“Last Chance U” and You

Football season has begun. In today’s world, this means the season of talking about concussions, hearing about the horrors of domestic violence, your sports news crawl spelling out the newest round of DUI arrests, and debating the National Anthem. Has any professional sport come under more fire in past few years than football? In the midst of the controversy, comes another entry in the Netflix docuseries, “Last Chance U.” For some, football is life. Football is identity. Football is hope. As we debate football’s place in society, “Last Chance” has a great deal to say.

The show tells the story of East Mississippi Community College and their reputation for being the landing spot of college football’s most troubled top prospects. EMCC gives players with promise a chance to get their academic and criminal records in line in order to earn offers from the country’s most prestigious football powerhouses. Every man on the roster is missing a key that would unlock a position with the likes of Auburn or Ole Miss. After all, this is the place where brand new Denver Bronco, Chad Kelly, went to junior college.

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Wrapped in this premise are the stories of these young men. This is their last chance. If it were me, given a last chance, I would approach it with military precision. EMCC not only offers them a football team complete with the eyes of recruiters, but academic counseling to make sure they are eligible for those Division 1 scholarship offers when they come. Watching these young men, though, might send you searching for a tackling dummy to hit. They skip class, they sleep through coach’s meetings, they verbally assault professors, and as their counsellor, their biggest champion and cheerleader, is giving them advice, they nod to her blankly as music blares through their headphones. So many of these student athletes are playing fast and loose with their last chance.

Thankfully the series doesn’t show these seemingly disrespectful behaviors in a vacuum. Rather, the show gives the time to hear these young men out. As each episode plays, the pieces of their puzzle come together perfectly into a picture that is hard to reconcile. So much of their lives have been a series of confusing and painful contradictions.

The classroom doesn’t make sense. Now in college they are being told to work hard academically after years of schools giving them grades to keep them on the field. Meetings don’t make sense. They’re being told to listen and change when they’re athletic skills have always kept them out of trouble. They’re being told to sit there when, in their minds, they know all these professors and counsellors want is the use of their bodies. Society doesn’t make sense. They are so close to being like their heroes who appear bullet proof from racial oppression protected by fame and money, but they’re not there yet. They are still very much subjected to a world that often makes them feel like they can’t win, a society that makes them question if it wasn’t for football would they have any worth at all?

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The only place that does makes sense, the only small piece of sanctuary they’ve found, is that level patch of grass where they get to be heroes and saints. The football field has clear rules and clear systems of penalty and reward. If they do their job between whistles, they will succeed. This isn’t always the case off the field. On the field their enemy is easy to see. However, they can’t sack inequality. They can’t put a spin move on racism. At this point in their academic careers, no number of reps seems to help them understand algebra. Coaches scream in the locker room for harder hits. It takes a level of violence to play the game, but those same coaches then call them thugs when they use that violence to protect each other and lack compassion when that violence spills into the players’ lives. The game of life doesn’t make sense, football does. So that is where their hope, effort, and identity goes, everything else has become a waste of time.

I still believe football has a place in this world. I was never blessed with the stamina of a soccer player or the speed and agility of the best baseball players. The Lord did give me the size and strength to play football and the sport gave me a lot in return. When coached well, football can actually teach you discipline, resilience, teamwork, and how to manage your emotions for good. Coming from Steelers country, I also know how football can unite communities in powerful ways. For many of the Lions of EMCC, these helpful, good aspects of the game have been lost through lives lived in a world that tells them they’re winners in a system that has ill-equipped them to win.

In season one, this is most apparent in running back DJ Law. He feels inadequate in the classroom so he’s constantly falling behind and skipping class. The penalties of failing and missing class are outlined clearly at the beginning of the show and he has surpassed them all. Cut to the head coach saying they do everything they can to help players succeed only to roll that back admitting they don’t do everything. They do everything to win, so Law remains on the field. There are resources all around him to help him work through his academic challenges, but why go through that when all that really matters is football. Researching Law’s story after the show only provides more tragic evidence. He had an offer to play for a good school but got injured. Without football, his grades fell even further and now he’s no longer in school.

