' Cinema Romantico: 30 for 30: What Carter Lost

Thursday, September 07, 2017

30 for 30: What Carter Lost

“What Carter Lost”, the latest in ESPN’s never-ending 30 for 30 documentary series, is not just about football, says one talking head in the film’s prologue, because it’s never just about football in Texas. That’s true, in a way, though director Adam Hootnick takes care to begin “What Carter Lost” by explaining what Dallas Carter high school had to lose in the autumn of 1988 in the first place, which was a heullva football team, chock full of players who would earn full ride scholarships to top tier college football programs like Miami and Tennessee, that brought the city of Dallas its first high school football championship since 1950. That they did seemed, in the end, almost beside the point, which is true, though everything else that happened correlated almost directly to football and that is the one detail that cannot be forgotten.

The football team, as Hootnick documents, was an outgrowth of the changing demographics of the school and community, where white flight made way for a black community that, despite the unfortunate stereotypes going hand-in-hand with “inner city”, trended more prosperous. This discomfort with a successful black school, as several talking heads, including longtime Dallas sportscaster Dale Hansen, suggest, connected directly to the academic imbroglio that caused Carter to briefly be rendered ineligible from the 1988 state playoffs when an anonymous tip suggested that Carter’s Gary Edwards, in opposition to the rules, failed an algebra class.


The confusion over this grade is tied directly to a disagreement between Carter’s new principal, C.C. Russeau, and Edwards’s algebra teacher, Wilfred Bates, who, it is suggested, disagreed, as other teachers did, with the principal’s so called “Carter Plan”. The idea is floated that this Carter Plan artificially enhanced grades, which Bates objected to, though Bates is not interviewed and the movie never really follows up on this thread. Perhaps the film’s running time did not allow for a deep dive into the finer points of academia, but by examining it strictly from a football eligibility vantage point unintentionally frames academics entirely in athletic terms, which might be just as well, cosmically evocative of which one really comes first.

Though it is eventually determined that Edwards did pass in the context of the Carter Plan, it remains an issue all through the playoffs, and even after, as rival schools challenge the eligibility of Edwards in court, not that it prevented Carter from winning the state championship. And some of the documentary’s most incisive footage are post-championship game interviews in which the players sound less like high school students than professional players, underscored even further by the ensuing tales of their college recruitment, seen most acutely and garishly with one player signing his letter of intent from a hot tub. That shot can’t help but connect to the story’s next and most melancholy turn – that is, six of Carter’s players being arrested and eventually imprisoned for armed robberies.

Each of these six players, and a few of their parents, speak on camera where they are forthright and thoughtful, refusing to point fingers at anyone other than themselves, though you wonder if they should, and the aforementioned Hansen, in fact, does, citing the media as placing the players on a pedestal and then acting surprised when they fall off. That’s not to excuse their actions, of course, and there are many more players who did not participate, though some of those players interviewed suggest how easy it would have been for them to go along given the culture created and alluded to throughout where players talk flippantly about skipping classes and playing dice games for money out in the open of their high school hallway. The rules didn’t apply to them, in other words, quite literally, and the six take that to its semi-logical endpoint, underlined by how a couple of them went so far as to commit robberies without even wearing a mask, as if they really did think they were untouchable.
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On some level, “What Carter Lost” is intended as advocacy filmmaking, charting their progression from the top to the bottom and then making space for these players to evangelize about what’s right and what’s wrong. This is all well and good, and the doc concludes by noting none of the six were ever convicted of another crime and went on to lead upstanding lives. Yet the doc also concludes with some stock footage of a football crowd in the throes of cheers, part and parcel of the film’s reliance on thrilling game highlights and breathless proclamations, like that of Hall of Fame running back and Texas native LaDainian Tomlinson decreeing that 1988 Dallas Carter was the greatest high school football team “ever assembled”, which makes it sound less like kids at a school than a militaristic outfit put together just to win. Indeed, even as the movie makes sure to document what Carter lost, it accentuates the importance of victory, an inadvertent reminder that the two are perpetually linked.

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