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.

(Continued from Page 1)

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.

Advertisement

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.

Like Slate on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter.

TODAY IN SLATE

Foreigners

More Than Scottish Pride

Scotland’s referendum isn’t about nationalism. It’s about a system that failed, and a new generation looking to take a chance on itself. 

What Charles Barkley Gets Wrong About Corporal Punishment and Black Culture

Why Greenland’s “Dark Snow” Should Worry You

Three Talented Actresses in Three Terrible New Shows

Why Do Some People See the Virgin Mary in Grilled Cheese?

The science that explains the human need to find meaning in coincidences.

Jurisprudence

Happy Constitution Day!

Too bad it’s almost certainly unconstitutional.

Is It Worth Paying Full Price for the iPhone 6 to Keep Your Unlimited Data Plan? We Crunch the Numbers.

What to Do if You Literally Get a Bug in Your Ear

  News & Politics
Weigel
Sept. 16 2014 7:03 PM Kansas Secretary of State Loses Battle to Protect Senator From Tough Race
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 16 2014 4:16 PM The iPhone 6 Marks a Fresh Chance for Wireless Carriers to Kill Your Unlimited Data
  Life
The Eye
Sept. 16 2014 12:20 PM These Outdoor Cat Shelters Have More Style Than the Average Home
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 15 2014 3:31 PM My Year As an Abortion Doula
  Slate Plus
Slate Plus Video
Sept. 16 2014 2:06 PM A Farewell From Emily Bazelon The former senior editor talks about her very first Slate pitch and says goodbye to the magazine.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 16 2014 8:43 PM This 17-Minute Tribute to David Fincher Is the Perfect Preparation for Gone Girl
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 16 2014 6:40 PM This iPhone 6 Feature Will Change Weather Forecasting
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Sept. 16 2014 11:46 PM The Scariest Campfire Story More horrifying than bears, snakes, or hook-handed killers.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 15 2014 9:05 PM Giving Up on Goodell How the NFL lost the trust of its most loyal reporters.