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LeBron James’ HBO Documentary “Student Athlete” Exposes NCAA Hypocrisy

"Student Athlete", the HBO documentary that was Executive Produced by LeBron James and examines college sports and the NCAA system, premieres on Tuesday, October 2nd at 10 p.

“Student Athlete”, the HBO documentary that was Executive Produced by LeBron James and examines college sports and the NCAA system, premieres on Tuesday, October 2nd at 10 p.m. EST.

It’s required viewing for anyone who loves college sports, especially those who claim to care about college athletes in the revenue-producing entities of major college football and basketball.

This is an incredibly important story about the institutional denial of basic human rights for these student athletes, says Maverick Carter, CEO of SpringHill Entertainment. When Steve Stoute brought us this idea, it was a perfect fit for the kind of stories we want to tell at SpringHill. Were excited to work with one of the best human rights storytellers in Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy to help people see and feel how this issue impacts the lives of those living it.

The film is an incredible piece of work. As someone who has long written about the exploitative nature of the NCAA, who has had an insider’s view of elite high school and AAU hoops and the billion dollar college sports apparatus, I’ve long been angered with so much about the college sports that I love. 


It’s been an uncomfortable duality. And “Student Athlete” not only made me angrier, it brought tears to my eyes.


Student Athlete (2018) Official Trailer | HBO

A billion dollar industry, but the players pay the price. From producers Maverick Carter and Steve Stoute and executive producer LeBron James, HBO Sports presents Student Athlete, a documentary revealing the exploitative world of high-revenue college sports. Premiering October 2 at 10 PM on HBO.

It is an honest admonishing of how the NCAA operates and their tired assertions that student athletes should not be paid, and that a scholarship and college degree fully compensate them for their services. 

The film focuses its lens on a variety of athletes and coaches to present a textured, nuanced argument against those tired assertions and why the phrase “student athlete” is essentially an oxymoron. They’re basically working in a billion dollar industry, creating and generating the revenue, and doing so essentially for free.


The NCAA, blinded by revenue goals, is turning student athletes into full-time employees, says Steve Stoute, founder and CEO of United Masters. This documentary is incredibly important, as it debunks the myth that student athletes are being fairly compensated by receiving scholarships and a valuable education. In fact, the demands put on these students by this oppressive system makes it impossible for them to get the education they deserve. The time is now to end this false narrative and reveal the truth of this exploitation.

While top college coaches earn exorbitant salaries, like Alabama’s Nick Saban who pulls in $11 million per year, as billions of dollars get disbursed to athletic departments through television rights for March Madness and the College Football Playoff, not to mention some schools’ individual deals with the likes of Nike, adidas and Under Armour that reach into the hundreds of millions to outfit the young men as unpaid spokesmen for their apparel and sneakers, the players see none of those cash windfalls.


And despite earning a college degree, many of the players are ill-equipped to handle life when leaving school because they’ve essentially been majoring in playing sports. The film deftly paints a searing portrait of an environment that is rife with corruption and exploitation, and how the NCAA’s arcane rulebook does little more than lock the players up in indentured servitude.

LeBron James: ‘NCAA is corrupt,’ has NBA farm system idea

LeBron James talks about the current NCAA scandal of players getting paid and shares his thoughts on a NBA farm system for those athletes that don’t want to go to college. Tuesday, Feb. 27, 2018.

The Shadow League sat down for a discussion with the film’s talented directors, two-time Oscar winner Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy and Trish Dalton, who are widely known for their work around civil and human rights. 

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And they frame “Student Athlete” exactly how it should be, because it’s not a sports issue at all when examined in its totality, but more succinctly a human and civil rights issue at its core. 

***



The Shadow League: As someone who has long examined, studied and written about major college sports, along with having had an insider’s view of the elite AAU basketball circuit, I wasn’t expecting to be as moved by the film as I was. You told an incredible story that really gets the viewer emotionally invested in the lives of the athletes and coach that the film focuses on. How did you initially become involved with the project?


Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy: My work is about human rights and initiating difficult conversations that society does not want to have. Steve Stoute approached me and said, “I have your next project. You should make a film about college sports in America.”

I almost laughed about it and said, “Why would I want to do that? What do I know about college sports?” He said to think about it.

I began to think more deeply about what the film was going to be. It wasn’t going to be about college sports. It was going to be about players, their hopes and dreams, and how the system exploits those hopes and dreams. 

Soon afterward, Steve brought in Maverick Carter and LeBron James and I began thinking about partnering with Trish, who is also a human rights filmmaker. And then the story began to evolve. We wanted to focus on players in different stages of their careers and we wanted the viewer who says, “I know all about college sports, I watch March Madness, I follow my teams…” to watch the film and look beyond that, to look at each individual player and say, “I wonder what his life is like.”


TSL: How familiar were you with the NCAA, the high school hoops AAU apparatus and the overall recruiting process for elite prep athletes before you walked into this, and how did you familiarize yourself with this huge industrial sports complex?

Sharmeen: I follow American sports and I’m a big NBA fan. I went to a women’s college in America and some of my friends played NCAA sports. But I was not familiar with the revenue-generating sports of major college football and basketball, how much money was involved, the recruiting and the areas where a lot of these athletes come from. I also wasn’t familiar with the race issues.

When I began to do my research, I looked at the demographics of the players that come into the system and the rules of the NCAA. The actual sports piece came much later.

TSL: I loved the way you layered the narrative, with each player being at distinct stages. You have Nick Richards as a top high school hoops recruit and the heartbreaking story of former Baylor walk-on football player Silas Nacita, who was ruled ineligible after a family tried to assist him because he was homeless.


