The Underlying Economic Message In Oscar Winner "Undefeated" (2023)

After winning the Oscar for Best Documentary at last week’s 84th Academy Awards, the reasonable expectation is that Undefeated, a story about a once down-on-its-luck high school football team in Memphis (TN), will see its Oscar gold translate into gold of the box office variety. One can only hope so.

Undefeated is a fascinating look at redemption in a blighted section of a struggling city. Viewers will without a doubt be saddened at times, but also cheered by Manassas High School’s football coach Bill Courtney, and his successful efforts to revitalize a football program that, in its long history dating back to the 19th century, had never even made the city playoffs.

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And then if economics is at its core a study of human action, and it is, Undefeated offers the viewer a lesson in basic economics. Life is economics, and Undefeated perhaps unwittingly offers clarity in certain areas.

First up is the economically bankrupt notion of anti-trust. As most readers know, anti-trust is used today by businesses afraid of competition that use ties to federal bureaucrats in the Justice Department to ensure that positive business combinations are deemed anti-competitive so that they don’t occur. It’s also the case that if a business ever becomes too successful, as in if a business earns gargantuan profits by virtue of giving customers what they want, that anti-trust watchdogs, encouraged by businesses unable to compete, enter the marketplace to try and achieve a breakup of said commercial behemoth.

Undefeated ably reveals the folly of this kind of federal action. Indeed, a constant theme within the documentary is that it’s not where you start in life, but where you finish. Though the Manassas High team had historically found itself winless, and though its players almost to a man had entered the world at the bottom, by Coach Courtney’s final season the Manassas Tigers were in the city playoffs after having lost only one game during the season.

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Though the Tigers had historically raised money meant to support the team through offering themselves up as sacrificial lambs to traditional powers for pay, by Courtney’s final season his team was beating opponents that had in the past paid for the right to slaughter the Tigers on homecoming weekend. Going back to the early part of the 20th century, Standard Oil was needlessly broken up by the Feds despite competition in the marketplace that was rendering Standard’s dominance a thing of the past, and then more modernly Microsoft suffered the DOJ’s anti-trust enforcers despite similar market forces making its own dominance ephemeral.

Back to Manassas High, better conditioning and coaching ultimately made the distance between a perennial doormat and its better-funded competitors an irrelevancy. What a shame for the Tigers if government enforcement had been used to weaken the team’s competitors; the act of doing so something that would have ultimately weakened the Tigers themselves for them being able to achieve in courts what hard work eventually allowed them to achieve on the field. In light of the latter, the unseen in the commercial world is how very much the mere threat, and at times the actual enforcement of anti-trust, has dampened economic growth.

Of course many on the right use failed schools like Manassas to bash public education and teachers’ unions. They too would be well advised to see Undefeated.

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What was clear at least to this viewer is that it’s not teachers failing students, but students failing students. Kids that want to learn will eventually do just that no matter the school attended, but when students don’t care as is apparent among many within Manassas, no voucher, tuition tax credit, or education reform can make up for a lack of want within individuals. Voucher proponents argue that vouchers themselves will help kids exit schools that “don’t teach”, but to see the indifference to learning exhibited by some of the players is to see that vouchers are at best a politically correct Band-Aid that will merely shift disinterested students to other schools, while at worst this shift of indifferent students will wreck once good schools.

Considering success itself, what Undefeated makes apparent is that it’s not achieved through wealth redistribution as President Obama assumes, but instead through changes made on the individual level to do that which fosters achievement. If this is doubted, one need only revisit the countless winners of state lotteries over the years with an eye on learning how many actually held on to wealth won through luck. Anecdotal evidence says it’s not an impressive number.

In Undefeated, viewers will learn the true origin of success. They’ll see it through the introduction of junior linebacker Chavis Daniels. Recently released from a junior penitentiary for reasons unexplained, Coach Courtney referenced this problem player as someone with “serious anger management issues.” Those issues revealed themselves more than once in the film, and ultimately led to Daniels’ suspension from the team for a portion of the season covered.

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On a happy note, Daniels learned the error of his ways, and his return to the team was instrumental in its success. As the documentary revealed as the credits rolled down the screen, Daniels was named defensive captain of the Tigers for his senior year. Success wasn’t handed to him, rather Daniels started acting in ways that successful people do on the way to high achievement on the field. So while 100 different people will have 100 different definitions of that which is success, Undefeated reminds us that success is chosen, and results from correcting the bad habits that unceasingly drive failure.

Perhaps most economically heartening within Undefeated was the certain reminder that the “trickle-down effect” in terms of wealth is alive and well. Though lefty economists of Paul Krugman’s ilk will drool otherwise, the simple reality is that the trickle-down effect is as a true as the sun setting in the west.

Evidence abounds on this score, but what the documentary makes readily apparent is that the coaches authoring the team’s turnaround are economically quite well-to-do. Coach Courtney offered his services as volunteer head coach after purchasing a rundown warehouse near the school for his wood-crafting business, and then Coach Ray resides in a mansion where star lineman O.C. Brown comes for tutoring sessions, and where he seemingly lives part of the time. Well off by just about any reasonable measure, that Courtney and Ray aren’t being fleeced for the vast majority of their earnings means they can offer up their limited free time to fix a football team once left for dead.

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But where the “trickle-down effect” is made most apparent is through Montrail “Money” Brown, the team’s right tackle, and presumably its best student with a 3.8 GPA. As the documentary’s end nears, assistant coach Germany alerts Courtney to a dinner he’d had the previous night with a rich man supposedly worth $30-$40 million. Upon hearing Brown’s story, the unnamed benefactor told Germany that he would pay every cent of Brown’s college tuition should he matriculate. Brown ultimately chose Southern Mississippi, he manages the football team there, and for the Krugmans of the world who deny how very compassionate is capitalism, they would do well to spend $10 and two hours watching Undefeated. Trickle-down quite simply is.

It’s safe to say that most will see Undefeated for the story alone, and if so, time spent watching it at the local cinema will be well spent. And then for those seeking deeper – even economic – meaning, Undefeated will deliver there too in reminding those who care of the folly of anti-trust, the ineffectiveness of wealth redistribution, the certainty that wealth earned ultimately benefits us all, and the essential truth that success is a choice. Run, don’t walk.


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