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‘Last Chance U: Laney’ Is About College Football, Sure, But It Also Doubles As A Study of The Impact of Gentrification in Oakland

Change is good. At least that conventional wisdom seems applicable for Part 5 of the long-running Netflix series, Last Chance U. After embedding itself in volatile success at East Mississippi for two seasons and following up with two campaigns of miserable mediocrity at Kansas’ Independence Community College, the series went further west in search of a new story to tell. And viewers could not be more fortunate that it found Laney College in the great city of Oakland.

Like EMCC and Indy, the show finds the Laney Eagles fresh off great success in the season prior to filming, capturing both a California state crown and national championship in 2018. Yet that may be the only real connection to the previous schools, mainly because the makeup of the team is dramatically different. There is no true Icarus-like player here. We do not see an obvious top-flight Division I player whose lofty expectations created conflicts about playing time or whose disciplinary troubles led to a dismissal from a Power Five program.

Instead, the junior college is full of local kids – a source of pride among the assistant coaches – who are largely looking for a way to keep grinding in a changing world yet extend their adolescence a bit through playing football.

Shifting to Laney College may have not changed the show’s format, but it provided an opportunity to bring a more diverse array of players by virtue of being in the middle of a more ethnically-diverse city. Arguably, the most important theme shared throughout Part 5 was the impact to gentrification in Oakland. East Mississippi (located in Scooba, MS) and Independence were in the heart of rural communities, self-described football towns where the team is the citizenry’s primary source of civic pride. The irony is that the players who they cheered on over the season were largely from elsewhere, with their eyes on moving back to Division I schools after a necessary “pit stop” in juco.

Laney’s students are rooted in the East Bay and further north in Stockton. With the increasing dearth of affordable housing in Oakland, many endured two-hour commutes to get to “The Town” for grueling days of practice, class, and work. With a head coach in John Beam whose history is deeply rooted in the city’s football culture, Oakland is every bit the main character as the several people featured this season.

Last Chance U: Laney
Photo: Netflix

We catch that right away in the first episode when players, coaches and school officials discuss how gentrification changed the soul (and debatably the fortunes) of Oakland. The theme returns a few times throughout, and LCU ends up capturing a fuller picture of the community than was ever realized in Scooba or Independence. The closest we got to seeing external forces impact the teams in previous seasons was the discussion about the combative 2016 Presidential election in Part 2 at EMCC and the town parade in Part 3 at Independence.

What also makes Part 5 a pleasant shift in tone was the man in charge. John Beam is by far the most likeable of the three head coaches LCU has profiled through the years, even though he has his own madman tendencies on the sidelines. In terms of temperament, Beam would be the Bill Walsh to Buddy Stephens’ Bill Parcells (and perhaps to Jason Brown’s Rex Ryan rather than the former Jets coach’s patriarch). 

Though he “just wants that W,” Beam tends to show great concern for the players’ mental well-being, especially since he is also Laney’s athletic director. One moment that captures this perfectly comes in the second episode where his best wide receiver, Dior Walker-Scott, is thrusted into the starting quarterback role after the team’s top three signal-callers are injured. Walker-Scott is dealing with a contentious family matter and a precarious housing situation, leading to him having a panic attack in practice. Stephens may have been concerned for perhaps three minutes. Brown may have told this player to suck it up before saying something highly offensive. Instead, Beam makes a call to his wife, a psychologist, for the player to speak to. It’s a different tact that beloved NFL star and Oakland native Marshawn Lynch would appreciate. (Some disclosure: my wife is also a psychologist. They come in handy.)

Even amidst the early acclaim of the series, Last Chance U had taken plenty of heat for the appearance of poverty porn. The series heavily relied on several players with deeply tragic upbringings either caused by or enhanced by financial strife. On top of that, at least one student-athlete found himself in trouble with law enforcement in each season, with the legal proceedings surrounding former players Isaiah Wright (EMCC) and Bobby Bruce (Independence) becoming full-on episodes themselves. Walker-Scott’s story is one of poverty and family trauma, as is partially the case for several of his teammates. Yet, it’s fair to say that producers may have not gone to the well as much because there appeared to be a much greater support system on and off the field.

Local pride carries Part 5, but it’s not the naïve kind where the people at Laney College are blind to all of Oakland’s challenges. They hold on tight to what Oakland and the surrounding region used to be yet are concerned about where they may fit due to gentrification. The team is a bit of a reflection of that tension as players and coaches are trying to get an idea of what comes next in their lives with and potentially after football. Yet compared to their filmed predecessors, the goal of getting out of Laney is not entirely about NFL dreams that are not likely to come true. It’s as much about surviving the grind and maybe enjoying a little “Town biz” in the process.

Jason Clinkscales is the editor-in-chief for The Sports Fan Journal, and his work has been featured at Awful Announcing, The Week and Dime Magazine. A New York City native, he is also a former media research analyst in both television networks and advertising agencies.

Watch Last Chance U: Laney on Netflix

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