The Dangerous Myth that Pop Warner was Jim Thorpe's SaviorRoundup
tags: racism, Native American history, Jim Thorpe, football, Carlisle Indian Industrial School, Residential Schools, Pop Warner
This story is adapted from “Path Lit by Lightning: The Life of Jim Thorpe,” which will be published Aug. 9.
For 20 long years after Jim Thorpe signed a contract with Hollywood, the sporting colossus from the Sac and Fox Nation waited anxiously for the studios to produce a movie about his life. When it finally came out in 1951, two years before his death, the film offered a mostly sympathetic story; star power in Burt Lancaster, the dynamic lead actor who portrayed Jim; and several evocative scenes of his epic rise to global fame and the troubles that followed.
Biographical pictures are invariably fictionalized accounts and should be regarded on those terms, but along with the usual conflations and inaccuracies of detail, “Jim Thorpe — All American” was misguided in a more important way, reinforcing stereotypes of a White perspective on a Native American’s life.
Thorpe — whose Olympic records in the decathlon and pentathlon at the 1912 Stockholm Games were finally restored last month, 110 years too late — was the main character in the film, from greatest athlete in the world, all-American football star and major league baseball player to fallen hero. But the story was told from the perspective of the narrator, Pop Warner, Jim’s old coach and supposed savior. The implication was that if only Thorpe had taken Pop’s advice, stopped brooding about his fate and fully integrated himself into White society, he would not have suffered the way he did.
Patronizing — and wrong.
Glenn Scobey Warner, the Pop whose name lives on as the symbol of youth football, was an imposing figure in the athletic world of the early 20th century, an innovative and successful coach who was almost as well known in that subculture as Thorpe, his most prominent football and track and field star. Together they turned little Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania into an athletic marvel that competed winningly on the fields of play with the elite colleges of the East, from Harvard and Penn to Syracuse and Army.
With Warner’s brilliant coaching and Thorpe’s dominant performance on the football field, Carlisle’s 27-6 thrashing of Army in 1912 stands as one of the most symbolically meaningful moments of athletic retribution in American history. Soldiers on one side, Indians on the other, competing on the Plain at West Point, an even playing field at last. N. Scott Momaday, the Native American novelist and playwright, said it was like reinventing history. There was, he said, “something in the air that cold November day — something made of omens and prophesies. Some old imbalance was being set right.”
Jim and Pop in that sense rose to fame together, bonded by circumstance and mutual need. But the truth was more complicated. The glorification of Warner in the movie and beyond was misplaced. It glossed over his cowardly actions during the most trying time of Thorpe’s career, when Olympic officials rescinded his records and took away his medals and trophies after learning he had played bush league baseball for minimal pay for two years. And glowing portrayals of Warner also ignored the fact that as football coach he professionalized his supposedly amateur Carlisle team and that his players eventually rebelled against his demeaning methods, leading to a congressional investigation and his departure.
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