Towards the end of season two there is another heartbreaking example. Standout Isaiah Wright struggles through the season with several painful situations. Throughout his life, he’s been rewarded for what his body can do, but when he is injured and trying to take care of his body he’s penalized and yelled at. On top of this, Wright is dealing with a deeply sad life situation that I won’t spoil and has no idea how to handle his emotions. All of this amounts to incredible emotional and mental confusion. This confusion carries over onto the field. In one game, he fails to catch a punt that results in giving his team terrible position on the field and gets yelled at. Next time he tries hard to catch the punt but does so giving the team even worse position, and he gets yelled at. Even though anyone who has ever returned a punt knows when and when not to catch the ball, Wright, unable to reconcile everything that’s happened to him, can’t make these decisions and can’t handle the failure that results. He melts down. He loses his best scholarship offers and settles for a Division II school. Again, researching him after the show reveals he spent less than a year at his new school and has since dropped out with no prospect of returning elsewhere.

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Anyone working with young people would benefit from watching “Last Chance U.” Questions of identity constantly plague our next generation. Football, like anything else vying for our identities, can cause terrible damage if it is all a person has. “Last Chance” tells the story of young men who have had limited choices in where to place their identity. What could have happened if Law or Wright were given something else to motivate them? What if they could use sports for their intended purpose and not place the entirety of their hope in them?

Thankfully, season two also tells this story through linebacker Dakota Allen. Allen arrived at EMCC after nearly being charged with armed robbery. He lost his spot on Texas Tech’s football team and was labeled a menace to society. Episode 4 opens with Allen being baptized at the home of one of his coaches. After football was taken away, Allen needed something else to place his identity in and the advice he heard most often was to pray. This led to a deep belief in Jesus Christ. The episode in punctuated by Allen in church listening to his pastor exclaim the unending grace and mercy Jesus provides. As tears stream down Allen’s face, it’s obvious he knows what it means to have a another chance. I’ll let you see for yourself how his story plays out on the show, but I will tell you it was fun watching him playing on national TV as the season opened this year.

The title of the show is accurate. Football offers a finite number of chances and often takes more than it gives. If football is all that makes sense in the world, if it becomes the center of identity, then one bad hit or bad play will bring that world and identity down. With care, football can offer an avenue to express God-given gifts and achieve building blocks for life-long success. This can only happen if a young person is given the chance to place their identity into something that offers the infinite. In a world that is often unforgiving, the Gospel gives chance after chance after chance to be forgiven.

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Combatting White Supremacy with Narratives Not Our Own

The vast majority of white people wouldn’t identify as white supremacists. The vast majority of whites think white supremacy is ugly and unacceptable. It is also true that a significant portion of the white community does not have close relationships with people of color. Additionally, it can be easy for white Americans to see minority-generated art (such as movies and TV) and assume it is made for a minority audience and is not for them.  But when we have few friends of color, and seek out little or no stories that are about people who don’t look like us, we are allowing our stories to be supremely white.

When we aren’t regularly seeing stories about people in different walks of life, we unconsciously think that everyone’s story is like ours. We become confused and sometimes angry about the way others react, or we say thoughtless things that we don’t realize are insensitive and insulting. The more we immerse ourselves in a variety of stories, the more readily we can empathize with people of color and think more effectively about our own actions and perceptions. Especially for people who are limited by geography and do not live in diverse parts of the country, seeking out the stories of others is a very simple way to broaden your understanding. If you were upset by the events in Charlottesville and want to fight semblances of white supremacy in yourself, here are some suggestions for movies and TV that you can watch in the coming months to help make your narrative less white:

Television 

Queen Sugar

I think this is hands-down one of the best shows on TV right now, and a lot of us haven’t heard of it. In its second season, Queen Sugar airs on OWN and is produced by Ava DuVernay (director of “Selma” and the upcoming “A Wrinkle in Time”). It’s a contemporary story set in New Orleans about three siblings and their extended family, and their struggle to maintain the family sugar cane farm. The storylines and characters are very complex and the show does a fantastic job of addressing social issues in ways that nearly always feel natural and relatable. The first season is streaming on Hulu, the current season is available for purchase on OWN’s website (or on demand).

