Sitting on Drexel’s West Philadelphia campus, it is easy to see that athletics do not play along the narrative of being the lifeblood of a modern-day college campus. Drexel has not fielded a football team since 1973, and the basketball teams play in a deteriorating mid-major conference. It can be difficult to understand the role that college athletics play outside our comfortable bubble, but you do not need to use a microscope nor do much digging to realize its breadth.
“Schooled: The Price of College Sports” is based on the work of renowned civil rights historian Taylor Branch in his e-book “The Cartel: Inside the Rise and Imminent Fall of the NCAA” and his influential long-form article “The Shame of College Sports” that appeared in The Atlantic in the fall of 2011. Legendary Sports Illustrated writer Frank Deford called the latter “the most important article ever written on college sports.”
“Schooled” premiered Oct. 8 at the Paley Center for Media in New York City. Among those in attendance were Andrew Muscato, the producer of the film; Domonique Foxworth, the president of the NFL Players Association, who is quoted in the film; Devon Ramsay, former University of North Carolina football player whose story was told extensively in the film; and the aforementioned Branch. The four appeared on a panel following the film, which was moderated by Time magazine sportswriter Sean Gregory.
College athletics are a multibillion-dollar industry. This industry has been — and continues to be — built on the backs of unpaid athletes. When you uncover your eyes, that grim reality is easily recognized. The premise of “Schooled” is that although the college athletic industry continues to grow, the athletes continue to reap none of the rewards.
Unpaid is the shortcut way of explaining it all, though. Under the guise of amateurism, these athletes are modern-day indentured servants, as NFL running back Arian Foster explained. Indentured servants are forced to work under the terms of a contract for a specific period of time, usually with the promise of training, not cash. Sound familiar?
These athletes do not have a seat at the negotiating table. They have to deal with financial shortfalls on their scholarships, scholarships that are not guaranteed year-by-year, and are forced to pay their way through the exorbitant costs of the medical industry in the event of injury. They have no right to prosper from their endeavors. They have fewer rights than the very same students they attend school with and fewer judicial rights with the NCAA than a mass murderer has with the federal courts.
Sports Illustrated writer Mike Rosenberg brings up a classic example. If a math student comes up with a groundbreaking formula and has the opportunity to profit from it, then he can do so with much applause from his university. College athletes, however, are not allowed to benefit a penny beyond their scholarship.
Foxworth, the NFLPA president and former NFL player, displayed the stark reality of the relationship that student-athletes have with academics. “Cs get degrees,” he said, was the motto for him and his college teammates. As long as an athlete upholds a C average to remain eligible and makes a big play on game day, the fans are happy. If a student earns straight As and does not come up with a big play, then the fans are far from pleased.
Perhaps the most powerful and enduring image of the film is of Kent Waldrep. Waldrep played for Texas Christian University in the mid-1970s. In a game against The University of Alabama in 1974, Waldrep’s career came to a tragic end. Late in the second quarter, Waldrep broke his neck rushing toward the sidelines. Waldrep emotionally walks the audience through how the play changed his life and left him a quadriplegic. A court ruled that both the NCAA and TCU were not required to pay worker’s compensation because Waldrep was not considered an employee of the university, merely a student participating in an extracurricular activity.
All too often, when people speak of the injustices against college athletes, the words lack humanity. Oftentimes we hear about the money-grubbing, morally corrupt suits at the NCAA’s headquarters in Indianapolis taking advantage of college athletes, and it all sounds unreal. “Schooled” made the issue feel real again, arguing not as much for payment of athletes as it does for the basic civil rights of athletes. This is where Branch’s influence shines through.
A scene early in the film showed an athletic director walk up to Branch after an event and say that schools “can’t let the animals run the zoo,” referring to affording athletes further rights and compensation. During the panel discussion after the film, Foxworth invokes the rights and compensation of the NFL players that he oversees and said, “The game doesn’t change just because the athletes are younger.”
It makes you think whether the men in charge of the money in college athletics are just blind or perhaps the animals that are already running the zoo.
“Schooled: The Price of College Sports” airs Oct. 16 at 8 p.m. on Epix.