Approximately one-third of the way through Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy and Trish Dalton’s HBO documentary Student Athlete, former Baylor walk-on Silas Nacita injures his foot while participating in a scouting combine for the Dream Bowl, an all-star game for non-division one college football players. A physician checks out his appendage and tells him that the tendon has pulled off a little piece of the bone in his foot — he can decided to keep playing, but it might make the injury worse. Silas is shown rushing to a restroom, where he vomits behind a closed stall door.
This scene is an apt metaphor for the experience of watching Student Athlete: the horrors and harms of the NCAA system are so starkly laid bare that it seems impossible for the humane viewer to feel less than utterly nauseated. And yet, perhaps due to the hegemony of “compensation” as a frame for grappling with injustice in college sports, the US sports media widely panned the film. Sporting News wrote, “The truth about ‘Student Athlete’ is it lacks a coherent story,” elsewhere adding: “If it’s about exploited college athletes, why are we introduced to players before and after their college careers?” The Chicago Tribune piled on, writing that the film is “trying to make a point but all over the place” because the “exploitation argument is weak” since “major college sports has a layer of scumminess that obscures all the good stuff.” These reviews are right about one thing: the project of Student Athlete is not simply to reveal the economic exploitation of NCAA sport. It’s far more ambitious than that.
The beauty of Student Athlete is in the breadth of its understanding of “exploitation.” Rather than simply rehearse the endless compensation debate (Should we pay college athletes? How much? What about non-revenue sports?), the film takes a far more holistic perspective on harm and benefit. Former USMNT player and Berkeley scholar Derek Van Rheenen has defined exploitation from a moral perspective as “when one party receives unfair and undeserved benefits from its transactions or relationships with others.” In other words, it is an ethical concept denoting unfairness in conditions of labor. This is the frame through which we must examine Student Athlete to adequately take stock of its critique of the NCAA (and beyond).
Given the ubiquity of its place in the current debate, it’s worth touching for a moment on the question of remuneration. Indeed, the insidious genius of the NCAA’s conflation between student and athlete is that it tricks the eye into thinking that when it comes to the business of college sport, there is no there there. That is, if college athletics are framed as part of the academic experience, they must not be work proper, but rather the work of learning how to work. As such, it surely should not be remunerated. (You wouldn’t compensate an internship, after all, amirite?)
And yet, this is a billion dollar industry. Indeed, economist David Berri has suggested that based on the NBA compensation model, the average payout for a player at an elite high major 2014-2015 college basketball team would be $1.4 million, while those on a low major team would still be entitled to $82,971.
Nevertheless, like Student Athlete, I would argue that compensation alone is a limited vantage point from which to view the accumulated harms proliferating throughout NCAA sport. While athletes should be compensated for their work — they should, in other words, receive a portion of the benefit (revenue) they produce — it is even more imperative that they are protected from harm in the course of their labor. In my book Game Misconduct, I argued that physical and emotional harm are structural features of professional sport. Quite frankly, compared to the NCAA, that reads like amateur hour.
Student Athlete offers a range of perspectives on the NCAA experience: a prospective basketball player; a recently disqualified football player; and even a former college coach. Each individual’s narrative details elements of the dehumanization rife in the world of college sport.
The most seemingly-privileged athlete featured in the film is future Kentucky-commit Nick Richards. Richards is a McDonald’s All-American, apparently bound for riches and stardom. Yet, as the film traces his path to the NCAA, it reveals the complicity of college basketball in larger systems of exploitation. Disconcertingly echoing the classic story of William Gates and Arthur Agee in Hoop Dreams, Richards’ tale begins with his two-hour two-trains-and-a-bus daily commute from Queens, New York to the St. Patrick School in Elizabeth, New Jersey. While Richards receives a scholarship to the private school, the subsidy does not account for the sacrifice of time and energy for access to a pathway to the NCAA.
Richards’ narrative also reveals the dehumanizing conditions under which young prospects must labor — free of charge — in order to potentially access their dream of professional employment, a path that is routed, by rule rather than choice, directly through the NCAA revenue machine. Although he prefers different shoe brands, Richards is compelled to wear Nikes because his coach has signed a contract with the company. Yet, precisely because of NCAA rules, it is the coach, not Richards, who makes money from the deal. And as the film demonstrates, the prospect of payment for the coach in turn motivates him to demand performance from his players in a manner verging on abusive. As the first half of a disappointing game ends, he can be heard berating them: “You guys are fucking assholes. You know, I’m fucking pissed. That’s our fucking ranking, you assholes. Christ.” Why the reference to ranking, you might wonder? If the team doesn’t finish in the top fifteen in the country, Nike has told the coach it might end his contract.
