No one would ever guess that a local junior college from Scooba, Mississippi would be known for football greatness. This Southern town of 800 is home to the highest ranking junior college football team in the United States. The East Mississippi Community College (EMCC) Lions, coached by Buddy Stephens Jr., have won four National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA) national championships since 2010. The team is made up of two kinds of student-athletes: players who want to play for a Division 1 college team but may not have the grades for a scholarship, and players who have run into issues outside of football, and understand that playing football for the EMCC Lions may be their final opportunity to work towards personal football related goals, whether that is a Division 1 team or the NFL. This creates a strong athlete culture, but it is hard to determine what role academics play. “Last Chance U”, a Netflix documentary series about the EMCC Lions during their 2015 season, explores the idea that being a student-athlete is mostly athlete and not enough student. This extends from the on-campus experience to recruitment strategies.
There are positive aspects that come from playing competitive college sports, especially with the championship titles that EMCC won before the 2015 season. However, this could give student-athletes a false sense of security towards success. Viewing the world in this way reinforces the status quo of “winning is everything”. Keeping this in mind allows student-athletes to passively accept their circumstances in and out of sports rather than change their situations to make things better (Friedman 186). The EMCC Lions’ status quo is also reinforced outside of the direct student-athlete circle. In ‘Episode 1: Last Chance U’, Brittany Wagner (athletic academic advisor for the EMCC Lions) states “once you win a national championship, that becomes the expectation…once you win three national championships, the expectation is to win a fourth.” Sure, the Lions are a good team in the traditional understanding of winning national championship titles. However, the celebratory mentality around winning can easily push other things that are just as important (like school) out of the way for another, seemingly inevitable, shot at football glory.
The EMCC Lions are all about putting in hard work on the field to continue their success. Throughout the series, Buddy Stephens and his staff emphasize the importance of seeing national championship level results at every game. The most obvious form is high scores, normally touchdowns. Despite their hard work on the field, student-athletes do not get paid. This is the case for most college sports teams under NCAA guidelines, including the NJCAA. Student-athletes get ‘free college education’ in return for playing, and the NCAA sees this as reasonable due to rising tuition costs (Gilbert 19). Most of the players understand that this arrangement is a good bargain. John Franklin III (quarterback) notes “free school is better than no school” (Episode 6: It Is What It Is). This is fair, as many would see college education costs as a barrier, and could use sport as a platform to get these costs reduced. However; college sports are a huge business, compensating college athletes is not a new idea, and the EMCC Lions are not immune to the NCAA’s influence. EMCC may not have a Division 1 football program, but the amount of money their program receives relies completely on winning and working hard has to go somewhere. In a time where success and money are seen as interchangeable, it might be time to motivate student-athletes playing at the college level with different incentives.
Most EMCC students see themselves in the future, most see themselves as future NFL players if all goes well. In fact, most players do not anticipate using their college degrees. This pattern is seen in most college level athletic programs, as the athletes have low graduation rates due to the allure of the professional leagues (Bowen 125). Ronald Ollie (defensive lineman) sees his main plan as “trying to make it into the league….I don’t have too many plan Bs, so…it gotta happen.” (Episode 3: Plan B). While making it into any professional league would be inspiring, there are also limited opportunities to make this happen. The value that colleges place on sports above education gives the impression that natural abilities and the opportunities it creates are more important than finishing college. Low graduation rates can be seen as an effect of student-athletes defining their college experience as athletes rather than students.
Student-athletes may not see academics as important, but there are many services available to bring academic success. However, student-athletes note that some academic services provided by the athletic department are inconsistent between different teams and players (Kamusoko 52). Brittany Wagner is seen as the “eligibility expert” of “Last Chance U”, as she works constantly throughout the series to get players eligible for other colleges, not preparing them for being students. Despite her persistence, determination, and optimism, she understands that the system has its flaws. “Sometimes we do a great job,” she states in ‘Episode 4: Homecoming’, “sometimes we suck at it…myself included.”. However, understanding that staff are not always able to make things happen for each student does not excuse student-athletes from doing their class work. Right before a team meeting about academic expectations, Brittany Wagner looks at the team and states “If y’all put that much energy into classwork, we could get some stuff done around here!” (Episode 1). When athletic staff and student-athletes work together, they have the chance to accomplish great things on the field and their transcripts.
College sports have become more than just a stepping stone towards a career; they have become their own business that could easily rival professional sports. While the EMCC Lions are only one (successful) team that in the system, the ideas around sportsmanship that college teams follow enforce capitalism as the most logical economic system (Corrigan 45). Capitalism and sport also share the idea that achieving success happens when people work as hard as possible, regardless of what is needed to get to the end result. Head coach Buddy Stephens reinforces that “success does not happen overnight. It is a long process. It involves a lot of people…”. His statement acknowledges that work and success go hand in hand, and assumes that players and staff put in the same amount of work. It is possible that the work levels are balanced, but work shows in different ways. For student-athletes, success could come from winning games, good practices, and completing college. Coaches could see success in running good practices, seeing players do well in games, and recruiting strong athletes for future seasons.
