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HBO Addresses the Exploitation of University Players with 'Student Athlete'
October 2, 2018  | By David Hinckley  | 1 comment

Several decades ago, University of Michigan basketball player Chris Webber recalled walking down the street wondering if he had enough money to buy a sandwich just as he passed a sporting goods store selling Chris Webber jerseys.

The money from those jerseys, which were a hot ticket, would go to the manufacturer, the store, the wholesaler and the University of Michigan – everyone but Chris Webber.

That concise anecdote may still make a more powerful case for rethinking the college sports financial structure than the 90 minutes of Student Athlete, a new documentary that premieres Tuesday at 10 p.m. ET on HBO.

Student Athlete, from the production company of LeBron James (left), does make the same point as Webber or at least raise the same pointed questions. It does this primarily by following the collegiate sports experience of four ballplayers from major schools.

In all four cases, the athlete takes most of the risks and receives almost none of the rewards despite being the one irreplaceable element in a machine that generates billions of dollars a year for colleges and their umbrella sports organization, the NCAA.

We follow one of the featured subjects here, New York high school basketball star Nick Richards, as he decides to attend the University of Kentucky.

Since Richards hopes to play professionally, Kentucky is hard to resist. UK coach John Calipari has built his program on the premise, which some call cynical, that his top players will be “students” for the one year the NCAA requires, then sail off to the pros. He sells UK not as a “student athlete” experience, but a launching pad.   

That makes one of the statistics in Student Athlete particularly interesting. If colleges paid athletes the same percentage of their sports revenue that the NBA pays to professional basketball players, Nick Richards (right) would have earned $1.4 million his freshman year.

As it is, he officially earned no compensation beyond a scholarship.

Quickly and correctly, Student Athlete points out that the lure of a professional career is a mirage for most college athletes. In 2016-17, NCAA teams fielded 91,775 players. The professional football and basketball leagues drafted 303.

Those are not good odds, which is one reason the NCAA and colleges have long played the “student” card: Players are compensated for their skills and contribution by leaving with a valuable degree that will give them a strong shot at other careers.

The problem there, several athletes note, is that most college athletes, at least at the top schools, have probably spent most of their lives and most of their college years focusing on their sport. When college ends, they’re not queued up for anything else. Two of the four featured athletes here, without pro sports as an option, become janitors and security guards.

Those are perfectly respectable jobs. They just don’t maximize the nominal value of a college diploma.

Student Athlete makes some of its points more bluntly, though they often feel almost like incidental observations rather than punchlines.

It notes, for instance, the assertion by former NCAA director Walter Byers that the ruling parties in college sports today have a “neo-plantation mentality.”

It also tucks in the suggestion that for many athletes – solid athletes who just aren’t quite elite enough for the pros – their time in college might be the peak of their sports earning years.

The issue of paying college athletes is a minefield of tricky nuances, of course, from determining pay scales to officially declaring your football team is a bunch of hired employees, same as the cafeteria staff.

Student Athlete doesn’t get much into that thicket. Rather, it takes the athlete’s perspective. You throw yourself into this part of your life with only a minimal chance it will propel you to a next part. You risk injury every day. Your school sells your name and face for big money, and the industry that you propel makes billions for someone else.

It fleshes out Chris Webber’s argument without, really, going much beyond it.

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George Ashur
Scholarship athletes are indeed paid -- in-kind, in the form of free room, board, and tuition. For any parent who has written a check to a top-tier university, we know that this is a value equivalent to nearly a quarter of a million dollars these days (for those "student-athletes" who stick around for all four years).
Oct 2, 2018   |  Reply
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