Now that finals are over, I’ve been augmenting my busy schedule of snake and mountain lion-avoidance with cleaning, packing, and documentary-watching. Last night I watched the Team Foxcatcher film on Netflix; not the movie that came out a few years ago, but the documentary comprised of old home movies and interviews and news footage.
If you’re not familiar with the Foxcatcher saga, here it is a nutshell: John DuPont, heir to the chemical fortune, was a lifelong misfit. Socially awkward, DuPont moved from obsession to obsession throughout his life. Some of his preoccupations were sports-related, and some of his fixations were on people: when those two lanes merged, in the person of champion wrestler David Schultz, DuPont’s infatuation became deadly.
Schultz and his family lived on the DuPont estate in Pennsylvania, where John DuPont had created a multi-million dollar training facility, as well as housing, for wrestlers, luring numerous trainers and athletes to the Foxcatcher team with unrivaled financial support. DuPont’s admirable aim was to level the playing field between the US and USSR, where athletes received state-funded support, allowing the Russians to train with a single-minded focus not afforded American athletes. But as Foxcatcher grew, and its athletes became more successful, DuPont’s fixation on a couple of his wrestlers — David Schultz and Valentin Jordanov of Bulgaria — also grew.
Jealous of the wrestlers’ friendship and talent, and descending into cocaine-fueled paranoia and delusion, DuPont’s behavior became increasingly erratic. While many of the athletes and staff were concerned with DuPont’s behavior, and knew that he frequently carried guns, no one expected what happened the snowy day DuPont went to Schultz’s home and shot him dead, right in front of his wife.
Naturally, DuPont’s attorney tried to convince the jury that his client was not guilty by reason of insanity. Toward this effort, by the time of the trial, DuPont had a look that can only be described as a demented, crack-addicted Santa Claus.
The jury didn’t buy it, however, and DuPont was sent to prison, where he died in 2010.
So, here’s the rub: Valentin Jordanov, the wrestler from Bulgaria, who’d moved to the US with his young wife to join Foxcatcher, was David Schultz’s best friend. He and his wife and children actually lived with the Schultzes in their home; David had learned Russian, and initially, was the only wrestler Jordanov could really communicate with. Schultz and Jordanov were close friends, housemates, teammates, and training partners for years…
And guess who inherited 80% of John DuPont’s $200 million fortune?
Sort of rubs you the wrong way, doesn’t it?
This story made me think about friendship and loyalty, and how much one human being is really worth to another. It’s not as easy as black and white, of course. Dave Schultz’s brother, Mark, also a champion wrestler and one-time Foxcatcher coach, described the Foxcatcher saga as a “perfect storm,” and you get a real sense of this from the documentary: athletes whose focus on winning left them willing to dismiss their concerns in return for financial support, USA Wrestling’s willingness to overlook DuPont’s behavior in return for funding, DuPont’s lifetime of isolation and innate understanding of the power of money… Throw in drug addiction and alcohol abuse, and you’ve got a recipe for disaster.
And it’s easy for those of us whose lives are not structured around winning, who don’t know what it’s like to come from a country with little to no opportunity, to react to Jordanov’s inheritance with disgust. Maybe that’s a position only privilege allows us to take. But the undeniable fact is that at the end of the day, Valentin Jordanov actively benefitted from the misguided obsession of the man who murdered his best friend. It’s hard not to recoil in horror and think that Jordanov should have turned down the inheritance, or donated it to a wrestling organization he believed in, or given it to charity — and maybe he actually did.
Or maybe he sold his soul for money.
[Dave Schultz’s widow sued DuPont in civil court and won a sizable sum, by the way; that does not, of course, make up for the husband and father who is missing from their lives].
But the truth is, this sort of thing happens — generally in less drastic and life-altering ways — all the time. People throw other people under the bus, and then back the bus over them before driving it forward again, every single day.
I’ve seen a lot of this the last couple years, and it’s a harsh lesson: how far people will go to save their own sorry asses. It’s extraordinary painful to realize that someone you trusted was actually not patting your back to soothe you, but rather to find the spot where their knife would do the most damage. You can’t help but wonder, as you try to stop the bleeding, how your judgment could have been so impaired.
And I think it’s because so often we see what we want to see, and hear what we want to hear, and discard what doesn’t fit with our own agenda, because it’s less trouble — and at the time, less painful — than having that Come to Jesus talk with yourself in which you say, this is messed up.
I keep coming back to something I heard many years ago, a quote attributed to Maya Angelou: When someone shows you who they are, believe them — the first time.
That’s good advice. Great advice, actually.
A former collegiate wrestler named Greg Satell wrote an article about Foxcatcher for Forbes. In it, he says:
The unfortunate truth about Foxcatcher is that we were all complicit. We all knew that John was unstable and many suspected that he was dangerous. Few spoke up and no one took any action. A good man lost his life and a sport was scarred by tragedy, sorrow and dishonor.
Human beings are incompetent risk managers. We readily accept present accommodations and fail to account for the price to be paid in the future. When calamity strikes, we vow to be smarter next time, but seldom are. Life goes on, new ambitions arise and we try not to think too much about it.
The lessons of Foxcatcher, and many other things, never seem to be learned.
But take it from Winston:
Wash the tire tracks off your back and get back on your feet, a little wiser, a little worse of the wear. And then ask yourself:
Are you giving your time and energy to people and institutions and efforts that are truly worth it? If not, it’s time to make a change.
*If you’re interested in the article about Foxcatcher quoted above: Satell, Forbes