That Championship Season

by Jason Miller

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Themes and Meanings

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That Championship Season is about middle America, its cult of mediocrity, and the way in which it views success. Jason Miller emphasizes that the American Dream has become a nightmare by focusing on the emptiness of the lives of men, who try to preserve their friendships and their egos despite the compromises they have made. The play dramatizes a whole sweep of contemporary life. As the celebratory evening progresses along with the drinking, the players’ masks and inhibitions become transparent. Their exposed lives are a metaphor for an America in decay, a point which the Coach continues to emphasize.

Despite the bombastic chatter about the glorious championship game and the desperate efforts, urged by the Coach, to recover the team spirit, it becomes clear that these men are insecure and bewildered, each seeking his own redemption but finding none. Only the alcoholic Tom and the absent Martin seem to understand that the prize was not worth the hateful competition. When the Coach’s rallying speech tells them that “lose” is not in their vocabulary because he made them all winners, the audience understands that the opposite is true: They have lost the game of life, which neither their rasping revelations nor their boozy camaraderie can conceal. They cling to the past as the celebration degenerates into a series of brutal confrontations and recriminations over race, ethnicity, religion, and women, as the narrowness and the shabbiness of their empty lives is revealed. In fact, it is their beloved, slogan-slinging Coach who put these bigoted and McCarthyite ideas into their heads, including the belief that winning in sports and life is everything.


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Loyalty versus Betrayal
At the center of That Championship Season is a tension between loyalty and betrayal among the five characters. Coach both wants and believes he has the absolute loyalty of the four members of his former team. Coach acts as if he is still their coach, the coach of their life. The loyalty comes from their shared experience as the 1952 state champion basketball team. Only George is truly blindly loyal to the Coach and thinks he (George) has the loyalty of the others. The other three are loyal only to a certain degree, to each other and the Coach. They acknowledge the ties of the past, but they have their own life agendas.

These agendas are what create betrayals between them. George and Coach are the ones who feel most betrayed by the others. Phil has an affair with George’s wife, Marion, an act that George regards as a betrayal. Phil believes that George does not want to understand his wife, and what she needs. Their affair was just one of many for Phil. The only way George can rationalize the act is by accepting his wife’s word that she did it so Phil would give George money for his reelection campaign. James also feels betrayed by George and the others at the end of the play. James has supported George’s campaign and served as his manager. James believes that he will eventually be repaid when he runs for school superintendent with George’s support the following year. Yet Phil, Coach, and George decide that James will no longer be campaign manager so George can win, effectively ending James’s political aspirations. James accepts the decision out of loyalty, but he does not like it.

Coach feels betrayed when there is dissension among his four players. He wants them to do what he believes is right. He thinks highly of them and their skills (ignoring certain truths), but when they act independently, Coach regards it as a betrayal. Coach...

(This entire section contains 949 words.)

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is very offended by Tom, a drunken loser with no prospects. He feels Tom has wasted his life. But Coach also feels betrayed by time and American society. America has changed politically and socially much more than he has. Demanding loyalty from the men he coached twenty years ago is one way he can counteract the betrayal he feels from life.

Success and Failure
The definitions of success and failure are important components of That Championship Season. Coach, and most of the other characters, believe that success is winning. For Coach, the fact that he and these men won a state high school basketball championship means that they will be successes in life. Because this is not necessarily true, Coach goes to extremes to manipulate the men to make it true, no matter who gets hurt. Failure—that is, losing—is unacceptable.

George was elected mayor, making him the epitome of success. However, he only won the post because of the influence of Coach, and Phil’s financial support. Phil got some valuable land leases out of the deal; he is a success because of his wealth. Continued success, that is reelection, might be harder, but winning at all costs is the only way. George wants to smear his opponent, Norman Sharmen, by revealing that his uncle was a communist in the 1950s yet does not want anything negative to be said about him by Sharmen. Later, it is revealed that Phil had an affair with George’s wife. With her input, George rationalizes it as something she did to secure Phil’s campaign contribution. In this case, success is more important than personal failings.

Yet Coach’s definition of success at all costs does alienate people. Martin, the best player on the 1952 team, has not spoken to Coach since that time. As Tom tells it, during the championship game, Coach told Martin to take out the other team’s best player. Martin broke the ribs of the player, but after the team won, he asked Coach to refuse the trophy because of what he did. Coach ignored Martin’s request because to him winning is everything. Though Martin is still respected as a basketball player by them all, they consider him a failure for being disloyal. Tom is also a failure because he is an alcoholic with no prospects. Tom also points out the absurdity of many of their beliefs. Coach tries to get him on the path to success by working for George’s campaign, but Tom will have no part of it. Tom is one of the only characters able to see the hollowness of their definition of success, even though their moral failings seem to be so obvious. Nostalgia, Memory, and Reminiscence
Coach is generally uncomfortable with the present. He believes that the United States is mired in dissension and disloyalty. Coach lives in the past, nostalgic for what used to be. That Championship Season is set in his living room, which is cluttered with furnishings and decorations from the past, including pictures of people like Teddy Roosevelt. He dresses in a suit with a 1940s cut. For Coach, as well as George and Phil, winning that championship in 1952 was the highlight of their lives. This meeting is a reunion to celebrate their twenty-year-old victory. Throughout the play, memories from the game and that period in their life are discussed. Coach even plays a recording with the last ten seconds of the game. Coach uses the power of these memories and his obsession with them to influence his former players and their choices. While the men embrace the memories as well, they live in the present day much more than Coach.