Did you guys happen to catch the HBO documentary “The Cost of Winning” last week?
If you haven’t seen it yet, it’s available on HBO Max. The four-part doc is based on the 2019 football team at Baltimore’s own St. Frances Academy. And, I will admit, I had the wrong impression of what I was getting into when I sat down to watch it.
You see, I genuinely believed the entire two hours would be about diving into the story of the Panthers essentially being “kicked out” of the MIAA A Conference in 2018. All of us in Baltimore remember that being one of the biggest stories of the year in local sports, this despite Baltimore being much more of a “pro sports town.” The controversy generated local and national attention, filling segments on sports talk radio and beyond.
It was a complex story — a topic where concepts like “old money” and “racism” and “player safety” and “fair competition” and so many more could all converge. There weren’t necessarily “correct” answers to be had. While it seemed wrong to basically force a program out of the conference, it could not be completely ignored that the program was enjoying significant advantages in terms of national recruiting.
The controversy calmed with time here, but I honestly thought a four-part HBO documentary was the perfect way to go about revisiting it and trying to get to the bottom of whatever the “correct” answer might possibly be.
With that in mind, I was at first disappointed to find out that was not at all what we were getting.
If you’ve watched “The Cost of Winning,” you know that while the controversy was covered, it happened only in the first episode of the series. And while former Calvert Hall coach Donald Davis provided some insight, a source close to the project told me it was still a struggle to get anyone connected to the MIAA outside of St. Frances to discuss the situation. The rest of the series was far more about the team’s players and coaches, in the style of, say, Netflix’s “Last Chance U.”
“It was an interesting creative choice and one that we’re all happy with and feel like was the right choice,” director Rob Ford said on Glenn Clark Radio Nov. 10. “The controversy at this point happened a couple of years ago. There is a decent amount of coverage on it. We feel like that’s more or less the entry point to the story; at this point it’s not THE story anymore.”
That is, of course, fair, and the story was largely presented without prejudice despite St. Frances’ involvement with the project. That instead allowed for not only the story of the program to be told more completely, but also the stories of compelling players like Jon Wallace, Chris Braswell, Blake Corum and Demon Clowney (whose commitment drama — to no fault of his own — proved to be perhaps the most compelling part of the series and paints a popular college football coach in a particularly unflattering light).
But strangely, the decision to not singularly focus on the controversy … actually helped give me an answer about the controversy. Sort of.
I still don’t know how I feel about the process that led to St. Frances being left on the outside of the MIAA looking in. My guess is that there’s a lot I wouldn’t like about how the separation came to be. But it’s nearly impossible to watch a retelling of the Panthers’ 2019 season and think anything other than, “I can’t fathom St. Frances being in the MIAA at this point. This is so much more significant than that.”
The Panthers’ 2019 schedule allowed them to compete for a mythical “national championship” by playing high-profile and sometimes nationally televised games against the likes of Miami (Fla.) Central, Mater Dei (Calif.) and IMG Academy (Fla.). There were big crowds and tons of attention from all parts of the country. While it might well be possible for them to play a few big games AND an A Conference schedule, this strategy just really seemed to be a better fit for what St. Frances is doing as a program.
“That’s how we feel. I don’t think anybody has really looked back since 2018 when everything went down. We’ve looked forward,” St. Frances co-head coach Henry Russell said on Glenn Clark Radio Nov. 6. “The biggest thing that we need help with to do this is [that] it costs a lot of money to do what we did last year. That’s not sustainable without help. Hopefully this documentary can bring awareness to St. Frances and people wanting to help and wanting to continue what’s going on at the school and for these kids. If that can happen, I don’t think anybody wants to look back.”
The documentary again reiterates what we already knew. So much of what has happened at St. Frances has been bankrolled by Biff Poggi. A former hedge fund manager, we understand that Poggi is quite wealthy but his true net worth is unknown. It is, of course, fair to point out that the cost of traveling all over the country (and to pay for other schools to travel to Baltimore sometimes) can be overwhelming.
Poggi himself is unsurprisingly the most compelling figure in “The Cost of Winning.” His story is again, largely and purposely, presented without prejudice. While some might consider what Poggi does to be “charity,” others perhaps view him as having a “white savior” complex. Even those who can appreciate what he’s doing are forced to reconcile that as a coach, he still stands to benefit from the recruiting and spending he does. He’s paying a lot of money for football players, who alone are no more a deserving group of individuals than, say, cellists. But Poggi doesn’t direct the orchestra.
It’s a complicated situation. It’s a discussion that required nuance from the filmmakers, who were unafraid to address it. But it was hard to watch the impact the program appeared to be having on the kids and think that anything that St. Frances and Poggi are doing is inherently “wrong.”
“I personally think it’s the most important thing that matters,” Ford said. “Because that’s to me the real litmus test regarding making my own judgment on if what he’s doing is OK or not — is how the kids feel about it, how they’re responding to it, how they’re benefitting from it. And as an extension to the kids, their parents.”
“From the parents to the kids, they all have nothing but love and esteem and appreciation for Biff and what he’s doing.”
St. Frances has been unable to start its 2020 season amid the COVID-19 pandemic as the program has been unable to locate somewhere that it can practice. The delay has caused the team to lose players already to transfers and will likely lose more to early enrollment at colleges.
Still, it’s hard to imagine the program will be down very long and that the exposure from such a high-profile documentary won’t provide greater benefit in the coming years.
Photo Credit: Courtesy of St. Frances Academy/Under Armour