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Black-ish

A sit-com on ABC, this show is funny and at times exaggerated  while also addressing issues of race and socio-economics in poignant ways. It’s about a successful black family in the suburbs navigating the differences between how the parents grew up (in a poor neighborhood and a hippy commune) and how to raise their children to understand race in America in light of their current affluence. I appreciate that the show depicts a wide range of modern black experience in humorous and heartfelt ways.

Luke Cage

This is a recent addition to the Marvel universe on Netflix. Luke is a super hero whose super power is being super strong and bullet-proof (an intentional play on the vulnerability of black men who live under constant threats of violence). The show is set in Harlem where the community is being pulled in many different directions between crime and renewal. Luke is caught in the middle as he tries to protect his neighborhood against violence and corruption. The show is quite gritty and has some adult content, so check the viewer warnings and decide if it’s right for you.

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This Is Us

This show was wildly popular so many may have already watched it. It’s a show that has a blended cast and talks about issues of race very thoughtfully. The cast is phenomenal and the writing is great. The family is predominantly white so for audiences who are unfamiliar with diverse narratives, it is a good entry point into more diverse entertainment. Use this show to start paying attention to how black characters are portrayed, how many scenes/lines they have compared to the white characters, whether they are portrayed as equals or as weaker/inferior, etc. The first season is streaming on Netflix.

Movies

Hidden Figures

This movie does a wonderful job of striking a balance between gritty realism and inspiration. Based on real people and true events, the film tells the story of black women working at NASA during the space race. It’s informative, it’s very engaging, and it’s appropriate for young audiences as well as adults.

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Creed

I’m a life-long “Rocky” fan, and director Ryan Coogler does a terrific job of breathing new life into this franchise. Actor Michael B. Jordan plays the son of Rocky’s rival and friend, Apollo Creed. The film has strong black characters and explores powerful themes of family and hope. One of my favorites in a long time!

Get Out

This is a technically a horror film so it’s not for everyone, but I normally can’t do scary movies and I was fine. The genre of horror at its best is meant to focus on a social issue and magnify it through the lens of fear. (The majority of horror films fail to do this, so don’t hear this as a blanket endorsement for all horror.) Writer/director Jordan Peale creates an extremely clever exploration of the appropriation of black culture and black bodies. He reverses the typical trope of the black side character being the first to get killed off, and forces the audience to confront our perception of black men as aggressors. If you can hang in there for a few scenes of violence and some suspense, it will be worth it. Check out Ivan’s full review here.

Fruitvale Station

Ryan Coogler’s directorial debut, this film was ahead of its time in discussing police violence. Based on the true story of a young man, Oscar Grant, in San Francisco killed by subway security in 2008. The film tells his story and the events of his final day. It is sobering subject matter and simply shows Oscar as human. An early role for Michael B. Jordan, this is a helpful choice for exploring the topic of the relationship between the black community and police.

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Please think about trying some of these suggestions, and please know that this is only scratching the surface. My hope for you is not that you will watch a handful of these options and then feel that you know all black people. I hope that this will spark on-going interest to learn more and to also seek out personal relationships with people who don’t look like you. This is one simple step out of many that we can all take to move towards being a more hospitable and unified country.

Note: I’ve enjoyed a few comedies, “Ugly Betty” and “Jane the Virgin”, which are Hispanic-centered. This is an area of American entertainment that needs to keep growing. Unfortunately there are very few options for Asian American media. “Man in the High Castle” on Amazon has one of the largest Asian casts out there, but it is also sci-fi and is therefore limited in its exploration of current cultural issues. “Master of None” (Netflix) from comedian Aziz Ansari is a brilliant look at first-generation children of immigrants as well as broader racial/social trends. (The show will be fairly edgy for many viewers which is why I am not widely recommending it.) As audiences our money and viewership matters and we can join with others in asking for more stories and representation than is currently being produced. Keep paying attention to how different people are portrayed and put your support behind art that is complex and equitable. 

 

“Anne with an E” – Breaking the slate clean

“Hey, Carrots…Carrots!”

