Sunday 22 October 2017

Ger Gilroy: Actions must speak louder than words in the memory game

George Best was a self-destructive alcoholic who was also a transcendant talent in football. Photo: Reuters
George Best was a self-destructive alcoholic who was also a transcendant talent in football. Photo: Reuters

Ger Gilroy

We don't get to write our own epitaphs.

Two brilliant, very different sports documentaries remind us of that this month. Tonight at the Oscars, OJ: Made in America is a prohibitive favourite to win best documentary, and this week Best (George Best: All by Himself) goes on general release. While OJ might not be dead it's clear what his obituary-writers will lead with. For Best's obituary, The Daily Telegraph waited until their second paragraph to mention his alcoholism, for the Guardian it was their first sentence.

"I know what people will think. They'll forget all the rubbish when I'm gone, and remember the football, simple as that. I don't give a toss about anything else - as long as they remember the football. And if only one person thinks I was the best player in the world, that'll do for me, because that's what it was all about as far as I'm concerned." This clip of Best, sitting in the talkSPORT studio alongside Rodney Marsh just months before his death, wrestling with his legacy, is the emotional pivot on which the documentary turns. It's the latest film from director Daniel Gordon who also made two classics of the '30 for 30' genre, Hillsborough and 9.79*, a film on the 1988 Olympic 100m final, the race that shocked the world.

Like with both Hillsborough and 9.79*, the George Best film revisits material that we instinctively feel we already know intimately and recasts it, challenging our preconceptions. Here it's recast by the stories of the women who knew Best talking honestly about their lives with him. His presence is stitched throughout the film, sometimes only there as a voice, particularly as a younger man when the media hunted him to hear him speak. Gordon found plentiful archive of Best during his dry periods before he stopped trying to give up booze. Then, temporarily holding the drink at bay, he'd speak, riven with guilt and in fear of a relapse while possessed of a great clarity about his problems. In one clip he's 27 and retiring from Manchester United on the lawn of a Marbella hotel, wearing shorts and aviator sun-glasses, telling the besuited, middle-aged men of the English media that he's shattered physically and mentally.

I don't know if I ever really thought exclusively of George Best as a footballer, his time on the pitch was just ancient black-and-white footage when I was growing up. Then quickly he'd grown old on our television screens, telling bad jokes about boozing. He was a staple part of that decade of 'bantz' that Sky brought to Saturday afternoons before Soccer Saturday graduated somewhat to, eh, Paul Merson. It was hard to get a handle on how we were supposed to think about Georgie Best.

Later, though, people whose judgement on football I trust, like John Giles, explained they believed in his talent and insisted he wasn't just a YouTube genius. When he died there was an outpouring of grief I hadn't seen from men before. It felt like somehow he'd been released from the betrayal of what his body had become and he was immortalised like some kind of Manchester United Andy Warhol painting. All blue eyes and a red and white shirt and black hair and a clean soul.

The thing about good documentaries though is that they don't force us to pick a side, there's no false binary code. The great ones paint nuanced pictures that embrace difficulties and refuse simple classifications. What makes OJ: Made in America a triumph is that it's a history of the LA Police, the US legal system, the politics of protest, celebrity culture and race. All told through the prism of an American footballer-turned-bad-actor-turned-suspected-murderer.

Dermot Gilleece wrote last week about the dearth of black golfers on the PGA Tour, and the OJ quote ("I'm not black, I'm OJ") came to mind. Harry Edwards, a black panther at the time but now a Professor of Sociology at Berkeley, had conscripted the highest-profile black athletes to the civil rights movement in the late 1960s and early '70s. Muhammad Ali, Jim Brown, John Carlos and more were on board. They were going to wield their power collectively to effect change by using their platform whenever and wherever they could. The Black Power salute at the Olympic Games in 1968 was Edwards' brainchild.

Not OJ, though. He correctly identified that there was a commercial imperative to being the acceptable face of black America to white corporate America, and he got rich from that. Tiger Woods could have been a spokesperson for the young black kids of America playing golf, but he also didn't identify as a black athlete. Tiger self-identified as Cablinasian, a made-up category of Caucasian, black, Indian and Asian.

There has been no change in the number of black tour pros because there was never anyone pushing that agenda. Who knows what change would have occurred if, when he was crushing the field week after week during his pomp, Tiger had taken to bowing his head and holding a single black-gloved fist aloft on the 18th green? Of course I'd have settled for him mentioning that the game has barriers which people stuck in poverty, regardless of their race, will never overcome. Golf sponsors aren't keen on that kind of thing. They're down with Jesus, but not so much on mentions of poverty.

It's obviously a tricky question for sports people, even the clever ones, thrown into sharp relief by the reaction to Rory McIlroy's decision to play golf with Donald Trump. When Pádraig Harrington last week correctly pointed out that there are better qualified people than he to be pontificating on politics, it sidestepped the fact that we have a reality TV star in the White House. Qualifications aren't currently a prerequisite.

I'd love to hear Harrington's viewpoint on a range of things. He clearly has an interest in - and understanding of - the wider world. He's actively engaged in citizenship already: among other things he's worked on awareness campaigns for Oesophageal cancer, he donates his time and contacts book to the Irish Youth Foundation Awards every year. Maybe as an Irish person that's all you feel you need to do but the platform is big, the power to wield it is real. Again this isn't a binary issue, but less OJ and more Harry Edwards would be a good guiding principle when it comes to getting involved. These are the things we remember about you when you stop playing. What will our golfers' obituaries be - what will their epitaphs say?

Best is not a hagiography. George Best was a self-destructive wife-beater, a violent drunk who self-sabotaged at every opportunity, particularly when it looked like he might escape his prison. He was also a transcendent talent. He doesn't get to dictate how we remember him by asking us to remember him as a footballer. This film demands we remember him for his actions.

  • Ger Gilroy is a presenter on Newstalk's Off the Ball show

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