Last Chance U is a Searing Look at the American Education System

It’s not just about football, it’s about students who don’t think they have any other options.

Last Chance U is one of the best documentaries on Netflix right now, and one of the greatest sporting documentaries of all time. Season three returned with a shift in focus. We’re not following the team of East Mississippi Community College now but the underdogs of the Kanas based Independence Community College.

The change was surprising but ultimately, a breath of fresh air. Buddy Stephens had been an incredibly volatile coach and his methods were painful to watch at times. It would have been all the more difficult to endure without the presence of Brittany Wagner who had steered the students through their education and really cared about them as people, not how well they could throw a football.

The change in setting is also a slight change in tone. There is more focus on education, and the students as a whole. Football never really takes a back seat but the episodes are worked to give a much fuller picture of the students, the support they get and the choices they face.

The cruel truth is that in America, the education system is so poor for students who come from disadvantaged backgrounds that there is very little hope. There is a reason why so many black men are trying to play football and a reason why so many of the footballers are struggling at school: the education system has abandoned them.

“The education system is so poor for students who come from disadvantaged backgrounds that there is very little hope”

At Independence Community College there is a greater emphasis on education, including from the coach Jason Brown who recognises that the students need a degree to give them the best chance in life. So many of the students aren’t supported, have to go through the pressure that the life of football brings (like 4.30am starts) while attending classes and getting good grades. The staff try the best they can, in a system that long since stopped caring about certain kinds of students. But as good they are, it just isn’t enough for this generation.

Students have often been raised in families who have also been abandoned by society. Some students deal with their parents’ addictions, some have poor support systems and most have simply never had any decent opportunities in life and are seeing football as their only chance to make a decent living. This is made painfully stark in season three, but it’s also the part of the story that is the most necessary to tell. This is not just a football show, it’s a show about young students who have nowhere left to turn. Some of the results are tragic.

While every so often with Last Chance I there might be a story of hope – a student who got the transfer they wanted – the end of season three is harrowing and shows what can happen when young men are simply dropped by society. Bobby Bruce, who played for ICC’s Pirates was arrested for robbery over the summer break. Isiah Wright who was a star footballer in both seasons which focused upon EMCC, has been charged in connection with a homicide. Wright had a difficult time during season two. His girlfriend had a miscarriage and he had his own issues with injuries and a falling out with Buddy Stephens. He didn’t get the offers he wanted from other universities, so he walked away from football. The revisiting of Wright’s story in season three is poignant, tragic and crushing. As Wright’s former coach said, “You ask yourself, could I have done more?”

The education system could have done so much more for this generation, and now Wright is caught up in a criminal justice system that so rarely cares for black lives. The story feels almost unavoidable. It cannot be shocking when so many tales of young people of colour are pushed the same way. Wright summed it up himself. “If it weren’t football I’d have stayed in the street”. Surely, young people should be offered more choices than that.

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