The Lebron James-executive produced documentary “Student Athlete” held its New York City premiere last night and I was fortunate to have received an invite. ("Student Athlete," will make its broadcast debut on HBO Sports on October 2nd).
The film was directed by Academy Award winner Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy and Trish Dalton and profiles the personal stories of two college football players and two college basketball players on their journeys. It also weaves in the story of one former NFL and college football coach who had his fall from grace during the University of North Carolina academic fraud scandal and has become an outspoken advocate for student-athlete rights and a sports sociologist who has worked with pro and college players on their transaction to their post-playing careers.
The film was dubbed as an examination of the complex system of rules governing amateur athletics in America through the NCAA and the exploitation of student-athletes that it protects. It tells the story from the perspective of:
As a sports law professor and former NFL agent who has a intimate knowledge of the sports industry through various lenses, I think it is very clear that the documentary was made to advance a point of view, not to be balanced or journalistic. However, the stories show these athletes when they are most vulnerable and willing to open up – not something we are used to seeing. The stories they tell are a mix of sympathetic situations and ones that make you wonder who is to blame for their outcomes?
For example, Nick Richards commuted for two hours from Brooklyn, New York to Elizabeth, New Jersey – taking two trains and a bus – every day to play for the nationally ranked Patrick School. Did he really have to do that? Did he not have other school options closer or was it that basketball took precedence over school and it was more important for him to play on a nationally-ranked team than enjoy a somewhat more normal high school lifestyle? He struggles with the decision to go to Kentucky or Arizona to play basketball, but not once in the clips does he mention anything about academics – his mind is solely on pursuing the NBA dream. Is it the system or his willingness to pursue fame and fortune?
I found the story of Mike Shaw, the Bradley basketball star who struggled with depression and mental illness despite graduating with a degree, to be very compelling. He was lost mentally and emotionally as his passion – basketball – was taken away from him against his will because of injury. He does not complain about it, You can feel sympathy for him as he struggles and see the real need for some level of mentorship, which was seemingly lacking in his post-basketball life. He struggled with the financial strain of medical bills back home without health insurance. He was not able to get his career footing. You feel for him in the film. He does not appear to begrudge the system, but he is truly a case of the former player who is just lost when the bright lights on his career were turned off and he did not know where to turn – something that affects thousands of former high-level athletes.
For Shamar Graves, he was a highly touted recruit for Rutgers, but someone who struggled to make his mark as a college player. Upon finishing up his career, he tried out for several NFL and indoor football teams to try to keep the dream alive. Along the way, he worked four different jobs to make ends meet while pursuing his dream of playing professional football. He almost shuns the advice of sports sociologist Robert Turner to use his degree to get one better paying job that would improve his situation and allow him to still pursue his dreams. He ultimately finds joy in playing for a low level team making less than $150 a game, but the ability to continue playing brings him fulfillment.
Silas Nacita’s story is a sad one. He was a feel-good story as a walk on at Baylor, but when a friend’s grandparents found out he was homeless and “coach surfing” on campus just to have a place to live, they took him in. That triggered an NCAA investigation due to the rigid “extra benefits” rules and made him ineligible ton continue playing at Baylor. He became trapped in the same rules vortex that former Maurice Clarrett fought and lost in challenging the NFL rule of having to be three years out of high school to be eligible for the NFL draft. He too, bounced around the underside of the pro football world looking for an opportunity before going to play for $400 a month in Germany. In the scene when they arrive at a game in Nuremberg, the players are almost baffled by the primitive nature of the stadium – far from the hundred million-dollar facilities of college football. I could not help but think “welcome to how the ‘other half’ lives” as the stadium was more akin to many Division III school facilities where players never experience the thrill of playing in front of 50,000 fans per weekend.
At one point, the story line shifts to how over 50% of college football and basketball players are black but only 3% of undergraduates are in a racial injustice pitch. I thought that this was really unnecessary to the film as it marginalized the argument the rest of the film was making through its story lines. I think many people can personalize with the individuals portrayed and the racial overtones detracted from the overall message. While the situations that many black players come from - and possibly go back to - might be much different than their white counterparts and are true, it seemed to be added for more shock value more than substantiation in the film.
Robert Turner, the sports sociologist in the film, provides some valuable insight into the minds of athletes and you get an opportunity to see his counseling in action as well. His “cut out” scenes provide some valuable advice that I think many players need to understand. He is an expert in this field and his grasp as a former player himself does shine through in the film. I think former student-athletes need to find more people like him in the athletics “after-life.” I can personalize with much of what he says as I had many of the same conversations with former player-clients.
While the film portrays the hard luck stories of four former players who struggled in their pursuit of athletic dreams and a coach who lost his opportunities by vocally criticizing the system, the film does not really delve very far into the system itself. It makes some overtures into how the NCAA makes millions – maybe even billions – of dollars and invests that into palaces of competition with swanky locker rooms, and amenities, but it does not question the players who pursue those shiny gems instead of what it really important in selecting a college as a normal student would. Coach Shoop cites a great line in the film in saying most players would ditch the glitz in favor of a check and it is probably where the NCAA itself needs to go.
So, the film does a good job of pushing a point of view. It uses several hard luck stories to show the sad reality that many players face – not everyone goes to the pros. The film stops short of proposing any solutions other than making the statement that athletes should get paid. But, it doesn’t really discuss what that means or how much. Many of the statistics used are sensationalized. For all the greed and incongruence of money in college sports, the film does not really look into where the money does go or how the system actually can benefit the athletes.
So, viewers of the film will largely walk away with a more passionate position on whichever side of the debate they already were. If you were a player-advocate, you will feel even stronger about how the system failed these four players. If you are on the side that does not favor paying college athletes, I think viewers will find the personal stories compelling, but the sensationalism in the film will reinforce your own position as it is easy to see what is was almost as much about personal choices that failed the athletes as the system itself. The film is definitely worth watching for sure, though, as it does provide a dose of reality on the situations real student-athletes – those often away from the limelight - do face. The film tries too hard to make a point and in doing so, it limits its effectiveness. As such, it misses an opportunity to provide a truly compelling narrative into the real issues here.
Using the usual Fanteractive rating scale, I would rate this film as a “B+” overall.
Andrew Bondarowicz, Esq. is a former professional football player agent and now teaches Sports Law at Rutgers Law School in Newark, NJ and in the graduate level Rutgers Global Sports Business program on the New Brunswick campus. He is a frequent panelist on various sports law and business related topics. He continues to maintain a legal and consulting practice focusing on sports and regulatory related issues.