For any Anne of Green Gables fans, this is one of the most iconic scenes in L.M. Montgomery’s beloved first book. Anne is an orphan who has been mistreated and used for free labor her whole life. Living at the turn of the 20th century, this was no joke. We’ve all seen Newsies. We know that child labor laws weren’t exactly a thing. Not only has Anne been an orphan her whole life, she’s also a red-head. Long before Molly Ringwald and Emma Stone, having red hair was considered a source of shame and inferiority.

So here Anne is, sitting in a new classroom surrounded by new children, in a new home with a dubious level of security, and a popular boy immediately teases her about her hair. In the midst of Anne hoping that her life might be different, she is reminded of all that she can’t leave behind. She responds by doing what most of us have wanted to do at one time or another, breaking her slate over the offender’s head.

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A lot of buzz has surrounded Netflix’s new adaption “Anne with an E.” A grittier and more realistic take on the classic children’s book, Moira Walley-Beckett’s interpretation for the CBC has been drawing mixed reactions. On the positive side, the casting is excellent and the personality of each character is consistent with the source material. The setting of Prince Edward Island during the time period is brought to life in vivid detail. You feel immersed in the difficulty as well as the magic of life on a rural Canadian island. Some of the dialogue, particularly in the opening episode, are word-for-word from the book. What is different about this Anne (and drawing much of the criticism) is highlighting her background of trauma and uncertainty. The first few episodes include flashbacks from Anne’s life before Green Gables and take some creative license in speculating on this theme. At some points I found the backstory embellishing to be a bit excessive, and the last few episodes have a darker tone that departs further from the source material than I would prefer. But in general Walley-Beckett invites us to think about Anne as a human, not just a heroine.

Montgomery implied that Anne’s life before Green Gables was marked by servitude, being shuffled between homes and the asylum, and having experienced cruelty. Anne is continually penalized with suspicion and fear for being an orphan, as though that were somehow her fault. Her entire young life has been a struggle to belong, to feel wanted. She only arrives at Green Gables by mistake, the Cuthberts having sent for a boy but receiving a girl. Her hopes and dreams of having a home and a family are initially dashed when she finds out that she is not what they were expecting. “Anne with an E” explores what a real child would think and feel if that was her reality. A real child would experience flashbacks, would be paranoid about people’s motives, and would need to have found ways to cope.

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This is the greatest strength of “Anne”, blending the character’s famous imagination and optimism with her suffering. While Anne’s carpetbag might have been light, she arrived with some real baggage. Her way of processing her bleak life was to find resiliency in imagining something much better. She was instinctively drawn to books and stories and words in order to draw beauty from barrenness. Rather than detracting from the positivity of the book, I think this approach only enhances the power of Anne as a role model. Anyone can be optimistic who has never suffered, it takes real strength to go through the fire and still find beauty and joy in the world around you.

“Anne” also asks more of its audience than the popular 1980s adaptation. Part of the backlash against the new series is that it shows too much of the harsh reality and not enough of the whimsy and flowering landscapes. But in this response, viewers are sending a dangerous message to Anne and each other. We are functionally saying that you can only be beloved if you leave your baggage at the door and embody what others want you to be. Be upbeat, be charming, be pretty, and people will like you.

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And yet none of us are a blank slate. We all carry around painful experiences and sources of shame that cause us to feel trepidation about our place in the world. As with Anne, many of those things have occurred outside our control. In C.S. Lewis’ book “Til We Have Faces” there is a profound line

“Don’t you think the things people are most ashamed of are things they can’t help?”

We are at our most vulnerable when confronted with things inside us and around us that are not our choice. Our greatest shame is our powerlessness to make ourselves and our lives exactly how we think they should be. We want to just break the slate of our past and powerlessness and act like we are everything we want to be.

But at the end of the day we don’t actually want to be a blank slate, we want to be fully known and fully loved for all that we are. We want to be able to tell our whole stories and see that who we are is still worthy and lovable. In “Anne with an E,” Anne doesn’t break her slate in half over Gilbert’s head, she only cracks it. Perhaps this is the invitation “Anne” offers. To not try to leave our histories behind and pretend to be blank slates, but to find love and belonging as whole people.