By Alex Parrish
“There is something in us, as storytellers and as listeners to stories, that demands the redemptive act, that demands that what falls at least be offered the chance to be restored.” – Flannery O’Connor
“… [Redemption] is ingrained in American Nationalism; it is foundational to American cultural identity.” – Chris B. Geyerman
The Olympic Games offer a variety of narratives. Consider a few during the 2016 Rio Games: Michael Phelps and the quest for the most individual and total medals of all time, the dominance of the US women’s gymnastics team, dubbed “the Final Five,” Russia’s doping scandals and subsequent bans for certain athletes, or the otherworldly longevity of Uzbek gymnast Oksana Chusovitina, competing in her record seventh Olympic games. These narratives derive from the simple win-loss narrative of sport, and are picked up or created by media outlets, adding compelling drama to long broadcasts, enjoyable even for audiences who do not typically watch sports. These narratives fuel the sports media world, since constant statistics and game recaps do not attract large audiences. While narratives and the talking heads who promulgate them can become grating to sports fans (ex. social media reactions to any Tim Tebow story), these narratives touch an intriguing facet of human social behavior – the desire for stories and drama. These stories-within-stories fascinate us, and mass media outlets share as many as possible, hoping a few draw wide interest and high television viewership or web hits.
Perhaps the most popular narrative is the redemption narrative. In the 21st century American sports world, the most recognizable redemption story is Michael Vick, the superstar quarterback who served time in prison on federal charges related to a dog fighting ring. Vick returned to the NFL after his time in prison, contrite and relatively successful on the field. Vick’s is not the only high-profile redemption story in the last decade. In the middle of Vick’s ordeal, the USA men’s national basketball team competed in the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, China. Their gold medal performance, though anticipated, was a relief. The Redeem Team had been carefully selected to atone for the sin (i.e. a bronze medal) of the 2004 team.
This essay explores sport redemption narratives, using the 2004 and 2008 USA men’s basketball teams as case studies. I use Chris B. Geyerman’s essay “Biblical Tales in the Sports News: Narrative and the Redemption of Michael Vick” as a starting point in analyzing media depictions of redemption stories, and argue that the Redeem Team and its 2004 antecedent represent a six-phase redemption narrative of loss, shame, punishment, repentance, triumph, and forgiveness. This six-phase narrative relies on religious themes and concepts syncretized with nationalism and American exceptionalism to create symbols and myths consistent with civil religion. While redemption narratives are embraced by everyday sports fans, they are primarily driven by mass media.
Analysis of Geyerman
In chapter four of Sport and Religion in the Twenty-First Century, Chris B. Geyerman examines media portrayals of Michael Vick’s dogfighting convicting and subsequent return to the NFL. In Geyerman’s perspective, the Vick story is one of carefully crafted narration by the sports media world. He says this in his introductory paragraphs:
I… analyze the sports media construction of the Michael Vick story, highlighting the narrative choices that tell the tale of Michael Vick as a story distinctly marked by three overlapping phases: first, as a rise to prominence; second, as a fall from grace, accompanied by great suffering; and third, as a rise from the fall, marked by the emergence of Michael Vick as a new man, reconnected with God and with an identity that stands in direct contradistinction to the one that was sentenced to Leavenworth for felony dog fighting. Finally… I suggest that the construction of the Michael Vick redemption narrative by the sports media (re)constitutes a version of nationalism in which the conditionality of secular salvation informs American self-identity, and, at least in part, accounts for the widespread value of redemption stories.
Geyerman’s primary influence is the late literary theorist Kenneth Burke, particularly Burke’s conception of the “rhetoric of rebirth,” in which “the ‘good’” surfaces from the surfeit of “the ‘bad.’” This rhetoric has three steps, “pollution…, purification, and redemption.” This rhetorical construction creates an archetype: “The media’s construction of the Michael Vick saga is an archetypal redemption narrative that chronicles a young man rising to greatness from humble beginnings, then losing everything he has achieved due to his own weakness, and finally overcoming the weaknesses that caused his downfall only to emerge as a better soul—a redeemed person.” Again, it is critical to remember that this is a media portrayal of an individual. Whether or not Vick was actually “redeemed” or if “redemption” is ontologically real is irrelevant; the media crafted a narrative in which Vick followed an archetypal story of redemption. Thus, regardless of what some disillusioned sports fans and concerned animal rights activists had to say, Vick was redeemed.
