Saturday 21 April 2018

Eamonn Sweeney: Hollywood should spend less time feeling superior to sport and more time learning from it

Meryl Streep’s (left) speech showed that she hasn’t grasped the power of sport to inspire people — as evidenced by the stunning display by Deshaun Watson (right) and his team-mates
Meryl Streep’s (left) speech showed that she hasn’t grasped the power of sport to inspire people — as evidenced by the stunning display by Deshaun Watson (right) and his team-mates

Eamonn Sweeney

Last weekend at the Golden Globes movie and TV awards ceremony in Beverly Hills, Meryl Streep gave a speech which was hailed as 'inspirational' by the kind of people who find pretty much everything said or done by celebrities to be 'inspirational'.

Streep excoriated Donald Trump, suggested Hollywood stars constituted a beleaguered and oppressed minority, bemoaned the ingratitude of a general public which apparently fails to appreciate just how brilliant said stars are and threw in a sideswipe at sport while she was at it. If it wasn't for Hollywood, she said, "You'll have nothing to watch but football and mixed martial arts, which are not the arts".

This comment drew the ire of Conor McGregor's coach John Kavanagh, who told Streep in a tweet: "You've known nothing but extreme wealth and privilege your whole life so don't look down your nose at sport which has probably helped a lot more people than the expensive drama schools you attended."

Kavanagh is right to be miffed, even if he failed to acknowledge the immense moral courage it took for Streep to make a speech criticising Trump to a room full of people who hate Trump while simultaneously telling them how wonderful they all were.

You could argue that Streep meant no disrespect to sport and was merely pointing out that the arts are something different. But the truth is that her comments were merely the latest example of that modern phenomenon, the 'dog whistle', where anyone who's paying attention knows what the speaker really means. And what the actress was doing was lauding Hollywood's mission to enlighten and civilise those who would otherwise be engaged in something, watching sport, which she clearly regards as an inferior if not downright moronic activity.

There's no denying that someone who watches sport to the exclusion of all other interests would be a very dull dog indeed. John Kavanagh commented, "I wouldn't like to think of one activity better than the other - sport or art - just do whatever you enjoy". Personally speaking, books, cinema and music matter as much to me as sport does. The idea that the two spheres are mutually exclusive is a fallacy. But given that Meryl Streep clearly meant to create this false opposition, we might as well examine it.

One thing that struck me is that her comments implicitly denigrating football as an inferior form of entertainment came at a singularly inappropriate time. Because the night after the Golden Globes saw American football's national college title game, which turned out to be a spectacularly powerful illustration of why sport enthrals so many people.

John Kavanagh, MMA coach of Conor McGreggor during an interview at the One Zero Tech Conference in the RDS. Photo : Tony Gavin 21/10/2016
Conor McGregor's coach John Kavanagh

Outsiders Clemson, who hadn't won the title in 35 years, were taking on Alabama, who were going for a fifth title out of eight after swatting aside all opposition during the regular season. The favourites jumped out to a 14-0 lead and looked like they'd have the thing put to bed before half-time, helped by two hard, cheap shots which obviously shook Clemson's star players, quarterback Deshaun Watson and wide receiver Mike Williams.

Clemson hung in there and trailed 24-14 going into the fourth quarter. Watson had recovered his bearings to give a commanding performance, running for a touchdown, throwing for over 400 yards, getting catapulted into a mid-air cartwheel when two defenders hit him at top speed, hurdling tackles and taking to the air again in the drive which, incredibly, ended up with Clemson taking a 28-24 lead with four minutes left.

It was the first time Alabama had trailed in the fourth quarter all season, and a couple of minutes later their 18-year-old freshman quarterback Jalen Hurts set off on a weaving 30-yard run which finished up in the end zone. One minute, 56 seconds left on the clock and Alabama led 31-28. There might just be time for Clemson to work their way downfield and kick a field goal to bring the game into extra-time.

