LeBron James bypassed college and headed directly to the NBA, where he has earned millions. That makes him an intriguing vehicle to produce “Student Athlete,” a stinging rebuke of collegiate athletics and the organizing NCAA, amid his rapid expansion off the court as a producer and performer.
The feature-length HBO documentary, which premieres Oct. 2, uses a variety of athletes and coaches to methodically build its case — beginning with the assertion that the phrase “student athlete” is, as basketball-player-turned-analyst Jalen Rose proclaims, “an oxymoron.”
At its core, “Student Athlete” is about the inherent unfairness of the existing system, one that pays Alabama football coach Nick Saban $11 million a year, rewards UCLA with a $280-million sponsorship agreement with sports marketer Under Armour and pays participating schools billions for the rights to the NCAA basketball tournament, all while failing to compensate the players.
While the customary response is that those players receive a free ride to college, many are ill equipped to meet the academic demands they face, and only a fraction of the thousands that play at that level will be drafted into the NFL or NBA.
Directed by Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy and Trish Dalton, “Student Athlete” tells its story through the individual accounts of various athletes, from Nick Richards, a high-school student with blue-chip abilities fielding interest from basketball powers to an older player, Mike Shaw, who sustained an injury that abruptly ended his career. Another subject, Silas Nacita, needs to exercise an NCAA loophole in order to play in a game that will give him an opportunity to continue to pursue pro football, eventually signing on with a team in Europe, while still clinging to his slim NFL aspirations.