The latter point is so necessary because it informs Geyerman’s other argument, that this media construction is tantamount to nationalistic propaganda: Americans are those who can overcome any obstacle and rise above their bleak situations. This idea has become so ingrained in the collective American psyche that redemption stories are continually manufactured. The media is able to control the narrative such that facts that could contradict the “redemption” are ignored and stifled. Nationalistic self-consciousness reigns supreme.
Geyerman’s essay represents a major contribution to understanding media representations of sports and sport media’s role in nationalistic marketing. The analysis of religion and religious self-identification contributes to the narrative of redemption. However, I contend that Geyerman’s essay stops just short of fully analyzing redemption narratives. As a case study of an individual story, Geyerman of course focuses on the redeemed person and the circumstances surrounding that redemption. However, in casting the archetypal redemption story as individualistic, I believe Geyerman misses an important body of redemption stories—redemption stories involving groups of people. I argue that the three-phase construction of the redemption archetype misses key points in sports redemption narratives that are vital for their creation. I will demonstrate the six key phases of American sports redemption narratives by analyzing the 2004 and 2008 US men’s national Olympic basketball teams and the media narratives created for them.
2004 and 2008 USA Men’s Basketball Teams
There are two eras of international basketball competition for the United States – pre-Dream Team and post-Dream Team. The Dream Team was the 1992 Men’s national team. Eleven future basketball Hall of Famers starred on this team, including Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley, and Larry Bird. The average margin of victory was an astounding 44 points. The dominance of the team was due to the gradual turn away from amateur athletics, which was influenced by the immense amounts of money the IOC and FIBA stood to make from marketing and television viewership. The Dream Team was the first US men’s basketball team to have current professional athletes on the roster.
The marketing and entertainment value of the ’92 dream team created a change in the way the United States chose its Olympic teams: stars over substance. Assemble as many superstars as possible, regardless of position, fit, experience, or temperament, and watch the wins pile up. Arrogant as it was, the idea makes sense. The United States produces more NBA players and more All-Stars than any other country. How could it possibly lose to teams made up of a few NBA bench warmers and players from inferior leagues? And for a while, it worked. Despite a few close calls in 2000, the professional Olympic teams in ’92, ’96, and ’00 went an unmatched 24-0 in Olympic contests. The entertainment value was high.
The signs of troubled waters were clear as early as 2000. The Lithuanian and French teams, with no NBA players on the rosters at the time, were close competition. The Lithuanians nearly stunned the world in the semi-finals, losing only by two points. A few journalists noticed issues with the 2000 team, including New York Times columnist Mike Wise, who wrote,
For two weeks, Australians have cheered most all the Olympians, but the United States men’s basketball team has not been [sic] embraced. Perhaps it was because of the numerous altercations on the court with opponents, the trash talking, the posing by [Vince] Carter after each sensational dunk or the general disrespect they showed their inferior opponents. Even international journalists were standing and applauding for the Lithuanians to pull the upset.
The Americans were better, just barely, than the rest of the competition. Close wins were still wins, and the assembling of the 2004 team followed the usual track – talent over fit.
The 2004 squad was a who’s who of established NBA greats and rising superstars. Former MVPs and perennial All-Stars Allen Iverson and Tim Duncan were joined by LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Amar’e Staudemire, Carmelo Anthony, and others, coached by controversial and successful coach Larry Brown. The team was inexplicably blown out by underdog Puerto Rico by nineteen points. Three games later, the hungry Lithuanians defeated team USA, avenging their defeat in the 2000 games. The two losses in group play were bad, but the team still had a chance for gold. After defeating Spain in the quarterfinals, Team USA was stunned by the brilliant team from Argentina, the eventual gold medalists. Team USA rallied to finish off Lithuania in the bronze medal game, but there was no celebration. The broadcast of the game was somber. There were no cheers, only sighs of relief, as the announcers tried to spin the bronze medal as a learning experience.
The leadership of USA Basketball made swift changes. Jerry Colangelo, businessman and former NBA executive, was named director of USA Basketball. He made two decisions that greatly affected the future of USA Basketball; he instituted a three-year commitment policy for the majority of players, and replaced Larry Brown with Duke University head coach Mike Krzyzewski. In other words, Colangelo implemented a basketball program, and hired a program-builder to coach.
