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Documentary Seeks to Expose Flaws of Amateurism

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About halfway through the new HBO Sports documentary "Student Athlete," Kentucky basketball player Nick Richards, a high school senior at the time, shows up at Dean Playground in Brooklyn for a Nike-sponsored youth league game.

Richards, who had just participated in an Under Armour all-star event, tells St. Patrick's High School coach Chris Chavannes there's a problem: He has no Nike shoes to play in.

"You're wearing an Under Armour shirt on camera," Chavannes whispers to Richards. "Are you kidding me?"

St. Patrick's, you see, wears Nike. More specifically, because of state high school association and NCAA rules, Chavannes has a contract with Nike so that's what his players are supposed to wear.

The documentary, which was co-produced by LeBron James and Maverick Carter's SpringHill Entertainment and will premiere Tuesday night, depicts numerous scenes over its 88 minutes that illustrate the hypocrisy at the heart of the NCAA's model.

But airing at the one-year anniversary of the FBI's investigation into college basketball and with the landmark Alston v. NCAA case challenging athlete compensation limits wrapping up last week, no image explains why college sports needs to be unwound from amateurism more than a high school coach getting paid by a shoe company chastising his star player over which corporate logo he was wearing on a free T-shirt.

"I think the conversation is what would be fair?" said Trish Dalton, one of the film's co-directors. "Because currently it's not fair."

Even those who are intimately familiar with the contradictions and compromises at the heart of college sports will find their eyes opened by "Student Athlete," which is predictable in some ways but also tells the story of amateurism in a way that is often forgotten about.

While it's not news that college football and basketball players serve as an unpaid labor force propping up a billion-dollar industry, the argument over how much they should get distracts from the fallout that so many athletes experience once they leave -- even if they did everything right.

When college sports proponents argue that the model exists to provide life-changing opportunities for those who might otherwise not end up in higher education, there is also a segment of former athletes who end up adrift in the real world, even if they earned degrees, because they weren't well-prepared for anything beyond professional sports.

"We don't prepare players for Plan B," co-director and Academy Award winner Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy said. "We don't give them any life skills beyond the dreams we've sold them."

Richards, who is beginning his sophomore season at Kentucky, is one of five stories the filmmakers followed over a period of two years. Their goal was to present a full spectrum of experiences from the recruiting process with Richards, to former Baylor football player Silas Nacita's fight for eligibility after violating NCAA rules, to what happens after graduation when there is no more safety net and no prospect of playing sports for a living.

The filmmakers also tell the story of John Shoop, the former North Carolina and Purdue offensive coordinator who was essentially blackballed from college coaching after he spoke out against the NCAA and began to be an advocate for the rights of student-athletes.

But the most poignant moments of the film revolve around former Rutgers football player Shamar Graves and Bradley basketball player Mike Shaw, who are struggling with their post-college lives in various ways.

The documentary shows Graves, a tight end who was a significant contributor for Rutgers in 2008 and 2009, bouncing from one part-time job to another over the course of a day that begins before dawn and ends late at night with him sleeping in his Toyota Corolla. Meanwhile, even as he approaches 30, he still harbors a dream of catching on with an arena league team and even spends a significant amount of money to participate in an open tryout with the Philadelphia Soul.

The film also spends a lot of time tracking Shaw, a former four-star recruit from the south side of Chicago who signed with Illinois, then transferred to Bradley and ultimately had to quit the game because of debilitating back injuries. Although Shaw leaves Bradley with a degree, he struggles when he returns home to find a job he likes and ultimately finds himself struggling with both his mental and physical health, telling a chiropractor he has to delay treatment for his back because he doesn't have health insurance.

Combined with Nacita, who is forced to leave Baylor and goes as far as Germany in order to further his football career, the film reminds us that there are thousands of college athletes we watch and cheer for every Saturday who end up barely better off than if they had gone to school in the first place. They simply aren't adequately prepared by college programs for the vast odds stacked against them in professional sports.

"So many don't know when to let go of that dream," Obaid-Chinoy said. "It's a grieving process. If all your life you think you're going to be the biggest rock star and then you're not, human beings have all these pressures on them and there are no services provided to them (for dealing with it).

"Mike Shaw thought he was going to be the next big thing and then he got injured and now he's in and out of mental health institutions because he can't deal with reality and no one ever taught him how to deal with reality.

"To be honest, no one has bothered to stop for a minute and open their eyes to something else because it doesn't benefit the system to tell people about Plan B."

If there's one criticism of the filmmakers, it's that Obaid-Chinoy and Dalton ignored how many good outcomes come from college sports, both in the NFL and NBA or in the professional world. The NCAA and its defenders will surely seize on that in pushing back on the film.

But it's easy to tell those stories. It's much harder to cut through the propaganda and show in painstaking detail, as "Student Athlete" does, how badly the system can fail.

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October 1, 2018
 
 
 

 

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