College sports come at an increasingly pricey cost -- in terms of money, education and morality -- but that's not stopping institutions from paying up, a new documentary argues.

October 11, 2013

WASHINGTON -- Fans flood into the Florida State University football stadium. Shouting, covered in body paint and glitter. An aerial camera glides over the 80,000 seats. As athletes storm the field, students wearing Seminoles garb raise their forearms up and down, chanting in unison. In the official stadium store, an employee shows off jerseys that go for $55 to $60.

“It’s not about money,” a voiceover says. “It’s about love of the game.”

But the opposite appears to be true in "Schooled: The Price of College Sports," a new documentary film that screened here Wednesday night. Based on the widely read Atlantic article The Shame of College Sports, by historian Taylor Branch, the film aims to push the increasingly apparent tensions and moral dilemmas permeating money, student welfare and academics in college sports even further into the public consciousness.

“We all have a share in the dishonesty,” Branch says in the film. “That’s what blinds us to the biggest issue.”

For Branch, that issue is the fact that athletes are asked to give up their rights – the right to worker’s compensation, the right to hold down a job, the right to due process – in exchange for a year or four in the national spotlight and a shot at going pro.

For Devon Ramsay, a former University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill football player who was booted from the team for a seemingly inconsequential change a tutor made to his paper, the issue is the National Collegiate Athletic Association bureaucrats who arbitrarily enforced rules and the university officials who didn't defend him.

For Arian Foster, a former star running back at the University of Tennessee who now plays in the National Football League, the issue is that colleges make billions -- $12 billion a year, to be precise, millions of which goes toward coaching salaries – off the backs of athletes who can’t even afford to go grocery shopping. (Foster made headlines recently for admitting he accepted cash on the side, a fact he literally shrugs off in the film.)

And for Mary Willingham, the UNC learning specialist who exposed the decades-long academic scandal there that had athletes getting As in no-show classes, the issue is that students are not getting the education they were promised.

“It’s the adults that are failing the students,” she says in the film, after recounting a sobering conversation with a top UNC athletic official. He acknowledged, she said, that investing millions to boost the historically mediocre-at-best football team to the elite level in the late-1990s would mean recruiting academically unprepared students. But that’s no deterrent to the big bucks and heightened national profile that stand to be gained from a $70 million stadium renovation and arms-race style investment in new football facilities – even at one of the nation’s best and most-respected public research institutions.

“I just felt like I was drowning,” Willingham says of the “drastic drop” in athletes’ academic preparation that followed. Some students who’d been recruited for their prowess on the field couldn’t even read. She recalled three in particular with whom she had to work on “letters and sounds.”

But within three years, UNC was ranked in the top 25.

Contrast that with the words of Kevin Anderson, athletics director at the University of Maryland at College Park, who defended the NCAA’s amateurism system, which prohibits athletes from being paid.

“How do you put a price tag on education?” Anderson says in the film. It’s an opportunity many athletes – at least, those in the revenue-generating sports of football and men’s basketball – would never receive otherwise. Take University of California at Los Angeles star running back Jonathan Franklin, who in the film recalls his “rough” and violence-ridden hometown where “nobody’s talking about going to college.”

“It was like winning the lotto,” Franklin says of his football scholarship.

“How do you put a price tag on that?” Anderson asks again.

Well, the average full scholarship comes in at $28,000 a year – but that’s still about $3,400 short of the full cost of attendance at the average Football Bowl Series institution. And as Franklin notes, even if he were allowed to hold down a second job, he wouldn’t have time: he’s got class from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., team meetings from 2 to 3:15, practice for another two hours after that, followed by tutoring from 7 to 9, then it’s time to do homework.

One athlete says he knows making that interception on Saturday is more important than getting As or Bs in classes. After all, he says, how can administrators and coaches expect him to show up to class alert right after he’s been run till he pukes at morning practice?

“If you don’t like the deal, then go do something else,” Harvey Perlman, chancellor of the University of Nebraska at Lincoln and one of the more outspoken college presidents when it comes to sports, says in the film.

Nearly 50 other Division I institutions declined interview requests for "Schooled." Former UNC Chancellor Holden Thorp, who resigned in the wake of the academic scandal and is now provost at Washington University in St. Louis, only stated that new policies and procedures will ensure nothing like that ever happens again on the campus.

In a panel discussion after the film, Willingham, the UNC learning specialist, half-joked that she was still employed but “it’s day to day.” While she’s moved out of the athletic department, the (arguably positive) repercussions of her decision to leak the no-show classes story to the News & Observer of Raleigh are still being felt on the campus.

The NCAA declined to investigate UNC because athletes were not the sole beneficiaries of the classes. And a university investigation placed the blame not on faculty or athletics officials but on the head of the African and Afro-American studies department. (However, it was later revealed that Julius Nyang’oro set up the classes at the behest of athletic academic support staff and was offered gifts such as football tickets.)

“If the NCAA doesn’t want to look at this,” News & Observer reporter Dan Kane says, “you could argue they just sent a message to everyone across the country.”

The film covers a lot in 90 minutes, and the conflicts it explores will be familiar to anyone who works on a college campus (at least, a Division I campus). It also touches on the physical dangers of football and explores the NCAA's use of amateurism and the term "student-athlete," which in court has allowed it to withhold workers' compensation and medical payments for injuries.

But one person in the audience – George Mason University men’s basketball coach Paul Hewitt – argued after the screening that there’s “more sides to the story.”

“Shows like this lead to a reduction in opportunities,” Hewitt said, pointing to all the scholarships provided both in football and basketball and in the non-revenue sports they support. “This show should be about the American education system, not the athletic system.”

Hewitt observed an oft-cited point by the NCAA: that athletes graduate at higher rates than non-athletes.

“We don’t want to graduate them,” panelist and Sacred Heart University athletic director Bobby Valentine countered, “we want to educate them.”

"Schooled: The Price of College Sports" premieres Wednesday at 8 p.m. on the Epix Channel and will also be available online with a free two-week trial.


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