Curtain Call

Lombardi Punts

The new play about the Green Bay Packers coach is more interested in the myth than the man.

Future Pro Football Hall of Fame head coach of the Green Bay Packers Vince Lombardi poses here as a student at Fordham University circa the mid-1930s.
Young Vince Lombardi was a student athlete at Fordham University 

In 1963, the National Football League suspended running back Paul Hornung of the world champion Green Bay Packers for gambling on NFL games. It was a black eye for the athlete, whom the media had anointed the Golden Boy, and for the young league as well. Hornung’s coach, Vince Lombardi, was devastated. The running back was like a son to him, but he’d lied when Lombardi confronted him privately about the rumor. It was a betrayal of their friendship, the rules of the sport, and the trust of a team.

This is the stuff of great drama, but despite the fact that Lombardi, which opens today on Broadway, takes place just one season after the suspension ended and focuses on, among other things, the relationship between Lombardi and Hornung, there’s a vague allusion to a suspension but no mention of what became a national scandal about gambling. Hornung’s main flaw is that he’s something of a playboy. Lombardi, alas, is less interested in telling a compelling story than burnishing the image of the canniest league in professional sports. The play’s dramatic moments are complemented by Packers highlights projected onstage and swelling music designed to get your heart beating faster. If it looks like a commercial for the NFL, that may be because the league is one of its producers.

Tony Monturo, who for many years was the head of media and sports marketing for Anheuser-Busch, conceived the production and recruited the NFL, which saw an opportunity to reach new audiences. The league made no direct investment in the production but provided hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of marketing and put its seal on the poster. The Wall Street Journal breathlessly described the partnership as a possible “prototype for a new way of financing productions and promoting brands.”

To be fair, they don’t call it the commercial theater for nothing. Just around the corner from Lombardi is the Snapple Theater Center, which is only a few blocks from the theater where producers put product placement for Montblanc pens in La Boheme. But a corporation producing a key part of its own origin myth is far more troubling and worse for the future of Broadway—and the evidence is onstage.

Lombardi may seem like just another boring bio-play, struggling gamely to win over football fans without losing those who don’t know a sweep from a blitz. But it could have been a great drama if it had stayed faithful to its magnificent source material, David Maraniss’ book When Pride Still Mattered. The book’s title is laced with irony that is wholly absent from the play: In his meticulously reported biography, Maraniss exposes the idea of a simpler, innocent sporting past as a fake by digging into stories like the one about Hornung’s suspension. He also documents the role of the media in creating the enduring metaphors of football as war, religion, and character-building pastime.

Maraniss’ book deflates the mythology of sport, so it’s almost perverse that Eric Simonson’s play puffs it back up. Every character is a whitewash, starting with the young New York writer (played by the fine actor Keith Nobbs) reporting a profile of Lombardi. He is loosely based on W.C. Heinz, who wrote Run to Daylight, the classic examination of a week of preparation and game-time decisions by Lombardi. Heinz’s book makes an argument for the complexity of the game. But Simonson cares more about broad emotional themes than complexity, so he turns the veteran writer into a young, impossibly earnest soul who sees Lombardi the way the audience is clearly meant to: as a gruff, imperfect, but ultimately fair father figure.

Dan Lauria plays Lombardi with an explosive temper but leavens it with the same gentle affection that he gave the father in the TV series The Wonder Years. As for the most compelling question Simonson’s play raises—why was Lombardi so good at what he did?—his answer is ultimately unpersuasive. Lauria doesn’t inspire through speeches or strategic sophistication. He motivates through discipline and heartfelt affection for his players. It is surely true that Lombardi loved his players, but he also had no patience for pain or injury and was a brutal negotiator.

Winning was gravely serious business for Lombardi. In an interview with Look, Lombardi once called football “a game for mad men” and explained that he needed to drive his players hard enough so they would “hate me enough to take it out on the opposition.” Love is fine and good, but if hate worked, he’d try that, too.

But anything that might get in the way of the hagiography is eliminated in Simonson’s play. The African-American defensive end Dave Robinson explains how the coach refuses to put his team in segregated hotels, but no mention is made of how Lombardi balked at his demand of a nondiscrimination clause in a new contract in the wake of the assassination of Martin Luther King. “He was so certain of his own fair treatment of his athletes,” Maraniss writes, “that it blinded him to the larger situation.”

Whereas Maraniss’ book sees through the myth of Lombardi to give us a flesh and blood person, the play translates the overheated hero-worship of NFL Films to the stage. What makes this approach particularly dispiriting is that there is a long tradition of Broadway plays asking tough questions about the values and mythology of professional sports. In Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, Willy Loman takes such pride in his son’s success on the football field that he misses signs of trouble in other parts of his life. August Wilson’s Fences reveals the pain and bitterness of segregation in Major League Baseball. Richard Greenberg’s Take Me Out explored the issue of homosexuality in the locker room.

The most brutal critique of American sports ever staged was in Jason Miller’s 1972 drama That Championship Season, about a 20-year reunion of teammates from a high-school basketball team. When the revival opens on Broadway this Spring (Liev Schreiber is rumored to star), it will offer a fascinating counterpoint to Lombardi. In Miller’s play, the lessons teammates learned from sports did less to help them mature than to paralyze them, turning them into perpetual adolescents. Their teacher, as it happens, is a forceful coach who like Lombardi is a master motivator, a devout Catholic, and a man with a confident philosophy. “You have to hate to win,” he says. “There is no such thing as second place. It is on the playing field that the wars are won.”

The real Lombardi is neither a mythic hero nor an underhanded villain. His drive to win was not as simple as the slogan widely attributed to him suggests: “Winning isn’t everything. It’s the only thing.” He did hate to lose, however, and there’s a dark side to that obsession. It’s hinted at in Lombardi, but barely.

Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised. Even if executives from the NFL were banned from making any artistic decisions, is it plausible that the artists behind this play would feel comfortable muddying the image of the man whose name is on the Super Bowl trophy? The NFL prefers simple morality tales, and since it has a rooting interest in this production, the game just might be fixed.

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