Down they came and Mike Williams made a soaring catch from a Watson pass. The seconds were running out, they were within field goal range but Watson refused to play safe, looking for the end zone and putting up passes which Alabama came close to intercepting. The commentators were urging them to just kick the field goal. I was urging them to just kick the field goal. This could all end in disaster.

Time for one last play. Clemson went for it, Watson moving to his right and spotting Hunter Renfrow - a pint-sized white receiver everyone except his local university had thought was too small to play college football - in the end zone. He passed, Renfrow caught and the place went nuts. There was one second left on the clock.

I know very little about Clemson. It's apparently a small town, about the size of Killarney, in South Carolina. Yet the team's ability to take a licking and keep on ticking until that dramatic dénouement made me feel emotionally involved and enraptured in a way no movie could have done. No Hollywood movie, anyway.

When they stuck the microphones in young Watson's face afterwards, he said: "It's just all about joy and it's not all about football. It's about being the best man you can be, the best student you can be, and football comes last." Coach Dabo Swinney disdained all credit and said it was just "God working through me and the staff and the players". Whatever your opinion on the God question, the modesty and self-effacement of both coach and players after the greatest victory of their lives was remarkable. Swinney's comment that "greatness is for everyone" strikes me as far more 'inspirational' than Streep's 'we are stars, worship us you ungrateful pack of plebs' message.

What a stark contrast the football game was to the primping, preening festival of self-congratulation we'd witnessed the previous night in Los Angeles. The laughter and the tears and the passion at the Raymond James Stadium in Tampa were genuine. At the Golden Globes, not so much. John Kavanagh hit the nail nicely on the head with his line about Meryl Streep's "teary, well-acted speech".

It was also a hypocritical speech. Streep's comments about what Hollywood owed to outsiders and foreigners were viewed as a dig at Trump's anti-immigrant rhetoric. But the immigrants who prosper in Hollywood aren't the same kind of immigrants who'll suffer under Trump. The former tend to be the likes of Damien Lewis (Eton), Benedict Cumberbatch (Harrow) and Helena Bonham-Carter (Westminster Public School), descendants of the kind of people who owned the land our ancestors worked on. The latter get to clean out the former's swimming pools and walk their chihuahuas.

There's also the fact that despite Streep's 'progressive' rhetoric she has spent most of her working life in an environment as exclusively white as line dancing night at The Klansman's Rest pub. That's how Hollywood is. If you watch its movies you'd believe that black people exist solely to teach uptight white characters to do a funky dance or play what one of my daughters describes as the "progress report, my ass," role. You know the one. Some white nerd says, "We need a progress report", and the black man says, "Progress report my ass," and continues being an amusing sidekick while the white hero wins the day and kisses the female star.

Serena Williams is 20 weeks pregnant. Pic: Getty

Sport, on the other hand, gives us black men being stars, being leaders, talking thoughtfully on camera like Deshaun Watson - not just a football star but an outstanding student - did on Monday night. It puts them centre stage. And not just black men. Black women like Serena Williams (pictured) and Simone Biles enjoy a prominence in sport which no African American actress does in Hollywood, where the big roles always go to the pale-skinned, fair-haired ladies. The Meryl Streeps of this world, basically.

Which provides a more progressive model of the world? Hollywood: Number of Best Director Oscars awarded: 88. Number of Best Director Oscars awarded to a black person: 0? Or sport, where seven of the last 10 winners of the Heisman Trophy for best college football player have been African Americans? Hollywood should spend less time feeling superior to the world of sport and more time learning from it.

Some people will applaud Streep because she was putting the boot into Trump. But it's a bit late for that, isn't it? The shameful fact is that the movie and television world which celebrated its own worth that night has always been pretty tight with The Donald. There have been 11 cameo appearances for him in various movies, there was Jimmy Fallon's appallingly fawning interview with him on The Tonight Show during the election campaign and, above all, there was The Apprentice - which gave him the chance to be a TV star for 14 seasons and build the profile which enabled him to make his run for the presidency.

Sport had zero to do with the rise of Trump, but if it wasn't for television he'd never have become president. That's just one more thing we can thank Meryl Streep's entertainment world buddies for.

Bravo. Encore.

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