I’m currently wrapping up season two of Last Chance U, the hit docuseries on Netflix that profiles notable football players fighting for the chance to return to a Division I school by unleashing their momentous talent on the field of East Mississippi Community College (EMCC). Led by a highly-charged and colorful head coach in Buddy Stephens, the EMCC Lions are a force to be reckoned with. They don’t win games. They pulverize their opponents, and the results speak for themselves. Winning three NJCAA National Championships (2011, 2013, 2014) is a remarkable accomplishment for sure, but the path towards that end each season is immensely tough, physically, spiritually, and emotionally.
In a recent episode, I noticed several members on the defensive side of the ball huddled together to listen to a stern word from their coach. While players typically wear shirts with the school name across the front, one young man donned an Adidas tee with an inscription that readily stood out among his peers. “Heart Over Hype.” Apparently, the footwear giant has manufactured this shirt for other athletic programs across the United States, but seeing it up close like this facilitated the feeling that it was exclusively produced for EMCC. No matter. Hype, it seems, is everywhere around us.
I don’t care too much for hype as it has a way of letting you down. Hype disappoints and angers if it fails to come to fruition, meaning championships and hardware and glory and bragging rights. Look at the Adidas shirt and the message is clear. Dismiss the hype. Reject it outright. But one need not look far to see another footwear juggernaut, Nike, and a shirt that explicitly says otherwise. “Believe the Hype.”
What else do these diametrically opposed messages do but create confusion for athletes? Which is right? Hype leads to ego; heart leads to grit. Hype deflates; heart inflates. Hype is temporal; heart is steadfast. As philosopher Criss Jami puts it, “The hype cheapens the hyped, as right things are then made wrong by exaggeration.” The antidote to hype, then, is its opposite: authenticity. In a word – heart.
Authenticity in the sport of running is usually on display at races, and the 2017 World Champions, which recently concluded in London, accentuate this truth. Take Usain Bolt, the famed Jamaican sprinter considered by many to be the fastest man alive. Major hype surrounded Bolt as he readied himself at the 100-meter finals. It was not meant to be though. The legend Bolt finished third, eclipsed by Americans Justin Gatlin (1st) and Christian Coleman (2nd).
In the words of Bolt after the race, “I’m just disappointed I couldn’t do better for them but that’s how it goes sometimes. … I have done all I can for the sport, it’s time to go.” With Bolt retiring after the World Championships, who will be the next runner in track and field that will become the focal point of fresh hype? To put another way, who is the next Usain Bolt? The internet is already buzzing with prospects. Will he or she live up to the hype or disappoint a fanbase that has the greatest of expectations? Will he or she run with heart or hype?
In summary, the message is simple. Don’t believe the hype. Hype in others or hype in yourself. Run or play with heart, with grit, with gumption. In short, choose heart over hype. This mantra calls to mind The Replacements (2000), a football film about a ragtag group of athletes who rallied together to play in the stead of their professional counterparts who went on strike regarding salary disputes, i.e. hype.
In their final game, with a spot in the playoffs on the line, the Washington Sentinels are trailing at halftime 17-0. A reporter asks coach McGinty (Gene Hackman) what adjustments need to be made to ensure a better second half. “Heart,” McGinty says. “Miles and miles of heart.” It wouldn’t be much of a feel-good film if the team didn’t respond and win the day, led by their recharged quarterback Shane Falco (Keanu Reeves).
More hype, however, didn’t wait for these replacement players. They didn’t have a shoe deal waiting or a luxury car brand to promote. No, they returned to their normal jobs and their normal lives, but they all carried with them an awareness of self that endures, an awareness that’s powerfully authentic and life-changing.