The opening words of the fourth season of Last Chance U, Netflix’s intimate docuseries on junior college football, are ominous. They leave no room for interpretation. This season centers on Jason Brown, the cocksure coach of Independence Community College in southeast Kansas. A resident sums up in a few words what viewers experience over the course of eight episodes. “[Independence Community College] made a deal with the devil,” Bob Wullenschneider says. “The coach is a good coach, but not a good man.”
While watching the season, I often found myself coming back to those words. Brown’s tirades are profanity laden, his interviews are equipped with stogies or booze, and he seems perpetually ready to explode at a moment’s notice. He leaves an unfixable crater in the lives of those who cross his path at Independence. Worse, he doesn’t appear to care. Season 4 of Last Chance U is a snapshot of the promise of second chances in football, and how the coaches who make those promises sometimes act like offering second chances gives them carte blanche. It’s also, perhaps more than any previous LCU season, a look at the dangerous realities of playing underneath leadership more committed to self-serving principles than mentorship.
Take the second episode, titled “The Eye in the Sky.” It focuses on the plight of a player named Bobby Bruce, a 21-year-old Florida native who was arrested in June 2018 in connection with an armed robbery. In the case, $450 and an iPhone were stolen and a victim was lured into a trap through Snapchat. The charges were later dropped. At the end of Season 3 of Last Chance U, a message informs viewers that Bruce isn’t expected to return to school at Independence. As Season 4 begins, though, Brown lets him back on the team, explaining the decision by saying that he loves him.
Brown has a funny way of showing it. Near the beginning of the season, a student tells ICC residence directors that he’s missing cash and has been robbed. Security cameras show Bruce and other players entering rooms that aren’t theirs, and Bruce exiting a room with a bag that he didn’t have when he entered. Bruce says he had only food. Nothing is discussed or explained beyond the poor optics, and yet Brown upends Bruce’s universe nonetheless: The coach repeatedly calls Bruce a failure, disinvites him from a team meeting, and tells the roster that he kicked Bruce off the squad.
When the other players tell Bruce what happened, the linebacker is bewildered. “Coach Brown ain’t tell me nothing like that,” Bruce says, growing visibly dejected. “He could’ve just told me that man to man.” Brown, for his part, is unbothered. “We’ve done everything we could for Bobby Bruce,” Brown says. “I have 150 other kids I have to try to see if they’ll meet me halfway. Bobby didn’t meet me halfway.”
In the season finale, it’s revealed that Bruce was not allowed to receive his transcripts. His classes were dropped, and he was left about $4,000 in debt to ICC. He wasn’t allowed to transfer until everything was resolved.
Brown is similarly disingenuous when it comes to quarterback Jay Jones. Jones transferred from Georgia Tech to Independence to gain the experience necessary to return to college football’s highest level. Yet he gets benched for Malik Henry, a QB featured prominently in the last LCU season, and whom Brown brings back to campus under the pretense of being exclusively a scout-team QB. But Henry plays poorly and Brown turns back to Jones, who flings off his helmet and refuses to go into the game. “Fuck! Send him home then!” Brown yells in Episode 5, “The Hangover.” “Send these motherfuckers home!” He says later, “Motherfucker got no competitive spirit, man!”
Brown’s M.O. is apparent in how he treats the people around him. His players are all different pejoratives. Defensive lineman Kailon Davis is “ugly.” Wide receiver Markiese King is told to “get your dark ass out of my seat” during a meeting. After losses, players on the team are called “some fuckin’ hoes” or “slapdicks.” Journalists looking to write stories about Brown are “motherfuckers” and a “fuckin’ bitch.” Garden City Community College coach Jeff Sims is labeled a “cowardly, cunt bitch” after winning a game against Independence. “This is the real fuckin’ JB,” Brown says in Episode 6, “S Show,” when threatening to cut his players. It’s a rare moment of transparency for the coach: He’s selling hope to mostly black children out of self-interest, not selflessness.
His peers around Kansas JUCO football largely recognize Brown’s role in this dynamic. He acts like he owns the lives of the people he is supposed to protect. Gary Thomas, the former head coach of Dodge City Community College, describes him as a bull in a china shop. Sims likens him to a product of Hollywood. Brown isn’t a coach. He’s a made-for-TV star. “There’s a lot of schools in this conference that offer a lot more to these kids than a television show and Adidas shoes,” Sims says.
And while Brown insists that he’s not a rockstar—he’s just a football coach, man—he still does TMZ interviews flaunting the number of kids who want to play for him and the “single females” emailing him. He didn’t meet up with any of them, though. Not because of possible violations. Because he didn’t know whether he could. “I’m in the middle of nowhere, man. Shit. I don’t know. I don’t know if I can or not or what,” Brown says when asked in Episode 1, “Dream U,” whether he’s gone on dates with any of his suitors. “I’m just a single dude. … Hate me now or love me later.” He goes out of his way to mention how “a porn star hit me up.”
This is the behavior of a man without remorse for his actions, or the ability to believe he’s done wrong. After kicking Bruce off the team, Brown dares to say, “I truly believe he wanted to go home.” Football is notorious for grinding players down, chewing them up, and then spitting them out when their talent, eligibility, or on-field impact has dried up. The guise of a school being a Last Chance U, a savior for some of these boys, is unraveled when those in need of second chances are given false promises instead.
Watching this play out over this LCU season is sobering. Players and coaches can feel the toxicity. “How much more before you mentally break down? Before you physically break down?” a player asks in Episode 5, which shows players crying in the locker room from the stress of their coach. It is gutting to endure.
Last Chance U is built on this drama. The latest season takes a narrative that’s long existed in football circles—that black boys need the help of white coaches to overcome the restraints of their American realities—and shows precisely why it’s so flawed. It’s poverty porn for college football fans. And it’s a con. This isn’t the first time players entered a year with championship hopes only to close it with shattered dreams and broken lives. It makes me wish more people decided that these players deserved to be loved.
Brown is eventually dismissed from Independence after he texts a German-born player, “I’m your new Hitler.” Last month, the coach was indicted on 10 charges, including eight felonies relating to blackmail and identity theft. It is alleged that Brown posed as a lawyer from Johnnie Cochran’s law firm to communicate with some Kansan newspapers about their coverage of his football team. Incredibly, through these mountains of turmoil, he found time to write a book.
Season 4 of Last Chance U is the story of a man who cares more about the brand he’s building than the lives he’s supposed to be molding. It’s a tale of someone who would rather perpetuate the evils of the sport than provide mentorship for those hurt by America’s systems. It’s a damning portrait of a football coach who, sadly, isn’t an anomaly in his line of work. “I’m not a fucking actor,” Brown tells his team in Episode 1. “This ain’t a Hollywood script.” That’s what makes these episodes so hard to stomach. Promises are often only as strong as emerald turf.