Then there’s the equally heartbreaking story of Mike Shaw, the former Illinois and Bradley basketball player whose injuries exact a devastating emotional toll. We see former Rutgers football player Shamar Graves, who has a college degree, sleeping in his car while working 18 hours a day to make $1,500 a month, and we meet former NFL and college football coach Mike Shoop, who is candid about his empathy toward the players and how they’re being taken advantage of. How did you decide to focus the lens on these specific people?


Trish Dalton: When we first started filming, Maverick Carter talked about his own experiences as a college athlete and later working for shoe companies and obviously while still working in the sports industry. Steve Stoute was obviously a big sports fan who knew a lot of athletes and their personal stories. We also spoke with lawyers, professors and former players and they pointed us in different directions.

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We felt like there was this universal narrative and if we could show players in various athletic life spans – from high school to five years post-college – you can see what that looks like without us having to film for eight years. It still took us three years to film.

We also wanted to show that this wasn’t one player’s story, it’s the predominant story of many players. We could have made an eight-part series, because there are entire chapters you can do on money, corruption, abuse, injury, how families are affected, etc, so we wanted to have each of those things touched on through each player, with each of them exemplifying a particular thing like the career-ending knee injury, the NCAA rules, the mental health struggle and others.

We started following eight players and trimmed it down to the four that we chose because we felt like they exemplified it the most. We really fell in love with the guys, and felt like even if a part of our feelings could be communicated through the film, that it would be great for people to feel for them like we do.

TSL: Outside of the narrative and the dialogue, you captured and communicated so much through body language and facial expressions, especially during some poignant, pregnant pauses and prolonged silences. Talk about how this work impacted you, perhaps some things you walked away with that you maybe had not anticipated.



Trish: Like Sharmeen said, we both came in pretty green. We were like, “OK, the players play and get an education.” But it doesn’t take too much digging to find out that it’s a system that’s pretty much predicated on exploitation. The more we got to know the guys and learn about their stories, the more heartbreaking it became.

We’re hopeful that the system can change and that we can be a part of that change. But the immediate situation with some of the players is bleak and in some cases continues to get more bleak. Some of them are really struggling.


TSL: I read somewhere where Sharmeen once said, and I’m paraphrasing, that she wanted to make films that make people angry. Once you had a firm understanding of the landscape you were dealing with, what made you the angriest while working on the film?

Sharmeen: I think what made us most angry was that there was no one advocating for the players in the system. Here are these young men making millions and billions of dollars for corporate entities, for institutions, for coaches, for everyone else. 

And what are they going home with? A piece of paper that doesn’t even guarantee them a job, with no social nets provided to them by a system that has chewed them up and spit them out. There’s no one there to help them with their injuries once their eligibility has expired, and with the overall shock of not making it.



They’ve been told since the age of 12 that they were going to make it, that they were going to be the next big thing.

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This is about unpaid labor, and more than that about a system that is set up in such a way that these players don’t get much out of it.

Trish: And John Shoop, the former college football coach, said it in the film when he said, “I began to hate it.”

You look at him as the coach that you want every player to have because he cares. You look at his frustration, and here’s a sport that he loves, and he couldn’t deal with how badly the players were being treated. He couldn’t work in a system like that and feel good about it. The fact that he came out and said that, how much it ripped him up, that’s crazy!

TSL: I loved how you approached this work not from a sports perspective but as a civil and human rights issue. How would you respond to someone who regurgitates the NCAA’s argument that the players are fairly compensated for their athletic endeavors with a scholarship and a shot at a college degree, and that in no way, shape or form should they be paid?



Sharmeen: It’s true that they’re given a chance at getting a degree. But that’s different from getting a real college education. Are they getting a real college education is the true question.

The system is heavily stacked against these players, many of whom come from very poor inner city environments, where their previous educational experiences did not properly prepare them for college. They’re recruited not for academics, but for sports.

They can’t get internships or jobs like normal students because the NCAA doesn’t allow it, they’re told to take easy classes that have been pre-decided for them and they’re steered towards majoring in less vigorous subjects. The majority of coaches don’t care, because they’re incentivized to make sure that the athletes remain eligible. So they’re not really there to get a true education. That’s a fallacy.

If you look at the players in our film, they actually graduated from great institutions. Shamar graduated from Rutgers! And what does he end up doing? Sleeping in his car and working three jobs while barely being able to make ends meet. That’s not right.   

***



The HBO Sports documentary “Student Athlete”, illuminating the complex rules of amateur athletics in America and showing how they affect uncompensated athletes and their families, will debut on Tuesday, October 2nd.

Unpaid college athletes generate billions of dollars for their institutions every year. “Student Athlete” unveils the exploitative world of high-revenue college sports through the stories of four young men at different stages of their athletic careers, as well as a coach-turned-advocate and a whistle-blowing shoe rep who exposes the money trail.

From high-school recruiting to post-graduation, the usefulness of athletes is tied to their ability to produce revenue. Once they can no longer do that, their participation in sport ends often abruptly with virtually nothing to show for their contributions.


An audited financial disclosure from the NCAA in March 2018 revealed the association had close to $1.1 billion in revenue during 2017.

Ali

Alejandro “Ali” Danois is the Editor-in-Chief of The Shadow League. His features “Humble Beginnings”, and “Rocky Flop” were mentioned in the Best American Sports Writing Anthology as among the country’s most notable stories of 2014 and 2015 respectively.

Ali is the author of the critically acclaimed book, The Boys of Dunbar, A Story of Love, Hope and Basketball, and he served as a Producer on the ESPN Films 30-for-30 documentary “Baltimore Boys”.

Follow him on twitter @alidanois