ESPN 30 for 30: What Carter Lost (2017)

Directed by Adam Hootnick

School is starting up again, and while we are still amid the hot and humid day of August, the cooler autumn chill is just around the corner, which in the great state of Texas means one thing: high school football. High school football across the country is a big deal. I live in Ohio, where football in the fall is life. The same can be said about Texas. Friday Night Lights (both the film and TV show) depict what Friday nights in small Texas towns in the fall are like. It’s intense competition and some of the best football played nationwide. But of course, with great accomplish and fame, there may also come a price. The best of the best go on to play in college at big time programs like Texas and Oklahoma, while some recess into the unknown of small town America. What Carter Lost tells a slightly different story.

In 1988, in the big Texas town of Dallas, one high school team was setting the state on fire with its play: David W. Carter High. Carter was a powerhouse program that year, with some calling it the best high school team ever assembled. It featured future NFL player Jessie Armstead, and numerous talented players with Division I scholarship offers. But their anointed path to a State Championship hit a bit of a road bump, and then it hit a brick wall. Entering the playoffs, one of Carter’s star players was deemed ineligible in a controversial case which was eventually overturned. But what really rocked the Dallas Carter team and community was when numerous star football players were charged with multiple robberies in the area after the team made history by being the first Dallas team to win the State title in a number of years.

Hootnick made his 30 for 30 debut with the short film Judging Jewell, which was a gem of a short about the hero of the Atlanta Olympic bombing in 1996, whose name was dragged through the mud after being accused of planting the bomb. His name was cleared but he will forever be connected to the incident in a poor light. With Carter High, Hootnick has found another troubling story, but this time those accused really did it. Instead, this film focuses more on the why of it, and the racial and cultural consequences of such a controversy. The Dallas neighborhood where Carter is located  is a predominantly black neighborhood, but a middle class one. That didn’t make a difference in the court of public opinion.

Even in the film Friday Night Lights which features Carter being vilified as a dirty inner city school full of black thugs beating the featured team Permian gets it wrong. Hootnick attempts to delve into the motives of such senseless crimes as small time robbery from a group of people who seemingly had it all. Middle class life, state championship and all the perks within the community that come with it, bright future playing football in college to earn a degree. So why did they give away everything for nothing? The conclusion is honestly murky and not necessarily the strength of the film, but the argument goes that the players wanted to keep up with the Jones’s. High dollar sneakers, gold chains, etc. While they weren’t poor, they also couldn’t afford these status indicators they so dearly coveted.

What Carter Lost goes further than just simply telling the story of the 1988 Dallas Carter High football team that won a state championship and then a small group of players handed it away. It also speaks to the cultural impact of the scandal, the lasing legacy of the team. Perhaps the greatest high school team ever will be remembered for the scandal, not their accomplishments on the field. Even today, Carter High in Dallas is connected only with this scandal which happened nearly 30 years ago now. The players involved have since served time, seen their formidable years spent in prison, and have mostly rehabilitated to return to productive citizens, remorseful for what they have done. None of them are repeat offenders. What Carter Lost is a history lesson. It tells a the whole story, not what history remembers. It has an ending, not just the explosive beginning.

*** – Very Good

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