The new HBO Sports documentary Student Athlete follows the lives of four young men at different stages in their athletic careers who share the same dream: to go pro after college. But as the film makes viewers painfully aware, the likelihood of achieving that goal is slim.
The trailer for Student Athlete trots out a grim statistic. In the 2016-2017 academic year, 91,775 men played NCAA football and basketball. Only 303 were drafted by the NFL or NBA in 2017. The documentary explores what happens to the other 91,472—and how the system takes advantage of these young people, then abandons them.
To drive home how badly the odds are stacked against them, executive producer LeBron James and producers Maverick Carter and Steve Stoute were unsparing with their film. Lavishly decked out sports facilities and coaches’ million dollar salaries are splashed across the screen, while the unpaid student athletes who power the billion dollar college athletics industry recount the obstacles they face, like poverty and hunger. The fact that all the students depicted in the documentary are Black and Latinx adds a sobering reminder of the labor performed by people of color for the financial and political gain of largely white organizations and coaches.
Student Athlete tries somewhat successfully to lay out why college players get a particularly bad deal financially, academically, and physically in the face of such an uncertain future. The men are surrounded by extreme wealth and a dizzyingly aggressive marketing and apparel industry—which is often portrayed as a good thing in fan-favorite movies like Love and Basketball. But Student Athlete feels like a cautionary tale, following in the footsteps of films like Spike Lee’s He Got Game, where everyone wanted a piece of the nation’s top basketball recruit but for all the wrong reasons.
One issue highlighted in the film is how NCAA rules restrict and punish student-athletes for making deals or seeking assistance that help them stay afloat financially. Silas Nacita, who joined the Baylor football team as a walk-on with no scholarship, was receiving a monthly stipend from a concerned adult who knew he was struggling to afford school. But then Nacita was deemed ineligible to play NCAA football (and therefore unlikely to ever play in the NFL) due to a rule barring players from accepting money from outside sources. The NCAA also bars players from monetizing their personal brand by selling apparel or signatures.
The documentary complicates the narrative around what it means for a student-athlete to be successful, when going pro can mean pressure to drop out of college, take “fake” courses to boost the team’s GPA, and cultivate a picture perfect personal brand (that can be psychologically damaging to uphold).
High school basketball star Nick Richards, now at the University of Kentucky, seems like the most likely student in the film to get recruited by the NBA. He seems genuinely uncomfortable with media attention lavished on him and the frenzy of brand marketers asking him to promote their products. But he feels like he has to play their game to have any hope of going pro.
With the hyper-masculine stereotyping of athletes and concocted moral universe of sportsmanship, it’s sometimes easy to forget that athletics are inherently emotional. Players experience the same rollercoaster of adrenaline and heartbreak that fans do, but amplified tenfold because their own future is on the line.
The athletes in the film let camera crews witness real moments of desperation. In the most heartbreaking scene in the documentary, Shamar Graves, a former NCAA football player, describes paying more than $300 to get to Philadelphia to try out for a non-NFL professional league but says he hasn’t eaten in three days. Making the team would earn him $800-$1,000 a month.
Emotions run high throughout the documentary, as the men recount their victories and disappointments. In one scene, Nacita sobs in a bathroom stall after an injury threatens his chance to impress talent scouts. Later, he cries tears of joy onto the shoulder pad of a teammate after a touchdown. Throughout the film, they push the importance of mental health care and the necessity of rehabilitating athletes’ sense of self-worth after a loss.
The documentary doesn’t really offer a satisfying explanation for why student-athletes, if their dreams of going pro don’t work out, are less prepared to land well-paying jobs after graduation. The film just points out that they have less time to take challenging courses and tend to come from more impoverished backgrounds. Student Athlete would be stronger if it included an interview with an NCAA representative. But the abject contrast between winners and losers in this business still comes across crystal clear.
Student Athlete is committed to taking players’ perspectives seriously, which became really interesting when the men in the film began comparing their experience to slavery. This theme starts off as a loose comparison, when the film points out the disturbing optics of the business: the NCAA is comprised of mostly white men making millions off the free physical labor of mostly low income people of color. At one point, Graves jokes about recruiters sizing up players like buyers at a slave auction—an idea he expands on later in a rap song he records at a friend’s house.
The documentary doesn’t seem to take a stance until the end of the film, when it plays audio of Walter Byers, the first NCAA executive director, who coined the term “student-athlete” in 1964 but later dropped a bombshell book outing the organization’s shady practices: “It doesn’t take any great genius to understand that what was real in 1956 can hardly be remembered in the gross commercial climate of intercollegiate athletics today. And I attribute that 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.” In describing the frightening direction the league was going, he framed its slavery parallel in no uncertain terms.
With that one damning quote, the film argues that the exploitative NCAA system has closer ties to slavery than the casual observer might think. It also asserts that the men depicted in the film deserve to be taken seriously, especially in a society that labels them unintellectual both during and after school. As Byers’s statement proves, the injustice they perceived turned out to be true.
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