Houston Texans running back Arian Foster’s playing career at the University of Tennessee got him an NFL tryout, which in turn led to a contract that pays him nearly $9 million a year to carry the football. Interviewed for the Epix cable channel’s documentary Schooled: The Price Of College Sports, he doesn’t sound terribly grateful. “I looked up the definition of an indentured servant and it’s exactly what a student athlete is,” Foster bitterly declares. “You get food, you get accommodations and you get training. But you don’t get paid. That’s exactly what it is.”
That, in a nutshell, is Schooled: colorful, provocative, extraordinarily watchable ... and full of contentions that are highly debatable. But however much you may disagree with it, Schooled is well worth seeing, not just by sports fans but anybody concerned about the increasingly complex, expensive and sometimes seamy role of sports in higher education.
That’s not to suggest that Schooled is some kind of egghead rant about how we’ve got money for a football coach but not the lexicological study of neo-Aramaic morphemes. Virtually everybody involved in Schooled, from the producers and directors to the interview subjects, is a huge fan of college sports, at least the part of it that takes place on the field.
It’s the financial side of college sports that’s under scrutiny in Schooled. Simply put, the documentary’s question is this: Why is an industry that generates billions of dollars not paying the athletes who do most of its heavy lifting? Schooled comes down on the side of former UCLA kicker Jeff Locke, who argues, “We didn’t really get our fair share of what we helped bring in when we were in school.”
There are a lot of facets to that argument, and Schooled explores many of them. Much of what it reports will be new to anybody but sports historians. Athletic scholarships were mostly unknown until the 1950s. So was the term “student-athlete,” coined by an NCAA official as a ploy against increasingly common workers’ compensation claims filed by injured college athletes.
The most horrifying moments in Schooled come in its attempts to assess the value of the education that is a college athlete’s only compensation. A former tutor at Iowa State recalls how one of his first clients was an athlete who literally could not write his own name and planned to major in engineering because “he thought that was running choo-choo trains.”
Another tutor, from the University of North Carolina, says some of the athletes under her academic supervision had to be taught letters of the alphabet and their sounds. The university responded to the illiteracy of its players by placing scores of them in “independent studies” classes that never met.
The segment on academics displays both Schooled’s formidable reporting strengths and its manifest analytical weakness. The grotesque fact that some schools are recruiting some athletes who never should have graduated from grade school hardly proves that a college scholarship — worth more than $60,000 a year at schools like Vanderbilt and Stanford even before adding in the potential benefits they may pay later in life — is a joke. As sportscaster Bob Costas said during the show, “many families scrape and save a lifetime for their children” to go to college. (Or the kids take out loans. Fact unmentioned in Schooled: The average college student these day is already $28,000 in debt on the day he graduates.) If some jocks aren’t taking advantage of a free education, that’s their problem, not the schools’.
There’s a similar defect in Foster’s glib comparison of his four years at Tennessee with indentured servitude. The contracts of indentured servants lasted for years, could be bought and sold without their permission, and could not be broken. Foster, on the other hand, could have walked away from his football scholarship at Tennessee anytime he wanted to without being jailed or even having to pay back its cost. Like the rest of the pseudo-labor-militant football and basketball stars given a forum in Schooled, Foster ultimately concluded that life as a college athlete was a lot cushier than any available alternative.
If Schooled covers a lot of ground, there’s much more that it doesn’t touch. There are 450,000 students who participate in NCAA athletics, most of them playing sports that bring in little or no money. If U.S. law is changed to make them employees who must be paid, where will the money come from?
Football is by far the biggest college-sports moneymaker, but even so, only about 80 programs turn a profit, much of which is swallowed up by nonrevenue sports (including all the women’s teams mandated by federal law). Just two dozen of the nation’s college athletic departments are in the black. There’s no question that we’re caught up in what Schooled calls a “college sports arms race” fueled by giant new stadiums, sumptuous training facilities and fat coaching salaries. But paying salaries to half a million athletes sounds less like disarmament than Dr. Strangelove’s doomsday device, a quick ticket to financial Armageddon.