The Toughest Coach There Ever Was: Last Chance U

The NFL playoffs are here, the FBS champions have been named, and The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel won two Golden Globes. All this reminded me I still need to share some of my thoughts on the Netflix series Last Chance U.

Last Chance U follows two seasons at Eastern Mississippi Community College (EMCC), which has become a dynasty in the Junior College football world. They are know for working with players who: 1) couldn't make it academically right out of high school in a four-year D1 program, and 2) athletes who were previously kicked out of a D1 program. The title of the series is a bit of a misnomer then because for many playing at EMCC isn't their last chance, it's their second or third chance. Perhaps the "last chance" refers to getting into a top four-year football program, but I suppose that's a bit too complicated. I must confess that I knew a bit about the "JuCo" system before this, but I didn't understand how common it is to move (back) up to top D1 bowl schools. For example, in this year's national title game two of the players on Georgia's roster came from a JuCo, and one for Alabama. I also was shocked by the resources and perks at such a small school, in a small and poor town, especially the fields and their accoutrements and the training facilities.

The series revolves around two adults, and then an array of interesting students and coaches who orbit around them during the season. The first is Brittany Wagner, a sunny academic coordinator who will literally chase players down to make sure they have a pencil to take into class. She is clearly the break out star of Season 1, and Season 2 shows her trying to figure out how to get out of Scooba, MS (population: 697). It's also clear that the other main adult, Buddy Stephens, was none too happy with his own negative portrayal in Season 1. And in Season 2 we never see Stephens or Wagner interact at all.

One of the things that upset Stephens when he watched "the documentary" (that is how he refers to it, but there are 14 episodes) is how much he swore. It is startling, as is some of his other language. The worst-- for viewers, but more significantly for the players themselves-- is when a season-ending brawl breaks out and he repeatedly refers to the players as thugs in its aftermath.

While most people are shocked by the display of a very aggressive form of masculinity (one line from the show is, "Blood makes the grass grow," and the players' peers are showed as homecoming queen contestants only in Season 1), it is race that stands out to me glaringly. The team Buddy refers to as thugs is dominated by African-American men. Buddy acts like he owns their bodies-- and he does certainly control them in all sorts of ways. His disparaging language when he interacts with his majority black team conjures up some not-so-nice parts of US history.

In Season 2 race becomes less the focus, as religion takes more of a center stage. Before and after each game/practice the players all recite the Lord's Prayer. One of the assistant coaches is also a preacher and he often uses scripture when teaching football. We even see a player be baptized.

This is not the first time a Scooba-based football coach has received major media attention, not all of it positive. In April 1984 the legendary sports writer Frank Deford wrote a cover story entitled, "The Toughest Coach There Ever Was." Much of what is described in this long article-- rumored to be the longest ever to appear in Sports Illustrated-- wouldn't fly today (helmet to helmet intentional hits being first on the list). And, yet, there are so many similarities between Robert Sullivan (aka "Bull Cyclone"), the focus of the Deford piece, and Buddy. Both white and overweight with potty mouths, terrible tempers, many coaching penalties, and a reputation for pushing the rules envelope. The biggest difference is that Sullivan remained revered by his players while Buddy is not well-liked, even if he gets results.

And the results don't come for some. The most tragic story (which isn't even covered in Season 2, but I suspect will have to be addressed at some point in Season 3, even though another school is the focus) is that of Isaiah Wright and his brother Camion Patrick (who also attended EMCC before transferring to Indiana). In September 2017 they were arrested for a July murder.

It's definitely worth watching this show, but beware that things are dark, and very dark at times. You learn, for example, about Wright eating out of trash cans, about serious domestic violence, and more. The crew does not shy away from reality, even if that reality is tough. Season 2 especially has a negative tinge throughout. If you can only commit to one episode I recommend the third episode of Season 2, "Can't Make the Club in the Tub."

