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White Shadows

Ever stopped to think why sports movies seem to never show anything other than a fierce come-from-behind victory by the underdog?

I found myself pondering that great mystery the other day when, while cleaning the basement, I came across an autographed photograph of the late actor Ken Howard and myself riding Boston’s MBTA Green Line during late February 1980. 

The 6-foot-6 Howard played Coach Ken Reeves on The White Shadow, a legendary Tuesday night CBS-TV show that ran from 1979-81. That pioneering drama featured an almost exclusively black cast and took on topics prime time television generally didn’t like addressing.

On the day I met Howard, Boston College was hosting ‘White Shadow Day’ in recognition of Howard’s fictitious role as a BC legend (Class of ’64) who subsequently played for the NBA’s Chicago Bulls. I was covering the game for the Syracuse Post-Standard as that paper’s basketball beat writer.

I bring up this moment from 41 years ago because of the exemplary way black Americans were realistically portrayed in that TV drama. The White Shadow production team wanted to give voice to a hurting black community that Hollywood didn’t understand. That’s because Black voices were effectively silenced by the big networks who wouldn’t let black directors or producers helm big budget productions.

As sports movies go into production throughout 2021, will they capture black pain and white ignorance? Will there be empathy for the unending litany of crimes committed against blacks because white society made it acceptable?

Four decades later, the deaths of Black men and women (almost always by white police officers) has lit up a country that consistently struggles with issues of race, economic suppression, discrimination, murder, and repeated failed attempts at equalized humanity.

As I write this, the protests tied to race have slowed, but I worry collective white ignorance or indifference remains. Into this void, the movies and television shows of tomorrow are stepping. This contemporary ‘art’ is the mirror we will hold up to our concussed society. 

Sports movies are one of the cultural places that regularly attempt to deal with racism. Movies like Brian’s Song (1971), Remember the Titans (2000), The Rocket (2005), Glory Road (2006), The Express (2008), Invictus (2009), 42 (2013) and Race (2016).

But in every one of them, the directors and producers looked backward to times when sport and race intersected, and team unity prevailed. These flicks suggested society could overcome racism if the athletes embraced their differences.

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As author, feminist and Syracuse’s Heisman Trophy runner-up Don McPherson said recently, “Being the consummate cynic, I think that with everything going on in the world, future sports programming will genuflect to the notion sports is a meritocracy where society gets to transcend the trappings of racism. Let me be clear, it isn’t.”

So, how does America’s shameful past, it’s 400-year-old original sin, shape the sports movies we’ll see in 2022?

I ask because while Hollywood production units have been slowed (because of Covid-19), a glut of scripts are piling up for review by A-list directors and stars. I’m working on one of those screenplays, a basketball-themed script, and struggling, like a lot of whites of privilege, to ensure George Floyd’s deaths wasn’t in vain.

I know this much: movies, at a certain level, intend to make money and represent our human condition. Maybe not equally and almost always with stereotypes … but at least in ways where we understand the characters. In the movies we attend, we hope to see ourselves.

The great Casablanca (made in 1942) is often held up as one of the greatest movies of all time. It understood the very real threat of Nazism overtaking Europe and gave us Humphrey Bogart’s character, Rick Blaine, making a heroic sacrifice for a righteous cause. It allowed brave characters to embrace higher ideals.

As sports movies go into production throughout 2021, will they capture black pain and white ignorance? Will there be empathy for the unending litany of crimes committed against blacks because white society made it acceptable? Or will the sports world’s clichés skip over difficult discussions that detail systemic racism, ongoing discrimination, and real bias?

For everyone’s sake, let’s hope not.

Let’s also hope the sleepy young journalist who got on Boston’s Green Line and accidentally bumped into a TV show has sufficiently woken up. That I can help script a different kind of come-from-behind victory.

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If I have, maybe I will contribute a screenplay where, in Hollywood parlance, we “cut to the chase” and show a Black reality where long overdue justice and racial equality is achieved.

Rick Burton