On the heels of MTV Films’ exposé of high school football in rural Texas ("Friday Night Lights") comes its commentary on high school basketball in urban California.
In the rough, urban California setting of Richmond High, only 50 percent of all students graduate. A measly 6 percent go on to attend college. Six out of 10 male students end up jobless, while a whopping 80 percent wind up in jail.
These are real-life statistics—odds that real-life Richmond High Oilers basketball coach Ken Carter made a point of defying. In 1999 the successful businessman accepted the challenge to coach at his alma matter. As a former two-time All-American player and holder of numerous Richmond records, Carter commanded respect. But the attitude-laden, undisciplined young men who made up his team weren’t about to give it easily.
Carter promised his players success as long as they played by his rules. To ensure those guidelines were followed, he required each player to sign a contract with the following conditions: He had to attend all classes and sit on the front row; he had to maintain at least a 2.3 GPA (never mind that the district only required a 2.0); and he had to wear a tie on game days.
Of course, Carter's unconventional coaching style was questioned and challenged, and not just by players. Parents, teachers and even the school principal felt his “extreme methods” were unreasonable. And when the coach gained national attention for suspending his entire undefeated team until they improved academically, the Richmond community protested that he was stripping these players of the only thing they had going for them. For Carter, that was exactly the problem. He wanted his players to win in both basketball and life.
An MTV Films production, Coach Carter attempts to tell the true story of a man who broke the mold to ensure his players would do the same. In Carter’s words, basketball was “simply a privilege”; the ultimate game was played beyond the hardwood.
There are some pretty weighty positive messages in Coach Carter. Carter does everything he can to ensure a promising future for his basketball players, against all odds. Though he’s without support, he refuses to give in to the system that sidelines players with prison, drugs, alcohol or, even worse, death. Instead, he pushes the grim statistics in his players’ faces to spur them on to be the exception. While his tough love is initially scorned by the team, they eventually revere their coach and acknowledge the benefit of his ways.
Teamwork and community are seen as cornerstones to improvement. Several touching moments show the power of friendship and underscore the team approach to life: “When one person struggles, we all struggle; when one person triumphs, we all triumph.” At one point, teammates help an ex-player fulfill his grueling requirements (2,500 pushups and 1,000 “suicides”) so he can rejoin the team.
Education becomes top priority for every player who hopes to play. Carter’s classroom guidelines ensure that teammates help each other on and off the court. Players excelling in their studies offer tutoring to those who are struggling. By the end, the entire team understands and appreciates the final destination: to succeed in life after basketball. One member, Cruz, even thanks Carter for “saving my life.”
Carter preaches respect, dignity and manners. He calls each player “sir,” treats them as a responsible adults (often giving players the benefit of the doubt) and expects the same treatment in return. He doesn’t tolerate racially derogatory terms. And from day one, his emphasis on living and playing like champions is hammered home. When his players taunt and humiliate their opponents after scoring, he punishes them and teaches them how to act like winners.
Carter’s son, Damien, attends the top school in the region, and is an excellent student and emerging basketball player. His desire, however, is to play for his dad, and he's willing to submit himself to his father’s toughness to do it. Though Damien withdraws from his former school prior to informing his dad, Carter acknowledges his son’s history of responsibility and therefore allows his to make his own choice.
Despite his uncertainty over the future, team member Kenyon refuses to desert his pregnant girlfriend and creates a plan for the couple and their new baby after graduation.
When the team initially meets its new coach, players mistake him for a preacher because of his attire. They mock him by saying, “God ain’t in this neighborhood.”
At a party, a group of guys and girls strip down to their underwear to go swimming. In the pool, Damien is shown kissing one girl while snuggling up to another. Several other couples fool around as well. When questioned about a sexual fling, one player recounts his and his partner’s precise body positions.
A school dance features plenty of lewd dancing; the camera goes in for close-ups of grinding, bumping and cleavage. A player jokes to two girls about needing some variety in his love life and invites them both to a romantic tryst. Kyra, who is pregnant out of wedlock by Kenyon, pulls out a g-string and asks if he wants to see her wearing it. The two are later shown making out and lying in bed before her mother gets home. A few rude (and crude) slang terms are used for sex and dancing.
At their first meeting, Cruz tries to sucker punch Carter, who then slams the teen against the wall. A handful of on-the-court skirmishes take place among Richmond teammates and between the Oilers and various opponents. Several guys jump out of a car and fake an attack on a couple of players (one assailant carries a gun). Those opposed to Carter’s coaching methods smash his office window to intimidate him. On the street, gang members fight with three of the players, one of whom gets punched. They’re chased away by a teammate brandishing a gun. A drug dealer gets shot in the chest three times (blood is briefly shown).
Crude or Profane Language
More than 100 profanities (including three-dozen uses of the s-word) mar this movie. God’s name is abused seven times, while the f-word is said once and faintly heard in the accompanying soundtrack. Though Carter points out to his players the offensiveness of the racially derogatory n-word, that doesn't stop it from being used in the film a dozen times.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Carter drives by a drug deal in progress. After he’s cut from the team, Cruz makes money pushing drugs for a dealer. Thinking the pregnant Kyra has been drinking alcohol, Kenyon questions her irresponsibility. (She hasn't been drinking.) After the team wins a tournament, players sneak out to a nearby party, where alcohol flows freely. Carter’s son acts drunk. A few lesser characters smoke.
Other Negative Elements
Initially, Kyra seems committed to birthing and raising her child. She and Kenyon even share a sense of excitement about the prospect, albeit an excitement that's mingled with apprehension about their relationship’s future and concern over how they’ll provide for the baby. Kenyon momentarily presents the possibility of abortion, but it’s not seen as an option for the seemingly mature Kyra. [Spoiler Warning] However, by the end of the movie, Kyra has a radical (and seemingly inconsistent) change of heart. Without Kenyon knowing, she decides to abort the baby (“I had a choice; I made it—for me”).
She had been blaming her boyfriend for thinking only about what was best for himself rather than for them as a couple. And the film made it clear that he should shape up. But by the end she does the same thing he had been doing. And, inexplicably, her actions are viewed as admirable. In a nutshell, her decision to end a life is portrayed as “heroic,” then it’s quickly glossed over (given fewer than 30 seconds of screen time).
While Carter requires his players to treat him and each other with respect and dignity, he often uses foul language to make his point. He also loses his cool and has to be held back by his own son when a member of the community spits on his car.
If Coach Carter sounds like Stand and Deliver meets Hoosiers in the ’hood, it is. Emphasizing the power of teamwork, it shows how a group of young men came together under the unorthodox methods of their coach and beat the odds. And it’s chock-full of uplifting and straightforward messages. So you’d think this was bound to be a family favorite.
It won’t be. Coach Carter is a telling case study of how a powerful, positive story gets sullied for the sake of “relevance” to an MTV culture. In real life, Ken Carter turned boys into men, teaching them how to truly succeed. Did he use rough language to get his message across? Sure. “You have to learn how to communicate with them,” he told Christianity Today. “See, if the kids believe in the messenger, they’ll believe and receive the message.” So MTV Films decided to take the same tack, using profanities galore and several sexual situations to establish its “street cred.” It even injected a dose of its pro-abortion propaganda (everyone has a happy ending except Kyra’s baby).
Is it effective? Yes, despite itself. Coach Carter (just like Friday Night Lights) does serve as a cautionary tale, and it has the capacity to inspire both adults and students to strive for loftier ideals than just merely surviving. But it still fouls out for not figuring out a way to do that without making so many moral compromises.