Four players from the 2004 squad made the 2008 squad – Carlos Boozer, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Carmelo Anthony. Most of the remaining squad members were in their first Olympic games, with the exception of ’00 alum and point guard extraordinaire Jason Kidd. Interestingly, the player who proved to be the catalyst for the young squad was Kobe Bryant, himself in the middle of his own redemption story. The team swept the competition, winning the gold medal, cementing its legacy as the Redeem Team.
Media Portrayals, Redemption Narratives, and American Mythology
How do the 2004 and 2008 teams fall into the six-phase narrative of redemption? How did sports media create such a narrative? Contrary to Geyerman’s archetype, the story does not begin with humble beginnings. In fact, USA basketball at the senior Olympic level never had a slow rise to the top. Including the 2004 games, the United States men’s team secured the gold medal in all but four games: A controversial gold medal game loss in 1972 to the Soviet Union in Munich, the boycotted 1980 games in Moscow, a bronze in the 1988 games in Seoul, and the 2004 games in Sydney. 16 Olympics; 12 golds; 2 bronzes; 1 silver; 1 boycott. So the redemption story really begins with loss; stunning, unconscionable loss. The previous non-gold medal performances had explanations that rendered them understandable, if not justifiable. The 1972 team had been “robbed” by sketchy time-keeping and officiating. The United States boycotted the 1980 games, and the 1988 squad was an amateur squad (made up of the best college players in the country, including future NBA stars David Robinson, Mitch Richmond, and Danny Manning, but amateurs nonetheless). The 2004 bronze made no sense. How could superior talent lose in such an astounding fashion?
Thus the second phase began, shame. While the team members certainly were ashamed of the losses, it was the media that drove the narrative of shame and embarrassment. After the loss to Puerto Rico, CNN.com ran a story with the headline, “The USA basketball ‘dream team’ was humiliated 92-73 by the minnows of Puerto Rico on Sunday in one of the biggest upsets in Olympic history.” The Associated Press [via ESPN] reported that head coach Larry Brown was “embarrassed” and “angry,” and quoted him saying, “I’m humiliated….” After LeBron James indicated that “some” Americans might be embarrassed, prolific Sports Illustrated writer Jack McCallum wrote, “Actually, LeBron, all of our citizens would say that.”
It was more of the same from the media throughout the rest of the games. After shaming the team came the third phase, punishment. Punishment, in this case, involved a multi-leveled response to criticism by USA Basketball. The first response was of course excuses. Frequent foul calls on superstar Tim Duncan, continued insistence that the rest of the world had stepped up their talent and programming (which was true), and citing the youthfulness of the team were all go-to answers for why the team had lost. When excuses could no longer be used, USA Basketball pointed to failures in leadership. The media had picked up on the team’s weaknesses, all seemingly coaching issues. Stories have been printed since the 2004 Games to days before the 2016 Rio Games about Larry Brown’s failure as team USA head coach. While there has been no formal declaration by USA Basketball that the failures of the 2004 team are due to Larry Brown’s leadership, they have seemingly embraced the narrative that has in effect scapegoated Larry Brown as the reason for the loss.
The scapegoating of Larry Brown led to the fourth phase of repentance. By repentance, I mean the reviewing of actions and changing of ways. The hiring of Mike Krzyzewski proved to be the step in the opposite direction of Brown. Despite Brown’s success at both the collegiate and NBA levels, he had always been controversial. He played hard and fast with rules, feuded with egotistical personalities, and was quick to offer a dissenting voice to his superiors. Krzyzewski, on the other hand, was clean. A West Point graduate, elite program builder, and a historically great coach who exercised winsomeness over stubbornness.
The switch of USA Basketball to the program mindset was a success, ringing in the fifth phase, triumph. A key component to redemption narratives is continued talent. As Claire McNear of theringer.com wrote in her piece, “The Barry Bonds Image-Rehabilitation Guide,” continued success as an athlete ultimately decides public perception. Continued talent may be the reason Michael Vick got a second chance but Ray Rice may not. Success may have been the factor that kept the public from fully turning on Kobe Bryant after sexual assault allegations. Even comedian Dave Chappelle noted in his 2004 special “For What It’s Worth,” “Thank God [Kobe] held his game together, ‘cause if he was cracking under pressure getting, like, six points a game, the [sic] whole LA would’ve been like, ‘That n***** is guilty.’… He was playing like his freedom depended on that sh**…. It was like the judge threw him the ball and said, ‘Play for your freedom.’” Had the 2008 team not been successful, then the “Redeem Team” title would have been a failed goal rather than a historically significant media designation.
