The new Broadway play about Vince Lombardi is more interested in the myth than the man.

Notes on the stage.
Oct. 22 2010 7:13 AM

Lombardi Punts

The new play about the Green Bay Packers coach is more interested in the myth than the man.

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Winning was gravely serious business for Lombardi. In an interview with Look, Lombardi once called football "a game for mad men" and explained that he needed to drive his players hard enough so they would "hate me enough to take it out on the opposition." Love is fine and good, but if hate worked, he'd try that, too.

But anything that might get in the way of the hagiography is eliminated in Simonson's play. The African-American defensive end Dave Robinson explains how the coach refuses to put his team in segregated hotels, but no mention is made of how Lombardi balked at his demand of a nondiscrimination clause in a new contract in the wake of the assassination of Martin Luther King. "He was so certain of his own fair treatment of his athletes," Maraniss writes, "that it blinded him to the larger situation."

Whereas Maraniss' book sees through the myth of Lombardi to give us a flesh and blood person, the play translates the overheated hero-worship of NFL Films to the stage. What makes this approach particularly dispiriting is that there is a long tradition of Broadway plays asking tough questions about the values and mythology of professional sports. In Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman, Willy Loman takes such pride in his son's success on the football field that he misses signs of trouble in other parts of his life. August Wilson's Fences reveals the pain and bitterness of segregation in Major League Baseball. Richard Greenberg's Take Me Out explored the issue of homosexuality in the locker room.

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The most brutal critique of American sports ever staged was in Jason Miller's 1972 drama That Championship Season, about a 20-year reunion of teammates from a high-school basketball team. When the revival opens on Broadway this Spring (Liev Schreiber is rumored to star), it will offer a fascinating counterpoint to Lombardi. In Miller's play, the lessons teammates learned from sports did less to help them mature than to paralyze them, turning them into perpetual adolescents. Their teacher, as it happens, is a forceful coach who like Lombardi is a master motivator, a devout Catholic, and a man with a confident philosophy. "You have to hate to win," he says. "There is no such thing as second place. It is on the playing field that the wars are won."

The real Lombardi is neither a mythic hero nor an underhanded villain. His drive to win was not as simple as the slogan widely attributed to him suggests: "Winning isn't everything. It's the only thing." He did hate to lose, however, and there's a dark side to that obsession. It's hinted at in Lombardi, but barely.

Perhaps we shouldn't be surprised. Even if executives from the NFL were banned from making any artistic decisions, is it plausible that the artists behind this play would feel comfortable muddying the image of the man whose name is on the Super Bowl trophy? The NFL prefers simple morality tales, and since it has a rooting interest in this production, the game just might be fixed.

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Jason Zinoman writes about theater for the New York Times. He is the author of Shock Value: How a Few Eccentric Outsiders Gave Us Nightmares, Conquered Hollywood, and Invented Modern Horror. He lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.