When I was a freshman at Yeshiva University, I thought I would try out for the basketball and wrestling teams. In high school I had never played on a school team, but I enjoyed the competition of organized sports. A freshman who befriended me was Bobby Podhurst, the tallest fellow I had ever known and I went with him to a practice one evening to see if my skill level in B-ball was up to college standards.
Since Yeshiva University had no gym of its own, we had to take a subway to Power Memorial High School for practice. I soon realized that I was not ready for prime time basketball after a long day of general and Judaic studies and then traveling for an hour on the subway for a late night practice. It was an exhausting experience, which clearly indicated that playing on a college athletic team was not for me. I lacked the skills and the stamina. However, I did learn one thing from placing myself in the shoes of college athletes for one evening. I gained a better understanding and appreciation of what a student commits to when he plays in organized athletic competition.
These thoughts raced through my mind as I watched McFarland, USA, a heartfelt sports story about an obscure school in a disadvantaged California community that emerges as a cross-country racing powerhouse.
The year is 1987, and football coach Jim White finds himself the assistant coach in McFarland, a small high school populated by Latino students with no plans to go to college. The future for them is arduous work picking crops on the field in the hot sun so that their families can survive economically. Jim observes that a number of boys do not even finish football practice because their parents pick them up to take them home to help them harvest crops.
Watching the boys run around the track during practice gives Jim the idea of starting a cross-country team of runners, mostly comprising those students who are cut from the football team.
The cross-country team initially does not have success, and Jim attributes it to his inexperienced coaching of the sport. He also learns about the personal challenges the boys face coming from a poor background. For them, attending college is an impossible dream.
One day Jim decides to join them in the fields to get an idea of what that work is. Only by standing in their shoes for the day will he understand the mighty challenges the boys face. For Jim it is an exhausting experience.
As the boys and Jim begin to know each other better, they find success on the running trails. They win competitions, and the townspeople buy uniforms and new running shoes for the team. One success follows another and the McFarland team eventually qualifies for participation in the state championships. The coda as the credits roll juxtaposes images of the actors with the real people they portrayed, and indicates what they did after high school. The ending of their individual stories is both surprising and inspiring.
Like many sports movies that depict a team’s rise from obscurity to fame, the story of McFarland is inspirational; but McFarland has another agenda as well. It considers the topic of prejudice as it depicts the team’s encounters with other schools, which have a negative view of Latinos. Moreover, Coach Jim White initially is himself guilty of prejudice. It is only when he joins the boys in the fields that he begins to understand what their life is like and begins to relate to them with genuine love and concern.
The Ethics of the Fathers, a classic Jewish work of ethical instruction, states: “Do not judge your fellow man until you have been in his position.” This is a maxim that Coach White takes to heart. Once he understands the challenges of his students, he is able to be a friend and mentor to them. They sense his sincerity and are ready to give him their very best. McFarland reminds us to refrain from judging people until we truly understand why they do what they do.