When “Tough Love” Isn’t Loving: Grace for Those on Their Last Chance
The Netflix documentary series Last Chance U follows college athletes attempting to make it to the next level both athletically and academically. They find themselves in a “JuCo”: a junior college or community college. Some have experienced expulsion from a former institution, some return closer to home due to family issues. Others are there from poor academic performance and still others need time to developmentally mature. For various reasons, these student-athletes (who are maybe more athlete than student) are difficult to lead and coach, and hence, this is their “Last Chance.” Either succeed at the junior college level, or the journey ends. For some, that means they give up their athletic dreams, but for others, they don’t have any other options. Make it to the next level, or your future prospects are bleak.
How do people act when they’re on their “Last Chance”? How do you lead someone who is desperate to “make it out”? What kind of handholding should you do? What consequences should they bear? It’s a complex job to lead a group of young men who have been disenfranchised, rejected, lost, or continually overlooked.
In six seasons, Last Chance U has featured four different teams led by four different coaches. Like any sports narrative, one of the central aspects of the show is seeing how each coach (hopefully) leads their program to success. The first two seasons tracked a football program in East Mississippi led by coach Buddy Stephens. Although he claimed the Christian faith, it was evident that the Christian part of his identity didn’t quite come across. Reflecting on how he was portrayed in the show, he explained that it was like making sausage: people like the final product of success but they’d rather not know the process. A good result doesn’t necessarily require a wholesome process.
The show then moved to rural Kansas and Independence Community College. Whereas East Mississippi was a perennial powerhouse, Independence is attempting to turn things around under the guidance of newcomer Coach Jason Brown. Coach Brown is an eccentric character—just as comfortable using expletives as he is saying hello. Actually, I’m not sure he could say one without the other.
The final football move is to Oakland’s Laney College where it follows coaching legend John Beam. The unique aspect of Laney is that there is no residential housing or cafeteria. The students drive in from all over, navigating jobs while in school and in sports, trying to find a cheap meal. It provides a different picture of the college athlete—one without all of the luxuries that come to mind when we think of college football today.
In its latest iteration, Last Chance U turns from football to basketball. Coach John Mosley, a graduate of The Master’s University in California, displays his Christian faith loud and proud as he navigates leading players at East Los Angeles College. He prays regularly with his players, his local church involvement is shown, and he attempts to integrate his coaching with his Christianity. At times it seems tried, at other times corny, but there is an inherent genuineness in Mosley’s faith. However he may come across, his desire for faithfulness is apparent.
Midway through the season, the team takes a retreat to the Los Angeles mountains. Here, removed from distractions and everyday worries, they seek some peace and camaraderie. Part of the process of team building is a Coach Mosley impersonation competition. He plays along with the jokes, but you can tell it irks him. They are making fun of him, and he doesn’t think he is “that weird.” As much as he may want to be one of the boys, he can’t be. He is not a friend, but he is a father figure. There are standards that need to be upheld, and the coach has to enforce them.
One of the challenges of leading a program is the inherent separation between the head coach and the players. In many ways, there has to be. I remember as I was growing up playing sports, my high school soccer coach required us to call him “Coach ‘last name’”: not only his last name, and not his first name. Always “Coach ____.” This was more modeled by upperclassmen than verbalized, but I still thought, “What’s the big deal?” As a millennial who leans toward equality, I thought this imperative had an air of pretension. But as I grew, I knew that before I liked my coach, I had to respect him. And as I respected him, I grew to like him. There were plenty of assistant coaches with whom I could relate, connect, and joke. (That’s the beauty of being an assistant: you don’t have to bear the brunt of being the authority. Your friendship can be the main emphasis.)
Leaders need to make hard decisions. A Christian coach need not play everyone equally. Unfortunately, these challenges mean that they won’t always be liked. But here’s where Coach Mosley’s Christianity shines most bright: his persistent presence is evident. As he leads and as he is forced to make hard decisions, his players know he cares. Coach Mosley reflects on his own playing career when he was not playing as much as he thought he deserved. He had a coach tell him that he wasn’t good enough. No one had ever told him that. Sometimes, coaches need to be ministers of truth-telling, even if the truth hurts.
