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Michael Bentt boxes in a match. | Wiki­media Commons

Netflix’s new docu-series “Losers,” released in March 2019, offers a dif­ferent take on success and seeks to combat a culture obsessed with winning by telling the stories of famous – and less famous — ath­letes who failed, and the lessons they learned by that failure.

“Losers” develops this premise across a sur­prising variety of sports, from bas­ketball and boxing to curling and dog sled racing. The show checks all the rel­evant role-model boxes, inter­viewing ath­letes across genders and class lines, from pro­fes­sional and amateur status, local and inter­na­tional. With this diverse group of ath­letes, they’re able to describe a remarkable variety of failures, and the cir­cum­stances that came out of each one.

The opening episode, “The Miscast Champion,” fea­tures former boxer and current actor Michael Bentt from Queens, New York. Pushed, and even beaten into boxing by his abusive father, Bentt racked up impressive titles as an amateur, taking four New York City Golden Gloves titles and five national champion titles. Bentt took the next step: he went pro­fes­sional, and was promptly knocked out in the first round of his first pro fight.

After taking some time off, Bentt stepped back in the pro ring and stacked up an 11 – 2 record when, in a fight defending his World Boxing Orga­ni­zation heavy­weight champion title, he suf­fered a per­manent brain injury that ended his career.

Such a trau­matic, irre­versible injury often crushes not only an athlete’s career, but his spirit. Bentt’s first reaction? Relief, he says.

“I was always in con­flict with why I fought in the first place,” Bentt recalls.

At the breaking edge of com­pe­tition, it’s obvious who wants to be there and who doesn’t. There’s a reason that kids who cower under the gaze of their parents in the stands in high school usually don’t compete in college, where the stands are empty except for stu­dents.

For Bentt, the injury meant he was finally free from a sport that had never been his passion. He didn’t want to box: he was only neg­a­tively moti­vated by fear of his father. He began to pursue a career in acting.

But for French ice skater Surya Bonaly, going pro was the answer to the con­sistent dis­cour­agement of racially biased judges. Her internal moti­vation couldn’t have been stronger — nothing less than absolute com­mitment would have fueled her through months of refining her technique,when gold still stayed a tan­ta­lizing finger’s breadth away every year. Her bold tech­nical skills included an arsenal of back­flips, an illegal move in the amateur cat­e­gories like the Olympics.

Bonaly, the only figure skater to ever land a backflip on one leg, and fighting an ACL injury at her third Olympic appearance in the ninth year of her com­pet­itive career, landed the backflip, took the point deduction, and left the amateur ice for good.

“Losers” shows that Bonaly never lost or repressed her passion for the sport, even though she started com­peting at 15 years old and con­tinued for nine years, but stuck with it until she found the envi­ronment where she could pursue it freely: touring as a per­forming skater in with Cham­pions on Ice for nine more years.

Some­times success doesn’t mean winning — some­times, it means not losing. Episode two, “The Jaws of Defeat,” offers a refreshing step off the national and global sports stage to an English football club. The spot­light isn’t always on, but the pressure is.

According to English football club rules, the lowest ranked team of each season in each division is bumped down a cat­egory. If a team is in the lowest division and fin­ishes last, it is dis­solved. Such is the sit­u­ation for FC Torquay, the unde­niable underdogs in the match that will decide their fate. A comedy of errors, including a police dog’s mis­guided attack of a player instead of an unruly crowd member, results not in a win – but in a tie, which keeps the Torquay club together by the skin of its teeth.

“Losers” examines many kinds of failure, and breaks down a lot of the false dichotomies and doc­trines that ath­letes can stew in: pro is better than amateur. If you don’t succeed in your sport, you’re not trying hard enough. You can always control your cir­cum­stances. Every dec­o­rated athlete has ful­filled his hopes and dreams.

The most helpful lesson the show teaches, though, is simply that failure is sur­vivable. You may miss the last hole on the last day of the most pres­ti­gious golf event in the world, to absolutely freak mishaps, and life goes on — as in the case of Jean Van de Velde.

“Things very often happen for a reason,” Van de Velde admits, reflecting on his dis­as­trous last hole at the infamous Carnoustie Open Cham­pi­onship in 1999. Ath­letes con­stantly hear than they are in control, that it’s all up to them, that given the right analysis and sta­tistics and video tapes, failure can be iden­tified, con­trolled, and pre­vented. This, however, is a myth.

Failures due to uncon­trol­lable cir­cum­stances has a dif­ferent sort of sting than trau­matic injuries, losing streaks, or heavy-handed author­ities.

“Either you can find a rational expla­nation or, if you don’t find any, you just have to cope with it. And now, which part of yourself is going to come out? Who are you really?” Van de Velde said.

But while “Losers” has champion material, the pre­sen­tation is unsat­is­fying.

The episodes are remarkably con­cen­trated, packing a whole career — and the most heart­breaking and soul-crushing moments of that career — into an average of 30 minutes. While this density could be an advantage, the price paid for such effi­ciency is emo­tional exhaustion on the part of the viewer. We know what punch-in-your-gut sports tele­vision looks like, thanks to “Million Dollar Baby” and “The Blind Side.” Thirty minutes is simply not enough time to make the audience feel what these ath­letes felt, to feel the agony and frus­tration of these failures with them.

The show also would have done better to con­sider its audience potential: with the absurdly young ages that many American kids are put into ath­letics, it’s a message they need to hear, too. But while later episodes are much cleaner than the first, which is laden with curse words, most soccer moms won’t flick on a TV-MA show for the kids in the living room while they’re cooking dinner.

The series is also punc­tuated with car­toons. As an athlete, I know first hand how much failure, even at the mid-level, col­le­giate, non-pro, non-cham­pi­onship level feels like. I was com­pletely mys­tified why the director would sub­stitute car­toons for real, live footage — until I dis­covered pro­ducer Mickey Duzyj is an ani­mator, and these car­toons are his “per­sonal stamp.” Per­sonally, I was not a fan. Failure, as the show sets out to embrace, isn’t always cute. The car­toons cushion the impact.

At the end of the day, “Losers” tells much-needed stories about failure — how ath­letes both sur­vived failure, and learned from it. Watch “Losers” over your lunch break, but if you want to feel what it means to fail, without having to relive your worst mem­ories, wait until after dinner, and watch “Million Dollar Baby.” And keep an eye out for Michael Bentt living his acting dreams.

  • Alexan­derYp­si­lantis

    Sounds like a great doc­u­mentary, I’ll try and catch it.

    As a society, we put way too much emphasis on sports and winning. Hey, I love college ath­letics and comment on it a lot in this news­paper. But it shouldn’t be all about winning, a lot more players and teams lose than win. You have to take some­thing out of it other than winning acco­lades or it’s not worth the effort.

    I love when Hillsdale College ath­letic teams win, but when they don’t I love how they show class at the end of the contest. At the end of the day, THAT is far more important than the warm-fuzzy you get with a win. A lot more important and a lot more enduring.