Netflix’s ‘Last Chance U’: Rough But Realistic Look at College-Football Dreams

Last-Chance-UTwice a year, TV-centric entertainment journalists gather in a hotel in the Los Angeles area to attend press conferences and parties intended to inform them about, and especially promote, upcoming TV programming.

Right now, we’re at the Beverly Hilton Hotel in Beverly Hills (see above), and thus far, Netflix, PBS and a variety of cable networks have been presenting their offerings. Not all the shows are family-suitable — and some of them haven’t even been shot and/or released yet — but they all are worth thinking about … some for good reasons, some for not-so-good reasons.

In this post, we’ll start with a nonfiction offering that’s available in its entirety right now, Netflix’s “Last Chance U.”

Released on Friday, July 29, this six-episode documentary series focuses on the 2015 season for East Mississippi Community College, whose Lions football squad may be the titular “last chance” for players who didn’t get a big college-football scholarship and are on the verge of losing their athletic and/or academic dreams.

Coach Buddy Stephens tries to get his guys back on track on the gridiron, while athletic adviser Brittany Wagner struggles to help them put their personal and scholastic houses in order — and it’s often an uphill climb on both ends.

Kids fail for a lot of reasons — psychological, physical and environmental — and “Last Chance U” is unflinching in looking at why some of these kids are their own worst enemies in terms of success. The language is brutal, but for parents who have kids with behavior issues or other challenges, or kids looking to get ahead in sports, it’s useful to get an honest look at the realities. Sometimes all the help in the world isn’t enough if the kid isn’t willing to, or able to, change what isn’t working in their lives.

From a review in the Jackson, Mississippi, Clarion-Ledger:

But in digesting all six episodes since its premiere last week, I kept on coming back to this: seldom is the moment when the main characters question whether or not just because they can do something means they should.

The team’s star running back cannot figure out that ditching class and ignoring assignments will ultimately cost him shots at college scholarships. The defensive tackle is as mercurial as they come, which leads to some truly astounding decisions.

Athletic adviser Brittany Wagner’s job duties range from handing out pencils and paper to basically begging these football players to do something — anything — in the classroom. She’s by far the series’ brightest star, a woman who seems genuinely interested in helping players help themselves. That stands out in an enterprise where often the focus is much more single-minded — win a game, receive a scholarship, get out of Scooba.

At the press conference, Wagner addressed this:

We do not use our players just to win ballgames. So they come to our institution and, although football is important and we win, you’ll see in the documentary that it is very balanced. There is also a very big focus on their academic success, their grades, their GPA, their eligibility, their graduation, our graduation rate.

And that is talked about and instilled in them from the minute they walk on campus just as much as winning the game is. That’s really where the difference is, that we put our money where our mouth is. Those kids understand when they get there that their education is just as important as winning the football games.

Regarding the faith issue, I asked Coach Stephens about that at the press conference, and here’s what he said:

How [faith] figures into our program is probably the foundation of our entire program is Proverbs 27:17. “Iron sharpens iron as one man sharpens another.” And we try to use that as our mantra throughout the time that we’ve been at East Mississippi.  And then, we’re going to sharpen each other on the field. We’re going to sharpen each other around the dorm.  We’re going to sharpen each other in the cafeteria, around campus, and in the classroom. We’re going to take care of each other and try to make sure each other does what’s right.

To say that we ‑‑ if you watch the series ‑‑ and I’m critical on myself. I really think that I cuss too much, and I don’t want to do that. I think I can do my job and do it at a high level and not have to do that as much. As a matter of fact, I’ve kind of instilled a deal. If you watch it, you hear a lot of F‑bombs in the first series from the halftime speech.

Now, I told my guys, I said, “Hey, if you hear me saying a bad word, I give you five push‑ups.” I’ve done ten push‑ups all summer, so I’m doing good. But the big thing is that we can’t talk about ‑‑ I get on the guys all the time.

We start our practices with prayer. We end our practices with prayer. But the thing that I don’t want to do is hear them in practice with prayer, and then they go and they start using bad language, or they’ll start cussing. I said it takes away from the meaning. And again, being introspective and reflecting on me and what I allow, we need to be a little more walking the walk and not just talking the talk.

College athletics, especially football and basketball, are a huge part of the American landscape. But only a tiny fraction of the athletes in any given graduating class will find success as pros. The rest will have to do something else for a living, and it borders on scholastic malpractice to allow them to sacrifice the education their scholarship provided in pursuit of a dream that may never happen (or, if it does, may be over quickly).

This is something that coaches, administrators and parents need to think about. Sports can provide a way into college, but for the overwhelming majority of kids, it should be just the path, not the destination.

Image: Courtesy Netflix

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