ESPN Documentary Tells a Nearly ‘Lost’ Story of Texas High School Football

By Mark Walsh — August 23, 2017 4 min read
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A documentary airing Thursday night as part of ESPN’s “30 for 30" series tells a fascinating story about high school football in Texas, educational accountability, and moral failures.

What Carter Lost” is a 75-minute film examining the 1988 football season of David W. Carter High School, a large inner-city school in the Oak Cliff section of Dallas. The Carter High Cowboys were ascendant in the same season as another powerhouse across the state: the Odessa Permian High School team documented in the H.G. Bissinger book Friday Night Lights and the film of the same name.

The Odessa Permian story became famous worldwide, leading even to a successful TV series continuing the story. The Dallas Carter story, which gained national headlines 29 years ago, long ago faded from national attention. Until now.

The ESPN documentary by director Adam Hootnick is scheduled for 9:30 p.m. Eastern time on Aug. 24. (The start time may be pushed back by the sport network’s airing of the Little League World Series.)

The film comes just as the high school football season is getting under way across the nation. The Washington Post reported this week that some schools in New Jersey are questioning their traditions with the game because of declining interest and safety concerns. But in Texas, high school football seems as big as ever, if not bigger. A new $72 million football stadium just opened in Katy, Texas, to serve multiple high schools.

“What Carter Lost” opens in the fall of 1988. The school has ranked perennially near the bottom in academic achievement, but as a strong football contender that always seemed to bow out early in the state playoffs. One Carter High booster says the idea of a dominant black football team was hard for some in Texas to take when the top football classification was dominated by outlying powerhouses such as Odessa Permian or suburban schools such as Plano High School, near Dallas. As the top football program in the Dallas Independent School District, Carter High carried the hopes of the entire city when it battled these other schools, one observer says in the film.

The 1988-89 school year was four years into Texas’s famous “no pass, no play” law requiring student athletes to maintain passing grades. In November 1988, as Carter High was poised for its first playoff game, the state’s high school sports regulator receved an anonymous tip that a Carter High player’s algebra grade had been suspiciously changed to make him eligible.

The Texas Education Agency dispatched an investigator, who became convinced of an improper change, and Carter High was declared ineligible for the playoffs.

But the game wasn’t over. What followed was a jarring administrative, legal, and public relations battle over Carter High’s eligibility. We learn the Carter High principal’s distinctive school improvement and grading program that was meant to boost achievement but was interpreted by some, including the math teacher, as making it easier to increase grades.

We see the then-Texas education commissioner, William Kirby, rule against Carter High, only to have the courts intervene with a temporary restraining order and other actions that permit the team to play their games. This includes a key game between Carter and Permian, which was depicted in “Friday Night Lights,” though with some liberties taken by the film version to cast Carter High’s players as urban thugs.

The suspense in the documentary was so genuine that I was happy that while I had a vague recollection of the Carter High story from 29 years ago, I honestly could not remember how it had turned out.

And just when the story on the football field is (seemingly) over, the Carter High school year takes a much more grave turn. Several football team members who were riding high in the spring of 1989 were soon in serious trouble with the law. Nearly three decades later, these former players are reflective about how their success on the field gave them a sense of invincibility in their neighborhood.

Hootnick and his crew seemed to be able to find and interview every key participant who is still around to tell his or her story and reflect on it—players, coaches, educators, school board members, sportswriters, and investigators. This is interspersed with news and sports coverage from the time, of course.

I found myself freeze-framing some of the clips from The Dallas Morning News shown in the film so I could read the stories for myself. And I did the same with the math teacher’s gradebook, which is full of mysterious marks and abbreviations that, at the very least, could lead to differing interpretations.

In the end, more than 20 Carter High football players ended up with college scholarships, while eight went on to play pro football. Several others, including the player at the center of the grading controversy, wound up in prison.

“We put them on a pedestal, and then we wonder why they fall off,” one Dallas sportswriter says near the end of the film.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Education and the Media blog.