[Spoiler alert: I'm very curious how Season 3 will look as EMCC actually won the National Championship in 2017. If the producers didn't have cameras there, I am sure they are kicking themselves [although some may say a lack of cameras helped secure another championship...].)

Miss Universe vs. Sports Illustrated: The Ultimate Goal of Swimsuits?

In honor of tonight's Miss Universe pageant I wanted to share a clip from earlier this month about Sports Illustrated's 2018 Swimsuit Edition open casting call. This five minute Good Morning America segment with the six finalists manages to capture basically all the major streams of my research: pageants, femininity, smart women, sports, and competition (even a version of "participation trophies")!

After chatting with the first three finalists, at about 3:25 in the clip, GMA co-host Lara Spencer declares, "I feel like I'm at Miss America!" I assume she meant that she was talking with beautiful fit women and asking them brief questions that are supposed to convey the essence of themselves. And because "swimsuits" were involved? In all seriousness, the only major thing missing was talent.

Whether or not she knew who the fourth finalist was, Spencer laughs when it turns to be Miss USA 2015 saying, "Speaking of..." Olivia Jordan replies: "Honestly, this was always the ultimate dream... I was hoping Miss USA would open doors [like these]." Jordan, who was second runner-up at Miss Universe, said that as a title holder she learned to take every opportunity and use her voice.

But what does it mean that *this* was always the ultimate dream for Jordan? Does she mean modelling? Does she mean appearing on GMA? Does she mean being part of SI Swim (in an interesting year)? It's unclear and probably upset the Miss USA organization a bit, no? While it's true that Miss USA is far more linked to modelling than Miss America (think Olivia Culpo), they've been trying to rebrand themselves as more service oriented with contestants who have stories (like the military or nuclear science).

Whatever Jordan's "ultimate dream" refers to, it's quite different from the next finalist in the line, Haley Kalil (married to Matt Kalil who plays center for the Carolina Panthers, so a sports connection there that may be overlooked). Spencer highlights Kalil's scientific and academic bona fides. The redhead declares that girls can be scientists and swimsuit cover girls explaining that, "There is nothing more powerful and more beautiful than a smart woman."

Certainly this is a certain type of femininity being promoted to young girls these days-- achieve academically and professionally and own your body/sexuality/appearance at the same time-- but what does it mean to say a smart woman is beautiful when she wears literally strings to make that point? The choice to focus on STEM and women here, for SI Swim, is fascinating though because, to go back to Miss America per Lara Spencer, it's one of the major platforms they have been pushing the past few years.

Things get awkward with the last finalist because the segment is out of time, so Spencer instructs her just to "strut" as her name appears on the screen (so much for Jordan's focus on women using their voices). I looked up Allie Ayers on my own.

On the official SI Swimsuit website they describe Ayers in the following way: "A state championship basketball player, turned pageant queen, turned swimsuit designer and model — is there anything this blonde beauty can't do?!" The choice to put sports first, then highlight pageants, then the beauty industry is interesting, as it seems to favor the sports championship most; though scholastics are not otherwise mentioned for Ayers, a notable exclusion. The website goes on to say: "So why SI Swimsuit? Allie is a middle size model, who isn't a big fan of traditional categories like "plus size" and "runway," and is looking for a platform where women of all shapes and sizes can see their bodies represented. Talk about a perfect fit for us!"

SI Swimsuit says that this nationwide search for the 2018 issue is meant to promote more "attainable beauty" for women of all sizes and colors. But it's still about looking good in a bikini, even if you have some other major achievement (like sports, or science, or pageants, or some other career). There's nothing inherently wrong about this but it is evidence that while pageants may be on a ratings decline, pageant culture is pervasive influencing sports, media, science, and more.

And on a final note, turns out all six finalists will be in the issue prompting the, "Everyone is a winner!" declaration. See, even my Playing to Win research made an appearance in this five minute clip! But let's stick with my research as you won't be finding me in a bikini any time soon... Now on to see national costumes, still one of my pageant highlights each year.