by Duane Watson / @byDuaneWatson
Despite what Tar Heel and Blue Devil fans would have you believe, the greatest rivalry in college basketball doesn’t reside in North Carolina. It doesn’t live in the Bluegrass State, among Louisville and Kentucky loyalists. It actually doesn’t take place on a court at all, but in a courtroom, between the NCAA and its student-athletes, over compensation for the considerable revenue they generate for their respective institutions.
EPIX’ Schooled: The Price of College Sports could have easily been subtitled The documentary the NCAA doesn’t want you to see. The 84-minute film delivers an investigative analysis on the moneymaking machine that is the NCAA—particularly on its two bread-winning sports, basketball and football.
The film culls compelling footage, statistics, case studies and interviews with current and former coaches, academic advisors, and university administrators to raise a number of important questions. Fortunately, those questions are answered by the likes of NFL running back Arian Foster, ESPN analyst Jay Bilas, SLAM columnist Dave Zirin, sneaker impresario Sonny Vaccaro and former Wooden Award winner Ed O’Bannon, among others.
Perhaps the most important voice is that of civil rights advocate and Pulitzer Prize winning author Taylor Branch, who wrote The Shame of College Sports for The Atlantic, an article which built the framework for the documentary. Branch assessed that the problem with college sports isn’t with money or education, but rather with fundamental rights.
Schooled is rich in historical content, recounting the NCAA’s early beginnings with Walter Byers who served as Executive Director from 1951 to 1988. It was Byers who coined the term “student-athlete,” in order for schools to reap the financial benefits from athletes without having any obligation to them. His promotion of the ideal of amateurism is central to why the NCAA alone pulls in $800 million a year, while a student earning a penny more than their scholarship is subject to disciplinary action.
It is O’Bannon who takes the profiteering ways of the NCAA to task, filing a federal antitrust lawsuit claiming that he and fellow student-athletes (which now includes Oscar Robertson and Bill Russell), are entitled to a share in the millions of revenue the NCAA reaps from using their name and likeness in video games and other products. Furthermore, the claim states current and former players should share in the billions generated from broadcast rights in television deals.
If Schooled is the pre-game show, the main event starts when the judge rules, as college basketball fans will bear witness to an intense match up that won’t change how the game is played, but more importantly, how it is paid.
SLAM spoke with Schooled producers Branch and NFL Players Association president, Domonique Foxworth.
SLAM: Did attending Maryland on a football scholarship open your eyes to the student-athlete experience?
Domonique Foxworth: You’re a naïve kid and you’re excited to be there and you’ve made it to this next plateau of your journey to professional sports. So the first year you’re like, “This is awesome!” Then you see what’s going on around you and you start to realize that you’re not getting the education you were promised. Your options for degrees are decided to some degree by the fact that you’re an athlete, and you just don’t have the time to commit to being a business major or a computer science major. It’s kind of physically impossible to make that happen seeing as how much time you miss, and how much time you spend working out, so that opportunity is false. You also see the things around campus and the contracts for athletic directors and coaches and you can see the money going around and all the advertisements and corporate sponsors. You don’t have on a Nike jersey because they want to do some charity; they give you a Nike jersey because they recognize you have some value. You start to put all the pieces together in your time there and the next thing you know…you’re out!
SLAM: And “Cs get degrees.” Correct?
DF: Absolutely. I think it’s not overt, everyone there is, “You have to do well in school.” But all the actual incentives for anyone all align with you performing much better on the field than off the field. It doesn’t take much to be eligible—if you think about the way the system is structured. If you win a bunch of basketball games you’re the king of campus, the school does well, the boosters give more, alumni contributes more, everything good happens if you win basketball or football games. If you lose those games, but everyone on your team is on the honor roll, nobody gives a ****. The incentive is there for the president of the school, the athletic director, the head coach, for all the players, all the incentives lie with performing on the field. That in itself doesn’t offend me, the pretending that anyone actually cares about these kids getting an education offends me more than anything.
SLAM: What did you think about Arian Foster’s candor during his interview for the film?
DF: I loved it, he’s a friend of mine and invited him to be a part of it and I think what he did was incredibly brave. I think it’s good for the truth to be out there. I think he’s the star of the film, honestly. He doesn’t have a specific role, but he stole the show by being honest, this is an actual situation.
Everyone thinks that you go to college, play football then you go to the NFL and make a trillion dollars. Less than 1 percent of people go to the NFL and less than 1 percent of that make what I call, “retire money.” So the rest of the people have kind of a truncated opportunity at education while they’re there. They get less of an education than a normal student, they have multiple surgeries, they’re kicked out without health care and a degree in an area that they weren’t necessarily interested in. But it was the only area feasible for them to obtain a degree while they’re at the university. So it’s not this great opportunity some think it is.
