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Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Last Chance U

Netflix just dropped this documentary series about the 2015 season of the East Mississippi Lions, a juco football team that is ranked in the top ten and has been for a long while.  EM is located in Scooba, Mississippi, a town of about 760 people.  The roster is populated with kids who dropped out, flunked out or were kicked out of DI programs or kids whose academics were poor enough that they couldn't qualify for admission in the first place.  Those featured on the documentary are there to do one thing -- play football.  And then draw notice from recruiters for Division I schools and hopefully get into "the league."

Before anyone scoffs, the show points out that EM has 12 alums in the NFL, and the average DI school has about 7.  The combination of the circumstances of the players, the backwater nature of Scooba and the huge personality of the head coach, Buddy Stephens, creates a good show.  While the primary subject of the show is football, the show also is about life.  And, in many cases, how out of balance the lives of many of these kids are.  As one assistant coach pointed out, the kids should focus on their education because the average career in the NFL is about 1.5 years (I think that is probably a fraction over three). 

But they don't.  The featured kids prefer to do a lot of what teenagers do -- sleep, party, hang out, look for girls, talk on the phone or preferably text and incessantly listen to music.  Schoolwork?  It's a means to an end, and they'll do the minimum so that they can get the grades to move on to their next stop.  Many dream of getting to the SEC.  Some will, others won't.  But the featured kids seem totally unmotivated academically.  To them, a scholarship means a berth on a team where they can make a difference and hopefully go pro.  It does not mean an opportunity to get a good education and a decent job should the football thing not work out.  Which means that if it doesn't work out, some of these kids will end up back on the street corners of where they came from, and that's risky.  Why?  Because the high school teammate of one of the Lions' stars couldn't figure out a way to stay at his DI school, ended up back on the streets of some small Florida city, and was gunned down within 18 months.  No education and no skills equals a recipe for problems.

Some kids seem nice and likeable, others na├»ve, and even others selfish, entitled and not likeable.  Let's remember, though, that they are just kids.  But they suffer from a delusion that football can be everything and take care of their problems.  Or, if they're not delusional, they might contend that it's the only thing that they can do well.  It could be that they are right, but it could be that they haven't been challenged, have been passed through the system because they can play football well, and it could be that they just haven't put in nearly the effort that they do on the football field.  The academic advisor has to chase after the star running back to try to keep him eligible.  It's pretty frustrating, and in certain places the player would be suspended for his lack of attendance and effort.  Instead, this advisor, who should be nominated for sainthood, points out that the one essay where he gave a good effort was pretty good, so why not try?  The star running back mumbled an answer and gave an "aw shucks" type of look.  He just doesn't like school. 

The head coach, a volatile man a few cheesburgers short of a heart attack, wonders aloud whether he and his staff should be doing more to hold the kids accountable academically.  But that's it -- he just wonders, all the while building up the type of record that gets a statue built for you or a stadium named after you at EM.  He should remember that the one guy after whom the stadium was named in memory of whom the statue was built seemed to be remembered for being a bit nuts and for having pushed the envelope too hard.  I won't spoil it, but the team can reflect the coach's moods and temper.  Seeing is believing. 

So what to think of the documentary series and EM?  It underscores how important football is to certain cultures and how kids get put into the system, chewed up and spat out with nothing to show for it after all the years that they committed to it.  The kids appear to be solely focused on football or relaxation, entitled to skate through the way they want to off the field, and yet, that's not always fair.  Sure, they are in sweats a lot and have headphones on, but so do a lot of kids.  What's sad is that they don't seem to have a care in the world for their futures beyond football.  And if they don't care, there's only so much caring an academic advisor can do for them.  I wonder what the coach thinks or will think ten years out when he sees the predicaments of some of his former players.  Those predicaments will not be pretty.  But will they have been worth it for a league championship or a national championship?  Or if some kids make it to the league?

The documentary series is worth watching.  Like a fictional counterpart, Friday Night Lights, football isn't the entire story.  This series is about life.  While not all of the back stories are compelling, some are riveting. 

Which is as it should be.

After all, this is Last Chance U. 

At least for the football players. 


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