The College Football Playoff National Championship game against the Michigan Wolverines on Jan. 8 might not have turned out as the University of Washington Huskies wanted, but it still was the only game the team lost all season. Winning is part of the Huskies' DNA -- not just on the football field, and not just in this century.
When Americans Were the Underdogs -- in Germany
Winning at college sports aside, finding the American underdog story in the Summer Olympics can be a bit like venturing out on a quest to find a unicorn.
The United States boasts more than three times as many total medals as the next closest country (Great Britain), and four times as many total gold medals as second-place Germany.
Team USA has established itself as the overwhelming overdog, if you will, in the quadrennial sporting event.
Credit author Daniel James Brown with popularizing a regional story about the Huskies, and turning it into a national best-selling book -- in which some Yanks are truly the underdogs.
The Boys in the Boat: On the Page and On Screen
The Boys in the Boat recounts the gathering of nine working-class men from the University of Washington Huskies crew team (that's rowing) during the Great Depression, who gained success that none of them could have imagined possible.
Released on Christmas Day, director George Clooney’s film adaptation of The Boys in the Boat captured the film’s period look and feel. It's centered on the aspirational tale of Joe Rantz (Callum Turner), a hard-luck kid who starts rowing out of necessity (as in having a place to sleep and regular meals).
My favorite takeaway from the book was that it knew it was about a story on the water, a boat, and the men who crew up. The best of the “at sea” genre gives the reader overly detailed prose of the inner workings of ships.
Think of ships with sails –- author Patrick O’Brian (Master and Commander) –- to ships made of steel –- writer C. S. Forester (The African Queen and Greyhound). To the same effect, The Boys in the Boat excels.
Quite simply, George Clooney directed the most beautiful film of the year, surpassing NBC’s coverage of the Olympic Games.
With the help of overhead drones, the film captures the gorgeous sport of rowing: eight crew members in perfect unison, guiding a shell down a river.
Technical prowess aside, I was surprised at how timely the period film was in exposing the general rot at the soul of higher education and college athletics ... and the principles that could restore that soul.
The film demonstrates the value of allowing championships to be decided on the field (or river) of play.
Unlike the NFL, where the best records determine which pro football teams get to go to the playoffs, the fate of university football teams lies in the hands of a dozen or so committee members watching the final weekend of games and eating potato chips.
This year, they chose the one-loss University of Alabama team on reputation vs. the undefeated upstart Florida State.
But in the story of The Boys in the Boat, the eight rowers begin their amateur career on the junior varsity team. Very quickly, they begin to outrace the varsity team in regattas and training races.
The coach (Joel Edgerton) then faces a dilemma: pick the experienced, yet slower team or the faster, greener team. The subjective vs. objective tension held throughout the film reminded me of the controversy marring this year’s college football playoffs.
The Huskies truly competed for a chance to represent the U.S.A. and take on Hitler's team in the 1936 Berlin Olympics.
The implication of sailing into the lion’s den of Nazi Germany, defeating them in their own sport (Germany won five of the seven gold medals in rowing events in hosting the Olympiad), on their own turf, is that you can go on to do anything else in life.
The book records the men as successful businessmen and engineers and beyond. Contrast that to the lucrative NIL (Name, Image and Likeness) licensing deals of now.
These days, players can stay in college life for many years, making money off their names, images, and likenesses. For those in sports with professional leagues, some of these athletes might be better served using their education for something other than going pro -- in which careers can be long or heartbreakingly short.
I was encouraged by a modest trend of football players from my alma mater, the University of Notre Dame (where I was also a competitive swimmer), eschewing the NFL and starting careers on Wall Street.
The transfer portal in college athletics allows flexibility for athletes to switch colleges on a whim, not having to sit out a year, waiting to be released contractually from the scholarship of their previous school.
It’s essentially created free agency, where only the individual matters. Individual athletes often hinge their hopes on the delusion they will make a professional sporting career at infinitesimal odds.
The Boys in the Boat would not happen today, as the film makes clear what a disadvantage substituting a single crew member because of illness would have on the other seven crew members.
The revolving door of athletes coming back and forth would’ve made impossible the precise cohesion and loyalty to each other necessary for winning Eights gold.
In The Boys in the Boat, the public University of Washington (and, to a lesser extent, the University of California-Berkeley, a k a Cal) takes on the elite Ivy League crew teams out East.
The Huskies must defeat the Ivy Leaguers in the national championship to qualify to take on Nazi Germany in the Olympics.
Recently, events on Ivy League campuses rolled elitism and antisemitism into one.
But rather than despair about the state of higher ed on these campuses, I recommend marshaling the current animus against the Ivies and root for the University of Washington and their humble “boys in the boat.”
Image: (L-R) (l-r.) Sam Strike stars as Roger Morris, Thomas Elms as Chuck Day, Joel Phillimore as Gordy Adam, Tom Varey as Johnny White, Wil Coban as Jim McMillin, Bruce Herbelin-Earle as Shorty Hunt, Callum Turner as Joe Rantz, Jack Mulhern as Don Hume and Luke Slattery as Bobby Moch in director George Clooney’s THE BOYS IN THE BOAT An Amazon MGM Studios. PHOTO: Laurie Sparham © 2023 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Click here to visit Father Vince Kuna’s IMDB page.