I am unable to reconstruct why, but ever since my adolescent years – from something like 16 years or so onwards – I have been a fan of American Football (back then Joe Montana and Jerry Rice owned the NFL with the San Francisco 49ers – I think my intention to live in San Francisco was partly influenced by the success of the football team. Random, I know. If success of football teams would be a driver of city choice, you really don’t want the Green Bay Packers to win any more Super Bowls. But I digress.)
So given this interest in the game (of course Lacrosse > American Football, make no mistake) I am also a sucker for TV documentaries such as „All or Nothing – A Season with…“ or more recently: „Last Chance U„.
Last Chance U is a documentary about Junior College football teams that specialize in hiring athletes that dropped out of other – mostly more prestigious Division 1 – college football programs because they fucked up in some way (bad grades, trouble with the law etc. etc.) and documents their journey in the new team. Seasons 1-2 focus on EMCC which stands for East Mississippi Community college. Seasons 3-4 on Independence Community College. If you’re thinking, where the hell are those places, you are right, they are in the middle of nowhere, USA. Places where college football is one the few potential entertainments in a rural community where not much else is happening.
I encourage you to watch the show, even if you’re not into football – although it does help tremendously if you are.
Why, in my view, should you do just that? – There are so many dimensions to that. (1) The athletics of the football games. (2) The team dynamics. (3) The psychology and internal battles of the head coach. (4) The depiction and bleakness of rural America. (5) The hopes and dreams of young, mostly black kids from very difficult backgrounds and the state of the „American dream“. (6) The ups and downs the team has to go through. (7) The machinery that is college sports in the US, and specifically college football.
Ad 1. Athletics. Football is a dangerous but exciting sport. The documentary can focus on the most exciting scenes per game and does so tremendously well – standard football games take way too long – up to 4h hours with a few minutes of net playing time. The physicality of the sport, the danger these kids put themselves into and the injuries they sustain is purported in a great way as they are all connected to microphones and you can hear and thereby feel the pain they go through on hard hits or when getting injured.
Ad 2. Team dynamics. There is a lot of (American) bravado in football and even more so on a college level. As long as things are going well players unite, coaches are happy etc. But as soon as they don’t is when chaff separates from the wheat and the real composition of whether the team is a team or just an arrangement of individuals emerges. Following this process and seeing the difference between the two teams depicted in season 1-2 (EMCC) and 3-4 (Independence) is a lecture in social cohesions, team dynamics, and leadership.
Ad 3. The head coaches. Leading a bunch of 18-20 year olds with difficult backgrounds, who all think their are the best thing since invention of sliced bread, to give their all in a game that involves a decent chance of getting hurt takes a certain type of personality. The head coaches of the two depicted teams could not be more different. Since seasons 1-2 are a while back now, the newest two with the new coach of Independence, are most present in memory. Background: So Independence Community College has been on disastrous losing streak in football for decades or so and brings in a new, very controversial coach, who himself has grown up in Compton, as a white kid in a dominantly black community, surrounded by crime. You would imagine this would enable him to connect with the kids on a different level than some polished, by-the-books white coach. And to some extent, it does. But he is also so incredibly abusive with his players on a constant basis and in his general language, that he alienating not only his players, but other coaches, staff and the general public (once his initial success fizzles out.)
There are a lot of leadership lessons to be learned here. To me one was:
As long as things go well you can get away with being an asshole, but as soon as they do not, the chances are things are going to disintegrate a lot faster than if you had been a decent person. Bad culture will eventually get you.
Another one is: a composition of great talent does not necessarily make a great team. It needs a cohesive glue to create a team. Being able to create said glue is the difference between great and bad coaches.
Ad 4. Flyover country. Honestly, given the current administration and what it is doing to the world, the USA, the environment, people etc. you may not want to know more about the U.S. these days. The show, though, provides a peak into small town, middle-of-nowhere life in the U.S. and that is both fascinating as well as bleak.
Ad 5/6/7. Hopes and dreams. The college sport machinery. Most of the athletes that are interviewed and depicted in the show are certain they will make it into the NFL. However, nobody seems to have told them, and nobody does dare tell them, that the chances of them actually making it there (which is equivalent to hitting the monetary jackpot) are extremely slim. Not only because there are so many other talented athletes out there competing for a spot on one those teams, but also because the likelihood, that they will get injured throughout their college career in a way that will prohibit them from playing in a professional league ever again. Even if they do make it to the NFL – their outlook for long-term health are slim as this study shows.
College players need „film“. Meaning they need to have cameras on them as much as possible so scouts from more prestigious college teams and eventually scouts from NFL teams see them on TV and consider them as drafts. That provides certain incentives to not be injured. When it comes to concussions, it is relatively easy for players to pretend that they are fine as concussion protocols are a joke – probably because teams have an incentive to use players despite concussions. The result is, you see players on the show pretend they are fine and engage in full contact despite suffering from concussions. Pretty hard to watch but a reality both in college as well as professional football. Players are cannon fodder for the Roman Arena games that are football.