I’ve been meaning to watch Last Chance U, a documentary series about junior college football at Eastern Mississippi Community College, since it came out this summer, but each time I’ve gotten sidetracked by shows I'd hoped would provide clues, signposts, explanations of the times, and such, for the anthropological anomaly that has been 2016. Shows like Black Mirror, Westworld, and Stranger Things, if you feel me?
But then I watched all six episodes of Last Chance U this week and realized my mistake. Not only was it some of the best television I’ve seen in a long time—it’s honestly hard to believe all this stuff happened while the cameras were rolling for the documentary—but the show contained more answers and clues about the recent demise of liberalism in America than all of those other shows combined.
If you haven’t watched it yet, SPOILERS COMING. The show profiles a junior college that serves as a last refuge for aspiring football athletes that have hit roadblocks on the path to D-1. The reasons include bad grades, arrests, and in a few cases, players getting stuck riding pine behind older, more experienced players. Many of the young men on the team have overcome immense challenges to get to EMCC, and though a good many are traumatized and bearing their scars openly, they're making it despite odds stacked against them. And, man, can the kids on this team play football.
The season gets rolling and the drama is intense. The head coach, Buddy Stephens, a husky white man with a goatee and an unapologetically foul mouth, warns his squad: We run over teams. We shove the ball up their nose. They hate us as a result, so be prepared. By the final game of the regular season, the squad has only lost once and they are in contention for the national championship. The rankings are in large part based on score, so the team does not hold back, piling on points, calling timeouts in garbage time, remorselessly, and shamelessly, scoring touchdown after touchdown.
Coach Stephens again warns his squad. These guys, Mississippi Delta, the final opponent before the playoffs, are going to play dirty. Be ready. Don’t respond. The only way you can lose is if you let them get inside your head. Before the game one of the Delta players punches an EMCC assistant coach off camera, and Stephens’s players pace back and forth apoplectic while a staff trainer sews five stitches into his face.
The game starts and out of the gate Delta is playing like their coach has assigned Conrad Dobler’s autobiography for English and asked them to act it out on the field in lieu of writing book reports. Low hits, late hits, out of bounds hits—it gets ugly fast. Each and every time Coach Stephens urges his players to hold back, don’t engage them, don’t let them get to you, they nod and somehow superhumanly comply.
But the other team wants a fight and they are not going to stop until they get it. After an incomplete pass attempt to running back DJ Law, a first-class talent who’s a virtual lock for a prestigious D-1 school, a Delta player hits him helmet-to-helmet while he’s prone and vulnerable on the ground, seemingly trying to concuss or decapitate him. Law pops up and shoves him by reflex, and it's the moment Delta's been waiting for. They clear the bench and crowd over Law, who’s on the ground, stomping and kicking with cleats.
Coach Stephens is screaming at his players to hold back, while they are watching their friend and teammate curl up in the fetal position at the bottom of a stampede. Delta players pick up trashcans and hurl them and swing their helmets like balls and chains. The Delta coaching staff meanwhile stand by and do nothing. At this point Stephens’s players decide that saving Law is more important than anything else, including making it to the title game, and they rush into the scrum to retrieve him and bring him to safety.
Finally it breaks up and Law's in bad shape. Coach Stephens stands over his group of players, young mostly black men on one knee, except for Law, who is teetering and wobbling with a trainer in the background. Coach begins berating them, calling them thugs and labeling their behavior "gangster shit." He seems—and clearly is—angrier about his players clearing the bench than about the other team trying to kill DJ Law. It’s the show’s moment of truth, and in this moment Coach uses the bulk of his energy, and words, speaking about decorum, rules, how his team isn’t like the other team, and that they are better than that. He never once stops his tirade to check in on DJ Law.
Predictably, the players can’t believe it. Law walks out of the locker room during the coach’s screaming and boards the bus alone, reeling and distraught. The rest of the players leave and begin grumbling about racism, self-defense, white men, and how the white man simply does not and will never care about them—Coach has lost his team.
Which all leads me back to liberals, who're in the aftermath of a similar drubbing. We played a dirty opponent, one who refused to play by the rules, one who came for a fight and refused to settle for less, and, who, as a result, ended up kicking our sissy liberal asses Mississippi Delta-style. And after the fight, rather than stopping to check in on DJ Law, or in this case, the many people of color who're being targeted by acts of racial violence and terror all across the country, we’re lording over them and lecturing, too.
Finding no quarter anywhere else, people of color have come to the Democratic Party—much like Stephens’s players arrived at Eastern Mississippi Community College. Yet during the campaign, when students asked us for protection against feces swastikas, n-words, KKK and blackface costumes on campus, we said police it yourselves. When they asked for safe spaces, we lectured them about the importance of free speech.
Instead of validating their concerns about safety and promising them protection, which in light of the nearly 900 incidents of racial violence since the election, are very real, we huddle them up for a lecture on “identity politics.” Rather than saying, “You got it, we'll protect you even if it means we lose the next ten games, or in this case, elections,” we lecture about how liberals are “over-defending” minorities. Instead of saying, “Wait, white supremacists are rallying behind Donald Trump and moving into the White House?", we double down, devising ever-more creative ways to say the same thing.
So as I sat in horror as Last Chance U came to a close, so I sit in horror at white liberals. Our black and brown brothers and sisters are telling us they’re in danger, surrounded by angry people who, like Delta's players, are openly demonstrating a desire to hurt them. They’re telling us we’re wrong to lecture about identity politics and wrong to give a pass to people who don’t think racial violence is a deal-breaker—but like Stephens our only focus is on making the next game, decorum, and winning.
But in the end Coach had an epiphany. He listened, if a bit reluctantly, and went back to the film room to re-watch the tape. Coach Stephens was smart enough to suspect he may have been wrong, to admit his first and only response should’ve been to protect Law, and afterwards, his players when they went to protect him. Coach Stephens was smart enough to get his team together, apologize, tell them they were right, that he was proud of them. The question is, liberals, will we ever be smart enough to do the same?