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The Beauty and Frustration of Sports As Social Commentary

L-R: Netflix’s Last Chance U, the Rio Olympics, Friday Night Lights Photo: Netflix, Getty Images

The idea that audiences connect best with sports through personal stories is, by now, a hoary trope of sports coverage. There’s no better time to watch that impulse in action than the Olympics, when NBC color commentators spoon-feed the Parade of Nations to what they must imagine is a disinterested American audience by running down a rapid-fire list of bullet-point human-interest anecdotes. There was the Canadian trampolinist whose grandfather’s Olympic dreams were dashed by WWII, the track-and-field competitor who grew up without money for shoes, the swimmer who fled Syria with her family and helped pull the boat carrying them from Turkey to Greece.

Olympics coverage looks so much like a prepackaged set of blurbs for yet-unpublished memoirs because sports are most appealing and most gripping as a stripped-down, bare-bones, unadulterated set of storytelling tropes: The underdog. The upstart. The champion, the loser, the David, the Goliath, the Little Engine Who Could and Who Finally Does.

Where this becomes a more risky proposition is when sports is used as a framework for telling other kinds of stories — particularly broader social commentaries. Just as a novel might use a romance as a way to tell a bigger story about race and class, sports are frequently co-opted as digestible narrative frames for otherwise intractable social concerns. Think of Invictus, or A League of Their Own, Bend It Like Beckham, or Rocky IV.

Or think of one of the defining texts of the genre, Buzz Bissinger’s original Friday Night Lights book, and the film and series that followed. Bissinger writes that football is “at the very core of what the town was about … It had nothing to do with entertainment and everything to do with how people felt about themselves.” After quoting that same line from Bissinger’s book, former New Yorker TV critic Nancy Franklin writes about the camera work on the Friday Night Lights TV series: “The camera … goes where strangers usually don’t go — right up in people’s faces. It is the observant outsider who somehow got through the town’s gates.” Franklin was writing about the way cinematography on Friday Night Lights provides access to a socioeconomic portrait that we don’t usually see, but as she and Bissinger both make clear, football — the characters, the history, the built-in narrative, the way it cuts across a range of social strata — is what opens that door.

Sports stories that become gateways for social commentary are so alluring. They let us tack a simpler, more manageable narrative structure on top of huge, amorphous, and often infuriating social ills. They can turn humans into superheroes, not just in their presentation of their inhuman physical feats on the field, but in the way athletes can use their sheer physicality and force of will to overcome monstrous obstacles like poverty and racism. But these narrative synecdoches are not necessarily successful just by dint of their existence.

Netflix’s new documentary series Last Chance U is a prime illustration of both the upsides and the pitfalls of the sports social commentary. The series’ great strength is its unswerving and extensive focus on one small junior-college football program. It is rooted exclusively in the details of East Mississippi Community College — its players, who often come from childhoods of poverty and trauma; its aggressive, competitive coach; the struggles of academic eligibility; the intense drive to succeed. And in probing the lives of these people, Last Chance U almost inevitably uncovers a whole host of broader ideas. It raises larger questions about injury, about trauma, about poverty, and most especially about race — like so many American sports stories, it is a story about America.

But its strength — the unwavering focus on this one small football program — is also its great drawback. There are no talking heads from experts, or players from other teams, or doctors. There is no narrator. There is little historical context, and what it does present comes from the perspective of its main figures or former EMCC players. It’s especially frustrating when the predominantly black team’s white coach begs his team to play “violently,” and then screams that they’re “thugs” when a game turns nasty. That kind of racialized language is hard to miss, and it’s threaded through the EMCC players’ response to that game. But I ached for someone on the series, anyone, to actually grapple with some of the huge, fundamental problems that Last Chance U perpetually skims on the surface. To return to Bissinger’s Friday Night Lights, it’s as if Last Chance U uses football to open the door, but then hovers infuriatingly on the threshold.

For all the disappointment of its unfinished, underexplored American story, Last Chance U works almost in spite of itself. As it turns out, a sports story with a social angle is fascinating even without the exhaustive brilliance of a work like OJ: Made in America, which is somehow about an athlete, and also about “the larger stories of race, celebrity and misogyny that intersected around Simpson,”all the national obsessions,” including drugs, violence, fame and money, and “the hyperactivity of the news media and the toxicity of celebrity culture.”  That series surely represents the Platonic ideal of the sports-as-social-commentary genre, although the relatively small piece sports plays in that story is telling: Its whole project is about understanding the iconic narrative tropes built around O.J. Simpson the athlete, and then methodically dismantling them.

Which brings me back to the Olympics, peak sports as social commentary. As President Obama described to PGA golfer David Feherty, the backstories of Olympians create empathy for circumstances we may never have been able to imagine otherwise. They humanize and raise awareness about cultural problems that might have been outside our interest. The danger is that, like Last Chance U or so many other sports stories that touch on huge social problems, we are dazzled by the beauty of the physical achievement and brought to tears by the athlete’s story, but then leave it there. We are moved by the team of refugees, but do not make a connection with the larger refugee crisis.  This is the beauty and frustration of using sports to tell a broader story: They provide such useful, inviting gateways for commentary. But the infrequency and brevity of something like the Olympics makes it all too easy to open that door and never really walk inside.

The Dangers of Sports As Social Commentary