New Documentary Film Explores Inequities in College Sports

Washington — Of all the perceived injustices described in the new documentary film Schooled: The Price of College Sports—and there are many—those involving the academic shortcomings of major-college athletics programs will probably not get the most attention.

But as I watched a screening of the film here on Wednesday night, the scenes featuring former academic advisers for athletes and students caught up in the supposed scholastic charade were among the most powerful.

The film, which makes its debut next week on Epix, a premium-movie channel, explores the rapidly growing commercial success of big-time college football and basketball, and the sharp disparities between the people who have capitalized on that success (the coaches, athletic directors, and administrators) and those who haven’t (the players).

“In the shameful world of college sports,” say ads for the film, which flashed on flat-screen TVs near the viewing room, “it’s the athletes who are getting played.”

Some in attendance disagreed with that premise. Paul Hewitt, the men’s basketball coach at George Mason University, who was sitting in the front row during a panel discussion that followed the movie, argued that players receive the benefit of a free education and any effort to pay them would sharply reduce the number of scholarship athletes. That would force out many students from poor socioeconomic backgrounds who have no other ticket to higher education.

He argued with Taylor Branch, a panelist and author whose book The Cartel formed the basis for the movie.

“I think it’s really important to hear both sides of this story,” Mr. Hewitt said.

His comments stood in contrast to the film’s moving descriptions of players’ financial struggles to make it through college, even with the help of a full scholarship. One former player, Arian Foster, who played football at the University of Tennessee and is now in the NFL, admits that he took payments on the side during college because he didn’t have enough money to eat. Meanwhile, his coach was driving to practice in a new Lexus.

The film’s central message is that players deserve more due-process protections, better representation, and a cut of the NCAA’s vast revenue.

But some of the movie’s most disturbing moments come when Mary Willingham, a former learning specialist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, describes certain football and basketball players she worked with during her seven years in the athletic department.

“There were so many students who needed help,” she says, “I just felt like I was drowning.” She recalls three students in particular, with whom she “had to go back and work on letters and sounds.”

The movie explores the much-publicized academic scandal at North Carolina, detailing how athletes stayed eligible by enrolling in “paper” classes for which they did little work and almost always received high grades.

Although various investigations found no wrongdoing by the athletic department or administration at North Carolina, and the NCAA did not issue sanctions—in part because athletes were not the only ones taking the easy courses—Ms. Willingham says that her colleagues “all knew” the secret.

“And I am really sad about that,” she says. “Because it’s the adults that are failing the students.”

Ms. Willingham moved out of the athletic department in 2010 and now works as an academic adviser for seniors and an adjunct instructor in the School of Education.

Among many colleagues, she has become a pariah. But she sees the film as a first step toward reforming the system.

“My goal is to make sure athletes are not leaving with 151 hours and no meaningful degree,” she told me during an interview Wednesday night. “My goal is to keep chipping away at the contract we’ve promised players. If we decide to admit them so unprepared, we ought to be prepared to remediate them.”

She is pushing for colleges to offer “PE/coaching-type degrees” so athletes can return to their hometowns and coach high-school sports and do literacy training.

“They’re wonderful people, and a lot have great leadership skills,” she said. “We have this great opportunity to break the cycle of poverty in so many ways, and we just blow it.”

“Pay for play?” she added. “That’s fine. I think people who work should get paid. But what about the education? Because the money can disappear. But no one’s ever going to be able to take away their education.”

(Full disclosure: I was interviewed for the film but did not appear in the final cut and have no financial stake in it.)

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