But as much as Mosley is an authority figure, his players know that he does not lord his authority over them, but desires to condescend into their life—like Jesus. He wants what’s best for his players. Describing Coach Mosley’s care, one of the most difficult players (Joe Hampton) puts him in the elite company of his mom and grandma as the people he knows who pray for him. He goes on: “If I had a problem, I know he’d be there for me. Like right now, I could call him if need be.” Even when Joe and Mosley don’t get along, Joe always knows that his coach is there—that he will not give up on him.
Each season has its “problem” player. In Independence, it was a former Division 1 quarterback who had a hard time going from an elite college program to community college. The big lights, nice gear, and good treatment are absent in rural Kansas. Coaches have to navigate personalities and team dynamics to get the best out of the team, but it is difficult when egos are involved. At East LA, Joe is the one who requires careful navigation. He is a former Division 1 athlete who has fallen on hard times. Plagued by injuries, family issues, and legal problems, he was out of the game and school for several years. East LA is his chance at redemption, but it is evident that Joe needs to get out of his own way. His talent is obvious; his attitude is problematic.
In one episode, Coach Mosley is dealing with the “ticking time bomb,” as the assistant described. Unsatisfied with both his playing time and performance, he stormed out of a game without being substituted and does not show the next day of practice—his absence seeming like a regular occurrence. When is enough enough? How do you deal with a player desperate for redemption but on their last chance?
At times in these shows, I wish coaches would kick these players out of the program. They talk back, they leave practice, they don’t show up. That never would have passed in my day. These are reasons for discipline! Coach K would not accept that behavior, so why let it go now? These players need some discipline, some punishment.
But I realized something through the series: I often do not deal with people on their last chance. In my life, I have a safety net if I fail or screw up. I can be disciplined or punished because I probably need it. In my classroom, there are usually a few options for students who do not succeed. Maybe failing my class would teach them a lesson. But what about people who have no family as a safety net? What if this is their last chance to get out of a bad situation or neighborhood? What if they’ve been punished their whole life? How would I treat them then?
Commenting on Joe Hampton’s trials, Coach Mosley said, “Sometimes, I may let some things go. One day I may address it, one day I don’t… I see a young man and I can’t stand his behavior, his activity, and I always have to remind myself: he probably needs the love at this moment.” He probably needs the love at this moment. When I see a student failing, I think, “He needs the discipline to wake up.” When I see my child acting out, I plan punishment. But Mosley changed my imagination of what those who are struggling, those who are desperate, most need: they probably need love at that moment. Perhaps the punishment doesn’t work, because it’s been tested and tried—they got to their last chance somehow. And what they need now—more than a stern talking to or tough love—is actual care. Maybe what we all need when we have no hope left, when all our options are spent, is grace.
In an interview after the show, Coach Mosley discusses his relationship with Joe. He describes each player as a diamond hidden by callouses. Joe has been hurt and has grown cold. He was a gift that everyone praised, and then when he was injured or made mistakes, he was just as easily discarded. But after chipping away the callouses that have grown, he can shine. Coach Mosley’s example of an embodied, radical grace made me consider the people that I encounter who are hard and calloused, whom everyone discards, are likely the ones that need more attention and care and time.
Those things that callous me in life are the same things that callous those on their last chance: Am I really loved? Will I just be used and discarded? Will anyone be there for me? In those moments what I need is not punishment or discipline. I don’t need an accusation. I need a faithful grace—to know that someone will not leave me or forsake me.
While it’s easy to write off those who are on their last chance (there’s a reason this is their last chance, after all), the person on their last chance is me. I’ve used up all my chances. I’m hanging on by a thread. I walk away and reject those who are loving me the most. If I could just imagine the grace given to me—that I would truly forgive others as I have been forgiven, as I rehearse weekly in the Lord’s Prayer—then maybe I’d have a new perspective towards those on their last chance. Maybe they don’t need punishment but forgiveness. Like me.
In my darkest moments, when I’ve blown it, when I think I’ve used up every chance I’ve had, there’s one that comes alongside. His name is Immanuel: God with us.
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