Netflix's Last Chance U is Riveting and Illustrates "Perverse Incentives"

Academia is loaded with jargon. Sometimes it’s genuinely gobbledygook that amounts to made up words that redundantly describe something for which there is already good language. In other instances though, it creates a degree of specificity for describing something easily comprehensible but which academics need a clear term for in much the same way your doctor can’t just use the diagnosis “tummy ache” if she’s going to treat you.

“Perverse incentives” is one of those terms and Netflix’s documentary series Last Chance U is a clinic on them. In laymen’s terms, perverse incentives are unintended bad tendencies that are produced from some sort of law, policy, rule or the like. When you judge schools based on test scores, you create perverse incentives for administrators or teachers to erase and correct answers or engage in other forms of cheating, especially when jobs or bonuses are on the line. Or in sports, think of the ‘76ers tanking to get a better chance at the top lottery pick.

Last Chance U, which follows the 2015 season of East Mississippi Community College (EMCC), is a wonderful look into the lower rungs of college athletics and a series of object lessons in perverse incentives. The basic premise of the documentary series is following players who have ended up at one of the handful of junior college football programs that serve as places for athletes that have D1 (FBS) level talent but have failed to qualify academically, overlooked, or have been kicked off of teams for disciplinary reasons to get back on track. Most CC football teams are just a blow off valve for a few post high school players who want to keep playing at the local CC for a couple years with no hopes of suiting up afterwards, but a few, like EMCC College of the Canyons and Coffeyville, are filled with talent capable of competing with all but the elite FBS programs. An army of very talented players has had to take this “remedial” step before going forward with their careers. Think Cam Newton, Aaron Rodgers, Chad Ochocinco and LeGarrette Blount, the latter of which actually went to EMCC.

LCU is well shot, directed and it’s very entertaining. If you’re a college football fan it’s a must watch, if you’re not there’s still a good chance you’d find the players and their stories, along with the coaching staff and the unexpected star of the series, Brittany Wagner, the academic advisor tasked with getting the players eligible to move on, worth watching.

What do I mean about the perverse incentive thing? The first kind of perverse incentive you see here is the one we are all familiar with: the ability of athletic programs to generate money or attention means that schools from university down to middle school have an incentive to let athletes slide when it comes to grades as long as they produce on the field. You see several bright and engaging young men on this team, like John Franklin III and Ronald Ollie, generally with accents indicting origins from the very deep south, who seem to have no idea how to “do school” at all. This may be something of a reflection on the kinds of inequalities we have in public education in general, but you get a strong sense that these athletes never had to crack open a textbook as long as they were stars on the field. Those of you familiar with the Dallas Carter High scandals in Buzz Bissinger’s Friday Night Lights book will see similarities, for sure.

The second kind of perverse incentive you see here is how important a successful team can be to a small town with seemingly nothing else going for it. Few of you will have heard of Scooba, Mississippi before this TV series. It’s a town with a census figure of 732 residents sitting a stone’s throw from Alabama in poor, rural Kemper County. To say there’s nothing there would actually be too kind in terms of the town itself, but Scooba does have something: a $4.7 million, 5,000 seat “state of the art” football stadium ( I’m sure that university administrators and county officials will have a “good” explanation for why this is a wise “investment” but it’s awfully hard to come away from watching this series without a feeling that this town’s priorities are seriously out of whack. But, what else do they have but this football team to rally around and create some kind of identity?

The final perverse incentive is a minor spoiler, so you may not want to read on if you’re going to watch LCU, but the events are foreshadowed in the first minutes of the first episode. The system that determines who plays for the national championship in junior college football is heavily dependent on scoring differential. Only a few teams are really contending for the championship; there is no playoff system and therefore the teams who are in the running are not easily judged just by record and strength of schedule. Beating the non-competitive teams isn’t enough; you have to run up the score on them. And running it up is exactly what EMCC has been doing under coach Buddy Stephens. You want to like Stephens in that good ol’ boy ballcoach kinda way, but by the end of the series he can seem something of a villain: a guy who preaches a kind of morals and character to his players he isn’t always willing to live by himself. There’s a reason why people talk about showing “good sportsmanship” beyond the simple desire to mold character in young athletes. Showing poor sportsmanship, repeatedly, can generate a lot of hard feelings which can make a game get out of hand. Which it does in a big way when an EMCC versus Mississippi Delta CC game turns into an outright riot with cops, charges and a forfeiture of the game. I’ll let you see for yourself the footage and the fallout, but it’s more than you’re average bench clearing brawl, I’ll say that much.

It’s hard not to see what transpires as a somewhat predictable response from one of the teams stocked with “normal” community college level athletes that EMCC routinely runs up video game numbers on. This is no defense at all for the adults on the MDCC sideline who orchestrate this nasty game, but, you know, to quote Chris Rock “I understand.” The people at the NCJAA (National Junior College Athletic Association) who run the system that EMCC participates in need to ask themselves some hard questions about how they’ve set up this particular perverse incentive after this series exposes what the consequences are.

Still it’s riveting viewing and what’s wrong with learning a little social science jargon along the way?
This is a great show. It really gives one an insight as to how these kids feel about school. The sad reality is education is often not pressed upon student athletes as it should be. The woman in the show truly cares about what her students do after graduation.
Yeah, you end up caring about all the people in this show just as much as you would in a well-written drama. Still, there's more than a fair share of moments where you're going, "That's just effed up." Wagner seems like a genuinely warm hearted soul, but having a white woman as the surrogate mom to all these African American athletes gives you the same conflicted feeling you got reading or watching The Blind Side.

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