During a window of time between football practice and class, Jonathon Franklin fires up his copy of EA Sports’ NCAA Football and begins a game with his UCLA Bruins. Franklin, UCLA’s all-time leading rusher, zooms in on the player starting in the Bruins’ virtual backfield. He’s wearing number 23 like the real Franklin, is built a lot like the real Franklin, and thanks to quite a few advances in modern technology, he looks as much like Franklin as a video game avatar possibly could.
Franklin isn’t the only one: go from team to team, from player to player, and they all look like their real-life counterparts too. And even though EA Sports will sell millions of these games at better than $50 a pop, players like Franklin won’t see a dime.
“They never asked us,” Franklin says. “They just put us in here.”
That’s part of the story told in Schooled: The Price of College Sports, an Epix original documentary that doesn’t so much present new evidence or arguments in favor of granting rights and compensation to college athletes as much as it collects a steady stream of body blows against all arguments for doing so in one place. And Schooled, based on historian Taylor Branch’s groundbreaking treatise against the NCAA — “The Shame Of College Sports,” published in The Atlantic in 2011 — isn’t aimed as much at convincing the power players who think the status quo is OK as much as it is at college sports fans who need to know that their favorite games have an ugly underbelly, and that players like Franklin aren’t suiting up each Saturday solely for the love of the game.
Schooled, which will debut Wednesday at 8 p.m. on Epix TV (and livestream for free here), made headlines this fall when early trailers showed former University of Tennessee running back Arian Foster, now with the Houston Texans, admitting that he took cash on the side while playing for the Volunteers, but Foster’s admission may be the most benign part of the 80-minute film, if only because the idea of a star running back receiving cash from boosters or coaches isn’t exactly shocking news anymore. Instead, Schooled is strong because it takes arguments in favor of amateurism — the central tenet of the college athletics system — and swats them away one-by-one.
The most central of those claims, of course, is that athletes receive a free education, a point Schooled refutes not only with the oft-repeated statistic that scholarships fail to cover the cost of attendance but with a detailed account of the lack of education many of the athletes receive. The goal of many big-time programs isn’t education but eligibility. “Your challenge is to get them eligible,” Dominique Foxworth, who played football at Maryland and for seven years in the NFL and now heads the NFL Players Association, says. “It’s not about educating them.” That may lead to higher-than-average graduation rates for athletes, but it doesn’t mean they’re leaving school with an education that rivals those received by many “regular” students, especially not when they fit class in between long days of practice, workouts, and games. “The contract is false,” University of North Carolina academic adviser Mary Willingham says. “When they leave school, they may have a degree, but they don’t have an education.”
Neither, the film asserts, is the NCAA particularly interested in the education side of the student-athlete equation. Schooled chronicles the academic scandal that rocked the University of North Carolina in 2012, when it was revealed that the school’s African Afro-American Studies department was providing “paper classes,” essentially sham courses that often benefited athletes by providing them easy grades. The NCAA, however, did not investigate UNC because the program didn’t specifically target athletes as its beneficiaries. “If the NCAA doesn’t want to look at this, you could argue they just sent a message to everyone across the country,” Dan Kane, a reporter from the Raleigh News & Observer, says in the film.
But Schooled’s central argument isn’t that athletes need a better education or that college sports needs to be more focused on education. That, in a sense, would be putting the genie back in the bottle when it comes to the billion-dollar industry that is college sports. Instead, the system needs to acknowledge that the players, especially in men’s college basketball and football, should have rights and a voice in a system that makes a tremendous amount of money off of their abilities. That wouldn’t just protect athletes’ rights to compensation, it would also help athletes like Devon Ramsay, the UNC fullback who was ruled ineligible by the NCAA for receiving minor assistance from an academic tutor — an edit in a paper that was so insignificant the university’s academic board saw no problem with it. Ramsay, by all accounts a good student focused on his education as much as football, had no due process in front of the NCAA and little recourse once it made its decision. Giving athletes a “seat at the table,” as Branch calls it, would allow for remedies to all of the problems facing the NCAA and college athletics as a whole, since the most important voice in college sports would no longer go unheard.
Will Schooled matter? Not among the hard-line defenders of the NCAA status quo, the shrinking crowd that believes amateurism is still an idea worth upholding, it won’t. But at a time when players are taking up the fight too, suing the NCAA for how it has handled concussions and for locking them out of the current compensation structure and wearing wristbands on the field to protest the organization’s actions, Schooled is another reminder for fans of college sports that the games they love have an ugly cost associated with them. Fans may love to think that college sports are pure because the players do it for the love of the game. Watch Schooled, and fans will learn that players play “for the love of the game” because that’s the only option they’ve been given.