Triumph led to the sixth and final phase, forgiveness. USA Basketball was ultimately forgiven for the 2004 loss and even celebrated for its renewed vision for the future. Rather than arrogant, Team USA was now “classy” and “humble.” They weren’t “bitching and moaning,” but accepting at times frustrating FIBA rules. They were reborn. They had been forgiven.
While Geyerman’s archetype is helpful for understanding some rhetorical strategies behind redemption narratives, I have demonstrated that a six-phase model of loss, shame, punishment, repentance, triumph, and forgiveness is better suited for understanding the deeper mines of redemption narratives. To take this even further, I believe the six-phase model of the sports redemption narrative better illustrates how convoluted the nationalistic propaganda of the American sports media enterprise actually is. The media makes American myths out of the very sources it vilifies. The Redeem Team is nothing without the 2004 team. The gold means significantly less without the bronze. Krzyzewski’s leadership is more difficult to praise without the scapegoating of Brown. The mythology of American exceptionalism and nationalism drives the rhetoric of redemption narratives. There is no clearer representation of this than the egregious documentary “Road to Redemption,” a drawn-out series from 2008 about the Redeem Team. The connections of that documentary with sport as American civil religion are astounding. Coach K preaches the exceptionalism of American basketball on numerous occasions. He serves as the link between the Redeem Team and the mythological ’92 Dream Team, for which he was an assistant. He reminds the 2008 squad of their greatness, and even brings in Magic Johnson to delight the crew with stories of the ’92 team. “This is our game, we created it,” Krzyzewski hollers during one practice shown in the documentary. In another episode, he has the team perform before American troops in Korea, complete with camouflage warm-ups, indenting on showing the team how they connect with others who “serve” the United States. The team even has an “emotional” moment on a ferry near the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, where they are regaled with stories of immigrants who probably would gaze upon the Redeem Team with pride. The team comes together in pursuit of the holy gold medal.
Geyerman’s argument that redemption narratives act as self-identifiers for Americans is noteworthy and insightful. But which part of the convoluted narrative serves as an identifier? I contend that as convoluted as the portrayals of redemption stories are, so too are the ways in which Americans self-identify within them. In the same way the sports mass media crafts a story using only events that can be used to create the intended narrative, American consumers tend to identify only with victory. The narratives and myths we create and consume rely upon victory for self-identification. It is only through victory that we find loss palatable, though it is only through loss that the victory feels sweeter. Thus the conundrum of the Redeem Team – historically significant only because of the collapse 4 years earlier. Is this redemption, or a carefully crafted, exploitative media creation?
Alex is a PhD student at the Nazarene Theological College and the University of Manchester in Manchester, England. His academic interests include American religious history, Alaskan religion and culture, pop culture and religion, and sports and religion. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
 Flannery O’Connor, “Southern Fiction,” pp. 36-50, in Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose, first paperback edition (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1970), 48.
 Chris B. Geyerman, “Biblical Tales in the Sports News: Narrative and the Redemption of Michael Vick,” pp. 47-65, in Sport and Religion in the Twenty-First Century, ed. by Brad Schultz and Mary Lou Sheffer (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2016), 49.
 Geyerman, “Biblical Tales in the Sports News,” 50.
 Kenneth Burke, The Philosophy of Literary Form: Studies in Symbolic Action (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1941 and 1973), 431, in Geyerman, “Biblical Tales in the Sports News,” 51.
 Sonja K. Foss, Karen A. Foss, and Robert Trapp, Contemporary Perspectives on Rhetoric (Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland Press, 2002), 209, in Geyerman, “Biblical Tales in the Sports News,” 51.
 Geyerman, “Biblical Tales in the Sports News,” 51.
 Geyerman, “Biblical Tales in the Sports News,” 61-62.
 Geyerman, “Biblical Tales in the Sports News,” 51.