ESPN’s latest entry in its remarkable 30 for 30 series is a Randy Moss biopic entitled “Rand University”. The title refers to the small West Virginia town where he grew up. The film charts Moss’s progress from High School star to NFL draft pick, with a particular focus on the off the field troubles that plagued Moss’ high school and college years. “Rand University” also spends a great deal of time focused on the way that the town of Rand, and its racial and economic tensions, affected Moss’ generation of high school athletes.
It is sufficient to say that life for most folks in Rand West Virginia is tough, and Moss’ on the field prowess did little to shield him from hardship. Involved in a serious brawl as a High School senior, Moss lost the chance to play for Lou Holtz at Notre Dame. He would eventually be dismissed from Florida State before starring for the Marshall Thundering Herd in their first years as a Division I football program. The documentary also highlights the lives of his high school teammates, whose lives were shaped by the town they shared.
The film paints a portrait of Moss that is nuanced and at times challenging. Randy Moss is not an innocent victim, nor is he a stereotypical “bad guy.” Instead he is a man who is clearly still frustrated by the treatment he received as a high school and college athlete, despite decades of success as one of the greatest receivers in NFL history. There is a duality to his understanding of his home town, while he acknowledges that events in Rand almost cost him his career, in the documentary he often states that he has difficulty trusting anyone from outside Rand.
The release of “Rand University” comes at an interesting time for amateur athletics. With the advent of the College Football Playoff, and the increasing popularity of the sport, the well being of the athletes themselves has come increasingly into focus. Laudable steps have been made, with many school and conferences (notably the Pac 12) guaranteeing scholarships for 4 years, and taking steps to prevent traumatic injuries on the field. However, to some degree this is only a part of the problem.
The NCAA, is adamant that college athletes are not employees, but rather students playing as part of gaining an education. However, in cases of misconduct Universities actions sometimes more closely resemble those of an embarrassed employer than an educational institution. Randy Moss lost two scholarships, one to Notre Dame for fighting (in high school) and one to Florida State for smoking marijuana. It would be naive not to acknowledge that many students on America’s campuses, who are likely receiving significant financial aid, are guilty of similar offenses. It was only through the compassion of the staff at Marshall that Moss was allowed to achieve his potential. It is easy to cast troubled college stars in a negative light, but if amateur athletics are truly different from professional sports (as the NCAA constantly insists) then second chances and opportunities to learn from mistakes should be the rule, not the exception.
Rand University is a welcome addition to the 30 for 30 series, and is highly recommended to anyone interested in Randy Moss, or who harbors an enthusiasm for truly awesome photos of the 90s (this documentary really showcases them). The film does an excellent job of showing the profound impact of place on individuals, and the nobility that can be found in refusing to give up, even when everyone has seemingly given up on you. This series is always best when it challenges your assumptions about events or individuals that seem very familiar. In this regard Rand University is an unqualified success.
Max Rieger is a PhD Candidate at Purdue University. A recovering Attorney and lifelong USC Trojans fan, Max has a background in the film industry and is interested in representations of sport in the media, and the concept of amateurism. He researches property and land in the 19th century American west.