Jan 29, 2001, Vol. 6, No. 19 • By BRIAN MURRAY
In Brian's Song, the Bears aid their injured teammates with sensitivity and grace. Similarly, the Bears' legendary coach, George Halas, is shown as a certified tough guy with a heart of gold. But as the 1970s progressed, movies increasingly portrayed professional football as a senselessly brutal game where all the stuff that Pop Warner taught -- like good sportsmanship and clean living -- counts for nothing. In Semi-Tough (1978), for example, players, coaches, and owners are all targets of mockery. Based loosely on a 1972 novel by Dan Jenkins, Semi-Tough focuses mainly on Billy Clyde Puckett (Burt Reynolds) and Shake Tiller (Kris Kristofferson), teammates on an NFL-like squad contending for the league title. But that fact seems almost superfluous; for this team, playing well is far less crucial than partying hard.
Directed by Michael Ritchie, Semi-Tough aimed to deflate professional football. Early in the film, a pompous book editor urges Puckett to write a tell-all account of his professional career: "We want the real truth: what drugs the players take, how games are really fixed, the influence of the mafia." (In fact, during the 1970s, the real-life vogue for such sports memoirs had just begun, touched off by Ball Four, Jim Bouton's controversial account of life in professional baseball.)
The comic Semi-Tough suggests that pro football is a gigantic joke. Its players are free-floating narcissists, its coaches flakes. The team's owner partakes daily in "mov-a-genics," a therapeutic program requiring him to scuttle around the floor to realign himself with gravity. Shake Tiller's own guru is Friedrich Bismark (Bert Convey), a domineering self-help specialist who reminds his disciples that "life is a shell game without the shell," and "where you are is where it's at."
Semi-Tough is only semi-serious about football; its real satirical target is 1970s psychobabble. (Bismark, for example, owes something to Werner Erhard, founder of EST.) The 1979 North Dallas Forty, however, offers a far darker look at the game. Pro football, the film suggests, exploits and destroys its players and offers nothing of redeeming social value. North Dallas Forty is based on a 1973 novel by Peter Gent, a wide receiver for the Dallas Cowboys between 1964 and 1969 who encouraged the impression that his story was drawn from experience. "If you ever entertained any fantasies about America's autumnal rite's being good clean fun," wrote one reviewer, "this movie should set you straight."
Semi-Tough suggests lightheartedly that drugs and sex are the cornerstones of life for most players; North Dallas Forty makes the same point repeatedly and far more ominously. For receiver Phillip Elliott (Nicke Nolte) and his teammates, including quarterback Seth Maxwell (Mac Davis), life is one long frat party interrupted by practice sessions and weekly games. Elliott, however, is more reflective as he nears the end of a career. His back hurts, his arms hurt, his legs hurt; in the mornings he can scarcely move. "My nose is busted," he laments at one point, "I can't even breathe through it. I can barely stand up. I haven't slept more than three hours at a stretch for over two years."
Still, Elliott persists, pushed by his coaches and afraid of the lull of anonymity that awaits him when his playing days are through. Elliott can play because, like most of his team-mates, he's awash with painkillers and stimulants doled out by the team's trainers; as Maxwell cynically notes, it's simply a matter of "better football through chemistry." When a younger player says that he'll never take codeine, Novacain, and all the rest, the aging receiver scoffs, "You last long enough, and you'll realize that the only way to survive is the pills and the shots."
This bleak Hollywood view has descended to other levels of the game. Occasionally, films like 1993's Rudy or last year's Remember the Titans still offer admiring portraits of players and coaches. But films like All the Right Moves (1983), The Program (1993), and Varsity Blues (1999) spread the cynicism of North Dallas Forty from professional football to the high school and college game, suggesting that the values and ideals extolled back in Knute Rockne: All American are as dead as leather helmets and the Packer sweep.