Redemption Song is an important piece to watch on US soccer and Afro-American history. It is the true story of the Howard University all-black Mens Soccer team, compressed into a woefully short 16 minutes.
The team won the 1971 NCAA championship, only to see it perhaps unjustly vacated and the team put on probation. To prove their excellence, the players fought back to win the NCAAs again in 1974.
Because Director Kenan Holley’s film is so short, it provides little context. I had to do some reading to remember what 1971-1974 was like, and why things like this happened.
America was in huge turmoil, beset by protests against the Vietnam War, Women’s Lib, the Black Power and Black is Beautiful movements, the Gay Rights movement, the Hippie movement, Blaxploitation films, the Weather Underground radicals, Patty Hearst’s kidnapping and joining the Symbionese Army, Watergate, and the resignations of VP Spiro Agnew followed by POTUS Richard Nixon. In sports, Billie Jean King defeated Bobby Riggs, and Muhammad Ali was allowed to fight in the ring again.
The country was struggling to deal with so many ISMs: feminism, sexism, racism, domestic terrorism, pacifism, and dirty tricksterism. Howard University Men’s Soccer was a victim of some of these ISMs. After the 1971 Final, it appears that someone complained about the roster and recruitment tactics of Bison Coach Lincoln Phillips. His entire starting lineup was from the Caribbean and Africa. The championship was vacated and erased from the record books. The NCAA deemed the school guilty of violations that were likely commonplace at the time.
In those days, the common refrain in society was that “Rules were made to be broken”. Your mistake wasn’t that you broke the rules, but that you were caught. The NCAA denied that technicalities were applied because an all-black team had defeated an all-white team, but surely that played a factor.
Coach Phillips was just ahead of his time, because within 20 years, most colleges and even high schools were recruiting athletes from outside the USA. (One interesting article complained that UCLA had all foreign-named Europeans on its Final Four team, including someone named “Sigi Schmid”. Though born in Bavaria, Sigi played on one of the first AYSO teams, coached by his Dad.
If I’m going to complain about this documentary at all, it’s that it should be a feature-length film. This story could be another Remember the Titans, another perfect team. And I would like to hear more about how Jamaican players are intense, T&T players are laid back, and Nigerian players’ shouting is easily taken the wrong way. Well, I could also complain that Grant Wahl’s bald head looks like a glowing light bulb.
As of Jun-7-2016, the film is on the ESPN Undefeated website.
SoccerMovieMom Rating = 7