The pressure of choosing the best college can challenge any student. Add in the extra pressure of many schools wanting student-athletes on talent alone, and an interesting dynamic ensues. There are many factors related to student-athletes choosing a college. However, academics are never the main attraction in these considerations (Magnusen 1274). With athletics as the deciding factor, it comes back to what program will push athletes to a higher level. When asked about his decision to come to EMCC, John Franklin III explained that “I came here for one reason…to get me back to the level I know I’m supposed to be at.” (Episode 1). With athletics taking priority, it is hard to determine if the academics hold any importance; not just for student-athletes, but, also for the recruiters.
With rising popularity in college football comes increasing importance on recruitment. To get the best players interested, recruitment starts as early as possible based on NCAA guidelines. The process has become more intense, as recruiters will do whatever it takes to get commitments from student-athletes (Bowen 48). These high levels of interest are seen throughout “Last Chance U”, and range from phone calls with players to flying them out for unofficial campus visits. Of course, if a recruit is a high performing player, they will likely be recruited by more schools as student-athlete success is associated with future team success (Bergman 580). At the end of a season, coaches want to know they did everything possible to be successful on the field, and finding athletes to have that great season starts with recruiting the best players. On the other hand, student-athletes know that recruitment starts with the team as a whole, but it always comes back to the best individuals and their abilities. This cycle works at all NCAA levels; as long as the teams (and players) win games to keep their rankings high.
Everyone knows the statement “winning isn’t everything”. However, the intensity of sports, especially football, does not consider this statement. Yes, there are more factors of sports that should be considered; but, nothing holds as much power as winning. In college football, recruitment and winning go hand in hand, as athletic programs attribute success to recruitment and gameplay simultaneously (Caro 140). “Last Chance U” showed a different side of the EMCC Lions, in a season that most would view as unsuccessful because they did not win a national championship. Regardless of the team’s setbacks, the season ends with many talented players transferring to schools with Division 1 football programs. This validates the players’ individual talents outside of a poor season, which allows for better recruitment. However, most of these players have moved onto other schools since the show has ended. It is hard to say why the players changed schools again, but their reasons probably have to do with good recruitment from other schools and, depending on their abilities, the professional leagues.
With the NFL always on the mind of college football players like the EMCC Lions, one may wonder why student-athletes are even in college at all. It comes down to the NFL’s recruitment guidelines. Players become eligible for the NFL three years after high school graduation. This makes college football the only option for high school players that cannot play in the NFL yet but have the ability to play the sport well and work on their skills (Makofske 2418). Most of EMCC’s players see the athletic value of being part of a college team, as there are currently 9 former EMCC players in the NFL. This is above average in comparison to the other Division 1 schools (Episode 1). With that number in mind, the path to professional success appears easier to obtain. However, this statistic can go against the college experience, as many players would rather go to the NFL as soon as possible, and not complete their college education. This thinking establishes a severe divide that prioritizes the athlete over the student in college.
The NCAA and its affiliates see student-athletes as an integral part of college sports, yet athletes are not treated as part of the business. The NCAA has the means to financially help their athletes, but they are reluctant to pay their players. “Right now,” Brittany Wagner explains, “the NCAA is making decisions based on what’s best for making money and best for coaches. I think it should be more student-athlete driven.” If student-athlete priorities were placed at the forefront of NCAA decision making, it could change the business structure of college athletics overall. This might not become a salary, but the NCAA could look at other methods of financial assistance. The easiest change could come from multi-year scholarships to provide longer-term security for student-athletes (Rheenen 487). Offering multi-year scholarships could also be a great way to keep student-athletes in school and playing for their respective teams; not rushing their degree, transferring schools, or dropping out to pursue professional sports. This would benefit everyone involved: the NCAA, athletic staff, and the players.
At the end of the day, the current system works for a reason, and changes may be hard to implement. The coaching staff and the NCAA may be reluctant to make changes because it would directly impact teams, wins, and funding. The system currently in place is unsustainable. The amount of talent that student-athletes have (and were recruited for in the first place), they will not stay in college if they feel they are missing on other opportunities. These new opportunities will ultimately take talent away from the college athlete pool, and may not be the best situation for student-athletes. It is unclear what the impact of these changes would be for EMCC’s program, but for all college sports. Buddy Stephens voices his opinion about the complications of the current system:
“All stories aren’t success stories. It’s just hard sometimes because you see great kids that just won’t…commit. Now, they’ll commit to being at practice, they won’t be late for a meeting, but when it comes to class? Please. So, we’ll do the best we can… Are we really doing the best we can? Or are we just saying that because if we are doing the best we can, wouldn’t we punish them if they didn’t go to class, not letting them practice? And therefore maybe not letting them play? I mean, every coach, every team in America has the same thing they have to go through. Where’s my line? When have I put winning or being successful on the field ahead of truly putting the success of the student-athlete there, you know? We all do that.” (Episode 4)
Buddy highlights the easiest changes that an athletic program could make. On the other hand, none of these work well within the “winning is everything” narrative that has been created, and most of them punish student-athletes for not balancing both roles. This could be a sign to try something new, to give academics an equal “last chance” it deserves to try and create some balance between academics and athletics.
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