Sports and Coaching, Life and Death: Coach Carter & Million Dollar Baby

SDG Original source: National Catholic Register

The last nine days have seen wide releases for two sports-themed movies about tough coaches forging champions. Both films follow the usual sports-movie formulas, at least to a point, and both deal in various ways with larger issues, including striving to rise above mean circumstances and facing life and death issues. Both are ultimately message films, though they have vastly different messages — and, while one wears its positive message on its sleeve from the opening minutes, the other turns on an insidious third-act twist that’s been carefully kept out of a well-orchestrated media campaign.

Coach Carter is based on the real-life story of Ken Carter, an uncompromising high-school basketball coach at a tough urban school who requires more from his players than great basketball. He insists that they sign contracts requiring them to attend classes, sit in the front row, and maintain a C-plus grade point average or better — and is willing to lock the gym and forfeits games if they fall behind in their classes.

Carter, played by Samuel L. Jackson, hands down the baddest tough coach in sports-movie history, also demands something more intangible: that his players respect themselves, one another and him. He addresses them as "sir," and insists on the same honorific for himself. (When one player objects, "I’m not a ’sir,’ " Carter shoots back, "Are you a ‘madam’?") He sets high standards, and the players respond by willingly doing whatever it takes to meet them.

There are no big surprises in Coach Carter, a straightforward inspirational-coach sports story in the vein of Miracle, Remember the Titans, and Hoosiers. Million Dollar Baby, on the other hand, turns on a plot twist that, while clearly telegraphed in the film, morphs into a sympathetic depiction of one of the major pillars in the culture of death.

Actually, the culture of death raises its head in Coach Carter too: The story includes a subplot in which a player’s pregnant girlfriend decides to abort her baby while she and the father are estranged. The story presents this decision without comment or judgment, neither affirming nor condemning it; it’s simply part of the harsh world in which these teens live, which also includes drug dealing, freak dancing, street violence, and so forth.

In Million Dollar Baby, by contrast, the life issue is no subplot, but is at the heart of the climactic conflict — and the film isn’t neutral. Million Dollar Baby tells the fictional story of Frankie (director Clint Eastwood), an aging boxing coach who doesn’t work with girls but is eventually won over by Maggie (Hilary Swank), a determined young woman with trailer-park roots who quickly becomes a contender known for her opening-round knockouts. (Major spoiler warning — If you don’t want to read discussion of climactic plot points in Million Dollar Baby, stop reading now.)

During an exhibition bout with a notorious dirty fighter, Maggie takes a cheap shot after the bell, breaks her neck on the stool that Frankie has already placed in the ring, and is left paralyzed for life. By the film’s end, Maggie persuades Frankie to disconnect her ventilator and end her life.

As depicted in the film, there is really no way to regard this act but murder. Frankie doesn’t just disconnect Maggie’s ventilator (which in at least some circumstances might be a licit form of allowing a person to die); he gives her a triple overdose of adrenaline, which is unambiguously murder.

Some have called it "assisted suicide," though Frankie doesn’t just "assist," he does the whole job, so there’s really no "suicide" component at all. In fact, as if the whole business weren’t disturbing enough, on the evening Frankie kills Maggie he simply slips into her hospital room, makes no attempt to assess her state of mind or ability to communicate (she’s been sedated to prevent her from biting her own tongue) — to ascertain whether she might not be having second thoughts, and simply puts her down.

Frankie is Catholic — a daily communicant, in fact — and he agonizes over this decision for some time, even taking the problem to his priest, Fr. Horvak (Brian O’Byrne) at St. Mark’s Church, whom he has a habit of pestering for explanations of such mysteries as the Trinity and the Immaculate Conception. In the past the priest has impatiently brushed aside Frankie’s questions with perhaps less caution and theological nuance than pastoral insight, rightly sensing that Frankie’s questions are really a dodge of some sort, and what he needs is not catechism classes but to make peace with God.

This time, though, the priest takes Frankie seriously, warning him that whatever sins or offenses haunt him now are nothing compared to what he’s contemplating, and that — questions of God and the afterlife aside — "if you do this, you’ll be lost somewhere so deep you’ll never find yourself again."

The priest’s advice at least converges with Church teaching, though he makes some mistakes and fails to explain the gravity of this sin. His focus is entirely on Frankie, not Maggie; he only says that he mustn’t do this, not that she mustn’t be killed in this way, or why. He’s not an unsympathetic figure, but he has no deeper answers. One gathers that the priests aren’t bad guys, but they only know how to mouth the party line; they can’t really explain why, and have no solutions.

What makes all this especially regrettable is that Swank and Eastwood are doing such good work, and in spite of its offensive finale Million Dollar Baby is an engaging film that even well-formed Catholics, despite their reservations, might care about in a way that they probably wouldn’t care about, e.g., Kinsey or The Cider House Rules. Coach Carter is definitely rougher around the edges, but it just might inspire some young viewers to think about improving their lives — as opposed to ending somebody else’s.