Two views of sport

Earlier this week, I posted a link on my Facebook page to an article in The Atlantic magazine called “The Shame of College Sports” by journalist Taylor Branch.

He’s better known for his magisterial trilogy of books about the civil rights movment, “America in the King Years.” But he has also taken on sports topics before, having helped Boston Celtics great Bill Russell write his autobiography “Second Wind: The Memoirs of an Opinionated Man.”

Anyway, if you care at all about college sports, you should click on this and give it a read. The basics are nothing new — there’s been concern about corruption in college sports from its earliest days. But Branch has a particularly eloquent take on one of the biggest hypocrisies of contemporary big-time college sports — that a lot of money is made from the efforts of people who don’t derive a direct financial benefit from it themselves — namely the athletes.

And I have to agree with one of Branch’s basic premises — that fans shouldn’t look to the NCAA to clean up the mess as they stand to lose the most if they alienate their member schools, who could take their TV money, leave the NCAA, which after all is only a private club to which they voluntarily belong, and start their own tournament.

Now to the title of this post. I’ve been saving another topic for an opportune time for quite a while and it provides a refreshing counterpoint to the crass commercialism that Branch describes.

About a month ago, I attended a preview screening of a sports movie that will be released next month. It’s called “The Mighty Macs” and it’s about one of the surprising early powerhouse teams of modern women’s college basketball, from tiny Immaculata College near Philadelphia.

Immaculata, now a thriving co-educational Catholic university, was a sruggling all-women’s college in the early 1970s when Coach Cathy Rush took a program which didn’t even have a home court on campus to the top of the women’s college basketball world. The “Mighty Macs” won the first three women’s championships in 1972, ’73 and ’74.

The movie is an engaging re-telling of that story. Carla Gugino plays Cathy Rush, who answers an ad from the college, which is looking for a coach willing to build a basketball program at the school for a salary of $600 for the season. Rush is married to an NBA referee — actor David Boreanaz plays husband Ed Rush — who really isn’t thrilled about his wife wanting to work outside the home. (Remember, it’s the Seventies!) And veteran actress Ellen Burstyn plays Mother St. John, the nun who serves as the college’s president.

I’m not going to reveal too much about the plot. It’s history after all, and you can look it up. But it was fun to watch the movie, even though no one will mistake it for high cinematic art. Like many “feel-good” sports movies it has its share of cliches and schmaltz, with a caring coach gradually turning a rag-tag bunch of players into a championship squad. But it also does a good job of capturing the context of the era, with the impact of social changes that were occurring.

It also explores what it was like for women to be interested in playing sports during a time when many people believed that participating in athletics made women less feminine and even endangered their ability to bear children.

Like the team whose story it tells, the movie is an underdog in its own right. It’s a rarity — a G-rated independent film. It opens on only about 250 screens across the country on Oct. 21. Charlotte and Greenville, S.C., are, as of now, the only Carolinas locations for the opening. The film’s distributors are trying to build buzz through word-of-mouth and social media.

Immaculata is using the movie’s premiere on Oct, 14 in Philadelphia as a fund-raiser for the school and there’s also a tie-in to the Coaches vs. Cancer organization, as Cathy Rush is a cancer survivor. (She and her husband both have bit parts in the movie.)

Here’s the theatrical trailer for the film:

It’s worth seeing if you like basketball and I think I would especially recommend it for young female athletes, as it’s valuable context for where they’ve been and how far they’ve come.

Postscript: Cathy Rush retired from coaching after the 1976-77 season with an incredible 149-15 record. The NCAA took over the women’s championship tournament in 1981, pushing schools like Immaculata off the big stage and leaving it to the major schools, as it is today. Immaculata plays in non-scholarship NCAA Division III these days. And several members of the Mighty Macs teams portrayed in the movie went on to college coaching careers of their own including Marianne Stanley (Old Dominion, Southern Cal) and Theresa Shank Grentz (“Trish Sharkey” in the movie), who won nearly 700 games at St. Joseph’s., Rutgers and Illinois.

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About theoldperfessor

I'm a college professor, teaching journalism and public relations classes at a small private university, and a freelance writer.
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