainly possible that Bryant gradually adjusted his way of thinking, or that he was a pragmatist, and simply wanted the best football players. And when institutional racism made that unachievable, it’s possible he went about looking for a way to affect change surreptitiously. But Against The Tide embraces the cult of personality surrounding Bryant, giving voice to theories that would cleanse an otherwise indefensible acquiescence to the way the University Of Alabama was run by the state government.
The most potent sequence stands up to the typical narrative with a quiet reverence for Bryant’s accomplishments. One historian can’t get over the coach’s position of power relative to the university president and the governor of Alabama. But Against The Tide is more interested in acknowledging this point, then sweeping it under the rug in favor of getting back to the tenuous theory that Bryant contracted the home-and-home game with USC in order to open up recruiting to black athletes.
Currently, head football coaches at state universities are the highest paid government employees in 27 states across the country. Bear Bryant was that kind of mythically powerful figure 40 years ago, at a time when college football was not nearly as ubiquitous. Other talking heads assert that Bryant worked for the university president and the governor, but in a state so crazy about football, “Bryant [didn’t] have a boss”—just as current Tide coach Nick Saban doesn’t have one. And his limited, private actions to voice his displeasure with university policy is not enough to retroactively claim the 1970 game was all by design.
The game took place 40 years ago, so it’s not a spoiler to point out that USC crushed Alabama with a more experienced—and just plain better—team. But Against The Tide tries to fit every little event before and after the game into a longer-term ploy. That’s the unsettling part of Against The Tide’s attitude toward the all-white football team: It’s seen not as deeply racist, but as inhibiting Bear Bryant’s glory and immortality. It’s like wondering about the possible legacy of a player who had crippling personal struggles that prevented Hall Of Fame statistics. “Just imagine how many more titles Bryant could’ve won if Alabama wasn’t operating an all-white team until 1971!” There’s a case to be made for zeroing in on small, culturally significant events in documentary form, but Against The Tide does that at the expense of trivializing the larger cultural struggle as a tool for on-field success.
The power of athletics to calm societal unrest and affect change is at times unbelievable. Soccer star Didier Drogba once quelled a civil war in his native Ivory Coast after a World Cup-qualifying match in the country. Soldiers played baseball on holidays during the Civil War, including one well-attended game on Christmas in 1862. But Against The Tide goes to great lengths to anoint Bear Bryant as the grand engineer behind integration on the Crimson Tide football team, a man who chose to publicly lose to a team with prominent black players, rather than using his influence to end the unfair practice on a university level.