Have you seen the Netflix series Last Chance U? It chronicles community college football, including a couple seasons at Independence Community College in southeast Kansas. Commentator Rex Buchanan has been tuning in... and says he just can't get enough.
Commentator Rex Buchanan is director emeritus of the Kansas Geological Survey at the University of Kansas. He lives in Lawrence.
Production assistance for this commentary was provided by KPR News Intern Isabel Ashley, a junior studying mass media at Baker University.
It isn’t often that Kansas is the setting for a national TV series. But for the past two seasons, the football program at Independence Community College down in southeastern Kansas has been featured on a Netflix documentary series called Last Chance U. The series covered the 2017 season last year, the 2018 season in an eight episodes that dropped in late July of this year.
Part documentary, part reality television, the series focuses on the Independence school’s astonishingly profane coach and his players, many of whom have washed out of other programs, have academic problems, or just need a new start. Also making appearances are Independence faculty members, who try their best to help football players navigate classes, stay eligible, and graduate. Administrators, Independence residents, even members of the marching band get screen time. Hutchinson, Garden City, Fort Scott, Dodge City, and nearby Coffeyville all make cameos.
Indy’s 2017 season was a good one. They finished 8 and 2, won a conference title for the first time since 1987, won a bowl game, and finished the season ranked fourth in the nation. The 2018 season does not go as well. To put it mildly. The football team loses, and looks bad doing it.
The coach is fired. The athletic director leaves. The president resigns.
Even if you’re not a football fan, don’t dismiss all this. Yes, the series has plenty of football, both practices and games. But it raises many more issues. Like the place of athletics in an academic setting. The role of race in college sports when most players are African-American and the coach is white. The importance that a small town attaches to a winning football program, especially in light of its economic struggles. The Independence hospital closed in 2015, for example, but after that successful 2017 season, the football team got a new practice field.
The show even touches on the world’s view of Kansas. Throughout the series, players and coaches say repeatedly that they want to be someplace else, some place bigger and better than the “middle of nowhere” in Kansas. For them Indy is only a stepping stone to a Division 1 university and, hopefully, the NFL.
The result is, at the same time, compelling, thought-provoking, and hard to watch, all set right in our own backyard. Ultimately, the series seems something like an equation that is trying to balance the pluses and minuses of sports. On one hand, many of the troubles that the athletes face--dysfunctional families, drug use, lack of academic preparation--are heartbreaking and frustrating. Many just want to play football and struggle mightily in the classroom. On the other hand, Independence does provide the players and coaches with a way up, a new opportunity to succeed. Some do. Some don’t. Either way, it’s real easy to care about the people involved.
So are the successes worth the cost, in terms of money and pain, both physical and emotional? Is football worth the price? As we head into another season, as practices start, fans pack the stadiums, and games fill up the television schedule, it sure seems like the answer is yes. At least as long as you win.