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‘Student Athlete,’ the latest doc from LeBron James, examines the exploitation of college athletes

HBO film tells the story of four athletes in football and basketball

A new documentary about the exploitation of college athletes is right on time.

The arrival of college football season has brought with it a fresh crop of horror stories. There’s the HBO Real Sports examination of the significance of strength and conditioning coaches and player deaths that could have been easily prevented. Then there’s the callousness of what happened after Tennessee State linebacker Christian Abercrombie suffered a life-threatening head injury while playing. The school asked well-wishers to shut down two GoFundMe accounts for Abercrombie’s medical expenses out of fear of violating NCAA rules that could make Abercrombie ineligible. (The school set up its own NCAA-approved crowdfunding account.)

Tuesday night, Student Athlete, the latest offering from LeBron James’ SpringHill Entertainment production company, premieres on HBO. Directed by Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy and Trish Dalton, Student Athlete takes a big-picture look at the NCAA and the ways Division I football and basketball have become a boon to everyone except the players who fuel its success and ratings.

“The coaches are making millions of dollars and they’re coaching players whose parents live below the poverty line,” former NFL and college football coach John Shoop says in the film. “If you’re a reasonable person, it’s insane to build a $150 million recruiting facility, pay your head coach $10 million, the rest of your staff $20 million cumulative, but then say there’s not enough money to help the players.”

Shoop was fired from Purdue University and has yet to find a new job after becoming an outspoken advocate for player rights. Before he went to Purdue, he was an assistant coach at the University of North Carolina during the years the university was perpetuating academic fraud to keep its players eligible.

Student Athlete makes its case by profiling four athletes in various stages of their careers, all with their eyes on playing professional sports.

One of them is Nick Richards, a high school senior and one of the most sought-after college basketball recruits in the country. Richards lives in Queens, New York, but leaves home every morning at 5:30 to get to high school at The Patrick School in New Jersey. He is a heavily pursued asset, both as a basketball star and a potential billboard. Before he ever arrived at college (he now plays for Kentucky), Richards had brands clamoring to outfit him, knowing that their gear on his body and his social media accounts would amount to loads of free advertising.

“If you’re a reasonable person, it’s insane to build a $150 million recruiting facility, pay your head coach $10 million, the rest of your staff $20 million cumulative, but then say there’s not enough money to help the players.”

But many of the potential outcomes that await Richards aren’t great, as Obaid-Chinoy and Dalton illustrate with profiles of three other athletes. God forbid you suffer a career-ending injury while in school, as did Mike Shaw, a basketball player at Bradley University.

Richards likely will avoid the Catch-22 that ensnared Silas Nacita, who walked onto the football team at Baylor and became a certified star. But because he wasn’t a scholarship player, Nacita had zero financial assistance from the school’s athletic department. When a family friend offered to provide housing and food for Nacita because he couldn’t afford it himself, Nacita was booted from the team for violating the rules of his eligibility. What’s worse, the NFL requires three years of college football for a player to be eligible for the draft. Nacita had two, and the NCAA banned him from playing a third.

The last athlete profiled, Shamar Graves, is a Rutgers graduate who lived out of his car while working multiple jobs as he tried to recover from an injury so that he could try out for NFL teams again.

Silas Nacita in a scene from Student Athlete.

HBO

The lives of Shaw, Nacita and Graves were not magically made better because they played college ball. And once they arrived on campus, they were disabused of the idea that they were there for academics. Obtaining a degree was secondary to their obligations to their athletic programs, even if it left them with few options at the end of their eligibility. In 1994, Walter Byers, the first executive director of the NCAA, attributed such abuses to the “neo-plantation mentality that exists on the campuses of our country and in the conference offices and in the NCAA.”

“The rewards belong to the overseers and the supervisors,” Byers said.

Student Athlete reveals that of the 91,775 men who played NCAA basketball or football in the 2016-17 academic year, 303 were drafted by the NFL or NBA. Plenty of those remaining have stories like Shaw, Nacita and Graves.

James famously did not attend college. With Student Athlete, he makes a compelling case that college, for many athletes, especially those in the popular sports that draw millions of viewers and billions of dollars in revenue, is a revolving door that cares little for the health or education of the proletariat class that’s fueling it. Or, as Shoop says of today’s student-athletes, “They’re propelling a billion-dollar industry and getting [a] sweatsuit for it.”

Soraya Nadia McDonald is the culture critic for The Undefeated. She writes about pop culture, fashion, the arts, and literature. She's based in Brooklyn.