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.