Once athletes like Richards arrive in college, they are ostensibly compensated with “free” university education. Or so the NCAA would have it. The reality is that academics is always subordinated to athletics. John Shoop, former offensive coordinator at the University of North Carolina and Purdue University, describes how players are steered through their educational experience:
I think players are being asked to make an either-or decision. Either you’re going to be a big-time football player or you’re going to be a big-time student. I benefited financially from players taking easy courses and then making high GPAs. I didn’t even realize it was in my contract. Then I realized, here’s a bonus for your players having the highest GPA. Really? Okay. Now, when that bonus gets up into the megas, you have zero interest in those guys taking meaningful, challenging class.
If a coveted education is the proposed reward for the labor of college sport, the reality is a cheap facsimile. As former Stanford cornerback Richard Sherman puts it in the film, “You’re not on scholarship for school. And, it sounds crazy when a student-athlete says that, but those are the things that coaches tell them every day.” For nonwhite players, the problem is compounded by the treatment (read: profiling) they receive from white faculty who implicitly assume they don’t belong. Former college football star Michael Bennett puts it this way in his book Things That Make White People Uncomfortable: “As a Black football player I wasn’t necessarily made to feel welcome in the academic world.”
The other putative benefit for college athletes is the post-career launch they are meant to receive via alumni networking and the skills and education acquired during their degree. Sadly, the reality is often so much different. A half decade out of his degree, former Rutgers football player Shamar Graves is seen sleeping in his car even as he endures an incomprehensibly demanding — yet despicably compensated — work schedule. His days often require him to work five different jobs. Five. They include working as a sales associate at Old Navy, a middle school coach, and a bouncer at a club. While there is nobility in all these forms of work, the trouble is compensation. In the film, it reads as an extension of the thankless labor of the college experience itself.
The deepest injustice, perhaps, is the chasm between the above post-career realities and the promises that lured these young men into college in the first place. Former Illinois and Bradley basketball player Mike Shaw puts puts it this way: “So many kids get it sugar-coated of what it’s really gonna be, ‘cause everybody is telling them they’re going to be the best player in the world right now. You’re the best… You’re gonna be a professional player, you can do this, you can do that.” The pain of this false promise is palpable. Even as he leaves Bradley, his basketball career over due to injury, Shaw believes that there must be a pay-off for his travails: “College is over with. Just like that. I’m ready for whatever’s next. I feel like a scene out of a movie or something, you know, driving to the big city, going back home. I know it won’t be easy, whatever it is, but it’s definitely going to be a reward, you know, it’s gonna be something big, I just feel it.”
Instead, just a year later, the young man has spent time in a psychiatric institution and explicitly links that outcome to the emotional trauma of his broken dreams:
I was going through so much that a lot of people didn’t know about, because it’s like I always kind of tried to deal with things on my own… Before my injury, I thought I would be playing professionally right now somewhere. I thought I would be getting paid to play basketball. I never would have expected to be here.
Richards’ narrative casts in relief how the trauma being lived by Shaw is an extension of a process that began long before college. At the beginning of his journey, even before the NCAA has fully entered the equation, Richards is already subjected to a panoptical degree of surveillance. After a high-profile televised AAU game, his aunt tells him: “The scouts are saying the same thing, the coaches are saying the same thing: we felt like you kinda blanked out during the game. You have to be on all the time, it’s like a celebrity. Beyoncé can’t have a half-assed show, ever.” Then, Richards reflects on the impact of that scrutiny: “Everything that you do gets criticized. If you have a bad game, people will start talking about you. I worry about failing every day. I don’t want that feeling to ever happen, so that’s basically why I come to the gym every day and work.” What is striking here is how he is compared to Beyoncé with one key distinction unremarked upon: he will not be compensated for his efforts. Moreover, the film implicitly cautions that if he does not fulfill his lucrative career aspirations, his prospects are grim.