SLAM: What inspired “The Shame of College Sports” story in The Atlantic?
Taylor Branch: I’m a magazine writer at heart and I wanted a short-term magazine assignment. I ran through a whole bunch of potential topics with James Bennett the editor of The Atlantic and he asked if I had any other ideas aside from hardcore politics. I told him as a near-college football player and sometime fan ever since, I’d always wondered why the NCAA was in perpetual scandal and never seemed to get out of it. He said, “That’s what you should write about, because it would surprise your readers and our readers who are not that big on sports.” I said, “Well I don’t realty know a whole lot about it.” And he said, “That’s also the point, you can write about it from the fan point of fresh discovery; the history of college sports and do a broad survey.” So that’s what I agreed to do. It was off the beaten path for me in two senses, both that it was a magazine article instead of a long book and it was on sports rather than on straightforward political history.
SLAM: What was it like to work through the story, research and uncover the truth about college sports?
TB: It was really hard, in part because I was a romantic like everybody else about a special innocence about college sports. Kind of ivy colored halls and college players playing for the pure love of the game. All Americans to some degree are in a conflict, because on the one hand we think that money changed everything and is corrupting it. On the other hand, we don’t want to be amateurish in the sense of not really being good at something, so that being professional is a measure of excellence, that is also a measure of money. Because we’re so confused by that, and I admit I was too, I kept thinking, Why can’t the NCAA get it right? So it was hard for me to work through the whole thing because I think there are so many layers of assumption around the notion of what’s dirty about college sports. Most Americans, including myself when I started, started form the premise is that what’s dirty about college sports is that any money leaks to the players. That if it leaks to the players, they’re dirty and should be banished or punished and that the measure of a clean program is a program where no money leaks to the players.
SLAM: That’s ironic in a sense, ’cause it’s almost an inverse if you look at it.
TB: Absolutely. It took me a long time to work though to the place that this is not that different from the most troublesome issues in politics. In that, you’ve really got to get down to the basics of what people’s rights are, and clear out the romance if that’s blocking your vision of what’s going on. But most fans don’t want to think about the rights of the players either, they just want them to play and they want their sports. It never registers to them that the whole system is predicated on them having no voice. The people on the outside should have a voice, but the people on the inside who are the primary attraction of the whole thing should just shut up and play and be good students.
The way people deny it and this does remind me of civil rights. I hate to say it, if you study the civil rights era and Martin Luther King, which I did for most of my career, very few people even then, and let alone now, dealt with him head on. No one said, “You’re wrong and that segregation is right and here are the principles on which segregation is right and you’re wrong.” Most people said, “Well segregation may be a problem but you’re going about it in the wrong way.” They wanted to find some way to sidestep the basic core issues. The same thing is true about college sports, people will do anything to tune out the basic questions and focus on something else like, “Why aren’t the students just concentrating on an education?” Or, “I care about education much more, and treating them as athletes was right and the commerce of sport will detract from them as a student.” In sports just as they did in civil rights, want to sidestep the basic issue of rights. I think if there’s any one thing I learned and it wasn’t easy for me either, on basic questions like this, you have to start with the issues of rights and work out everything else as a consequence.
SLAM: How big do you feel the Ed O’Bannon case ruling will affect the NCAA as a whole?
TB: I think that it would be a big ruling as a precedent for two reasons. Number one, people would start to realize that every time the NCAA has been sued on basic questions of rights, like its rights to monopolize all of the football revenue back in the Regents case, or the rights to regulate the salaries that the coaches get, that it loses. So it would start to be a pattern that the NCAA doesn’t have any legal basis for all the power they wield over anybody in college sports. There is no state law that says the NCAA can take away rights and revenues from people by collusion. So I think as a precedent it would be a big deal, it would be a lot of money. But that would go on for a long time, they would be fighting for what the money would be and whether the NCAA could survive any judgment like this for a long time. I think the more immediate thing would be the wake up call that people would start to say they’ve lost every case that tests their real authority and maybe they don’t have any?
SLAM: What were your thoughts on the athletes who were interviewed in the film?
TB: One of my early books was with Bill Russell of the Celtics in the ’70s; I was a ghostwriter for one of his books, (Second Wind). He’s kind of a philosopher about sports, but he said, “In the elite levels of professional sports, you don’t have any dumb athletes. You’ve got to be smart, not necessarily educated, but you got to be smart.” And I think the participation by Arian Foster and some of the other athletes shows how true that is.
Schooled: The Price of College Sports is now playing on EPIX. See the trailer below.