Sports are fascinating in how they can reflect issues we face in everyday life. Adapting to new environments, being on a team with separate minded people, and the importance of a second chance. Last Chance U, a new documentary series on Netflix, gives us this and more. This series focuses on a small junior college out of Scooba, Mississsippi called East Mississippi Community College (EMCC), where football reigns king. It has become the home of many elite high school and college football players who have been lost in either lack of exposure, the rigor of college academics, or just making costly mistakes off the football field. It opened my eyes to the obstacles that many football players may face trying to get to the next level, with the main obstacle often being themselves. Their stories are fascinating and their combined experience in the small town of Scooba makes for a great discussion about the college football experience.
JUCO Football Elite
Junior college football (JUCO) can either be a dead end or the first step for a player on the fringe of being a Division 1 football player. For many its the best way to gain exposure at an elite level to get notice from these big schools. EMCC has garnered the reputation of being able to produce that type of talent. With names like LeGarrette Blount, former Ole Miss QB Bo Wallace, and current Ole Miss QB Chad Kelly being some of the more recognizable ones, they’ve turned their program into a national championship contender year in and year out. They are an elite football program enjoying their time in the spotlight, yet the characters on this team are unique and familiar which makes this series feel special. It begins with similarities between one of my favorite TV series, Friday Night Lights.
The comparisons begin with EMCC’s fiery yet passionate head coach, Buddy Stephens. Coach Stephens from the start resembles the beloved Coach Eric Taylor in many ways. He’s a a family man who cares about the kids he coaches despite often getting lost in the winning culture he has created. You also can’t have Coach Taylor without Tami Taylor, and EMCC has that in Brittany Wagner. Wagner acts as the academic advisor for the football team who spends her time keeping track of the players’ academic schedules and grades. As much as she tries to keep each player on the right track she finds that football often becomes their main focus.
The genuine stories we find with each player, including Ronald Ollie who lost his parents at a young age and struggles to stay focused on and off the football field , make this series stand out. The QB controversy between Wyatt Roberts and John Franklin III fuels a lot of the entertainment. Wyatt Roberts is the starting QB, has the football IQ and the passion, but doesn’t quite have the physical attributes most D-1 schools look for. John Franklin III has the physical attributes to be a true dual-threat QB which garners him looks from the big schools that Roberts doesn’t get. You feel for Roberts, considering that he performs better than Franklin, but Franklin has the ‘wow factor’ that Roberts lacks. Last but not least, is DJ Law. Law is a lot like Franklin in that he has the talent, he produces on the field and could do it at a higher level. Law is held back by one thing though, himself. He often finds himself in Wagner’s office due to his reluctance to put forth the effort in the classroom aspect. These real life players give a true look into the atmosphere of an elite football environment, even if it may be Junior College football. This brings me to the point of writing this article, to discuss what this series tells us what we know and don’t know about the college football environment.
What’s Plan B?
EMCC is one of the best things that could’ve happened to a lot of these players. The JUCO system is a savior in itself. Consider that if not for this system, these players would not have gotten a second chance at possibly getting a scholarship, or going to a better suited situation for them, and unfortunately for some after making some bad decisions. What becomes vividly clear after to me after watching this series is how much work goes on behind the scenes to keep some student-athletes on the field.
There are many stories in the college football world of programs doing their best to keep players on the field. Some tactics include pushing student-athletes toward supposed easier majors and having tutors do more work than just tutor. One of the most recent and well know example is the UNC academic scandal, where they created “paper” classes. These “paper” classes were classes in the African American studies department designed for football players, who didn’t even have to show up. The only thing required was for them to hand in a term paper at the end of the semester. UNC was eventually caught and punished for this. So how do we fix this incidents like this from happening again? The way the system currently is, how much are student-athletes, in particular football players, benefiting from their free education?
Consider the fact that less than 2% of college football players make it to the NFL. Then, consider that the average NFL career is less than 4 years. It seems that the education portion of their college experience would be very important with such a short career, especially since almost 98% don’t even make the NFL. Going back to Last Chance U, many players in the series face the issue of barely being eligible and lack of interest in the classroom. With football being similar to a job, little is left to focus on what is also important, the education. While I do believe Brittany Wagner actually cares about the players on EMCC and their education, it needs to be stressed by the coaching staff as well. On a team of 60 players, statistics say maybe 2 players will make and have average NFL careers. Maybe 2. So what’s the Plan B for the other 58 players? How can we make the education portion far more significant than it is?
Next Step for NCAA
The amount of time spent on football in-season is similar to a 40 hour week job. Between weight training, film sessions, practice time, and meetings there isn’t enough time in the day for student-athletes to just be students. One of the first steps the NCAA needs to take is prioritize what they truly care about. Either they be honest and say student-athletes are more athlete than student and keep the system the way it is. Or they drastically change how much time teams are allowed spend practicing and such. Less practice time could make a difference, but I’m sure programs will find a way around the new rules.
What I believe could make a difference is guaranteeing four years of education to these student-athletes. Not many people realize there are very few scholarships that are guaranteed for four years. Most football players and other student-athletes alike sign a contract each year that says their scholarship doesn’t have to be given to them the following year. Some circumstances could warrant a termination of such contract, but if a player decides to pursue his professional career and it doesn’t work out they should be allowed to finish their education.
While the NCAA may not do either of these ideas a came up I believe that it’s clear there are some hypocrisies and flaws in their system. The flaws I refer to are a lot more basic than pay-for-play arguments, rather how they treat academics. I loved Last Chance U and how it reminded me of my love for Friday Night Lights. Football itself will always have a special place in my heart. But, to ignore how much significance is placed on a sport in academic institutions is an issue that is sore subject to many.
I did my best to not discuss of details of the series because I highly recommend watching Last Chance U yourself. Maybe you won’t feel the same way I did, but I hope that you enjoy it.
Cover Photo via The Playlist