With the false lures of “priceless pedagogical experience” and “future prosperity,” we continue — quite literally — to sacrifice young people like former University of Maryland player Jordan McNair to the insatiable appetites of college football. Given the 91% likelihood of CTE that counts as the price of admission, sacrifice is a nearly universal feature of an internship in NCAA football. Graves characterizes it this way:
It’s crazy. I’ve seen D-1A full-ride scholarship guys take loans, and then, instead of just fully being preparing for the NFL or their career after college, they’re worried about getting their body right. Number one for an athlete, getting your body right. As a 22-, 23-year-old young adult, you’re like, “Alright, how do I check my brain, all the concussions I had? How do I check my ligaments in my shoulders? All the stuff that they pushed me through the system, made me take cortisone shots for — I gotta make sure I come up with health insurance to take care of that.
If the prospect of a professional career is akin to winning the lottery, the probability of long-term, debilitating physical harm borders on the inevitable for football players. This is true for basketball players as well, despite the widespread perception that it is a comparably benign game. For Shaw, the accumulated damage he was subjected to while playing college basketball made it impossible for him to hoop ever again. After graduation, he recounts to a physician (who appears horrified at his recollections) what he had to endure: “I had partially torn my patellar tendon before the season. (I didn’t have it repaired.) It was in an immobilizer. It actually got to the point where I was playing hurt all season. And then it got worse and worse. It got to the point where I couldn’t straighten my back out.” This is the level of bodily harm accumulated to remain on a mid-major NCAA basketball team. The pain is so extreme he can neither work nor coach without considerably aggravating it.
Given the deleterious consequences of NCAA labor chronicled throughout the film, it is small wonder that comparisons to the plantation are introduced several times. Indeed, Billy Hawkins referred to college sport as The New Plantation in his book of that name. Shaw’s grandfather powerfully makes this point after hearing one of his family members tell his grandson that “it’s a blessing to get a free degree.” He responds: “It really wasn’t free, though, because people don’t realize the restrictions on an athlete nowadays. The other students go home for holidays and shit. You’re like a slave under the coach. I mean, actually that’s slavery.” Indeed, embedded in this important structural critique is a particularly under-acknowledged element of the college football system: teams that “succeed” by making bowl games must actually spend their time engaging in unpaid overtime work (practice) while other students head home for a month of vacation. Yet, too often we hear this reality reported instead as excess reward when these players take home a little swag after bowl week from a sponsoring brand. Crucially, Graves reminds us that this is a fundamentally racialized process. When his high school friend calls the system “new slavery,” Graves responds: “By the time you get to pro day, bro, you stand there, and they just be like, they be talking like, ‘he be sizing up, look at those legs.’” What he indexes here is the fetishization of the Black athlete’s body. While the labor being exploited by the NCAA is disproportionately Black, it works on behalf of white institutions and audiences to reproduce their identities and class positions.
Above all, Student Athlete makes a vital intervention by demanding we open up the question of exploitation to a more holistic appraisal of harm and the experience of the campus athletic worker. This is not to say that compensation should not remain a necessary facet of the conversation. At one point in the film, as he is clearing out his dorm at Bradley for the last time, Shaw surveys the collection of shoes he has accumulated during his career and defends the collection, telling us that the presence of 15-plus pairs of sneakers sprawling out across the floor (just a fragment of his overall collection) does not imply that he is a hoarder. The film itself lingers over the shoes, inviting us, perhaps, to look askance at the young man and his motivations. But I see something different here: a career’s worth of meagre compensation, tumbled out on the floor. Who could blame him for wanting to hold onto that?
Likewise, Graves, the man with the most distance from the NCAA experience and its indoctrination machine, shows us that this economic exploitation is part of a long-con:
It’s crazy, because you send young kids on a roller coaster. You recruit them and you bring them in. As soon as they sign, you switch up and you’re here for a job. Okay, cool, that’s fine, that’s fine, I’d do that. But then you don’t pay me. Really? If it’s a business, if it’s a job, you should pay him. Don’t come in here and tell me that this is a brotherhood, this is a fraternity. It’s not. This is a business.
As with so much business in the land of ostensible opportunity that is America, the reward for labor in the NCAA is not adequate compensation. It is, rather, the sacrifice of body, mind, and emotional well-being.