Interview: Documentary Filmmakers Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy And Trish Dalton On Their HBO Doc ‘Student Athlete’
To be a fan of college sports means one has knowledge of an athlete’s journey from school to the pros. It’s obvious that not every player will achieve the dream that they’ve worked on for years, but the culture of the NCAA means that there’s more to not achieving your dreams, it could mean not having a clear future. In HBO’s excellent new documentary Student Athlete, directors Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy and Trish Dalton wanted to take a look at the system as a whole, and more importantly, how it has impacted the lives of student athletes who are trying to reach their dream or have it slip away.
Premise: Unpaid college athletes generate billions of dollars for their institutions every year. Student Athlete unveils the exploitative world of high-revenue college sports through the stories of four young men at different stages of their athletic careers, as well as a coach-turned-advocate and a whistle-blowing shoe rep who exposes the money trail. The documentary spotlights: former NCAA and NFL coach John Shoop; New Jersey high school basketball phenom Nick Richards, now at the University of Kentucky; Mike Shaw, who played basketball at the University of Illinois and Bradley University; Shamar Graves, a former wide receiver at Rutgers University; and Silas Nacita, a walk-on who played football at Baylor University.
Social Underground had the honor to speak to 2-time Academy Award winning director Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy and Award-winning director Trish Dalton on their new film Student Athlete.
Social Underground: How did this project come about?
Sharmeen: I was at a conference showing my work. I’ve worked mainly on human rights abuses and women’s rights and about marginalized communities and about, you know, issues that people don’t want to have conversations about, and Steve Stoute was in the audience and he saw some of my work and heard me speak and then came up to me later and said that I have your next project: Make a film about college sports in America.
I almost lost it that time and I was like “What am I going to do about college sports in America?” I began to explore the issue, and what I brought to the field was my experience of storytelling and my experience of talking about human rights abuses and so you know Steve got Maverick Carter and LeBron James onboard, and I brought Trish Dalton — who is also a human rights filmmaker who I’ve been wanting to work with for a long time — and together we thought that we would make a film that would humanize college sports beyond March Madness, beyond the jerseys and show people how heavily the system is stacked against players.
SU: Since you didn’t really have that much of background in college sports, how difficult was it to jump into such a huge business starting from scratch to learn all the different sports associated with the NCAA?
Trish: Yeah, that’s a good question. I feel like it was a huge job because of all of the levels, and when we went in it helped that we are working with Steve and Maverick because they knew a lot about it and Maverick brought his personal experience himself having been a college athlete and having worked for a shoe company and to let us know what the situation was and then we also we just reached out to a lot of insiders: Former players who have spoken out, former shoe reps that have spoken out.
We talked to lawyers who were defending athletes’ rights and we then ask them to — it really felt like what was missing from the narrative and obviously this has been in the news quite a bit in the last five years or so with the O’Bannon case. It’s been getting news coverage, and we felt like what was missing was the human story, the personal stories of the players to understand, which obviously if you’ve seen the film, that’s the angle that we decided to take, but it was over probably two months into filming we realized that we had about a 10-part series.
If you look at the abused, if you look at money, if you look at coaching, if you look at corruption, if you look at injuries, if you look at each one, they’re a 2-hour film. We were kind of making it when HBO came on towards the end and helped us get it to the finish line, so we decided to just make it one feature-length documentary. We have 400 hours of footage.
Wow. That’s an incredible amount of footage to sort through.
Trish: We filmed for over two years and so we were like “What’s the nugget that’s missing from this narrative?” We felt like the personal stories of the players were what was missing so that’s where you saw the film, and that’s where we decided of those personal stories that doing a lifespan of the player, which would start from high school and end five years post, so rather than film for eight years we thought we just film for two years we just film four players and also help inform the audience so this isn’t one person’s story, it’s not even just the four people’s story, that this is a universal, like this is a majority of the top players struggle with these issues and with the same struggle.
So that’s where we thought each one kind of represents different parts of the struggle whether it’s rules or mental or physical problems, or pressure from family, pressure from coaches, pressure from brands, and then just how do you find work in transition out of school? And we found all of our players kind of represent different stages of that.
Knowing how powerful the NCAA is, was there any push back during production?
Trish: Yes. We tried filming on a few different campuses that didn’t want us filming on campus, but then there were other campuses that were open to it. We filmed at Taylor and at Bradley, but there was push back by a lot of colleges that didn’t which is part of why I decided to just focus on their lives. It doesn’t have to just be in the locker room because that was definitely protected.
When production ended, how was it separating yourself from the subjects in the film? One athlete was sleeping in his car while you were filming it. How does that work?
Trish: That’s a really good question. We’re still really close with them, Sharmeen and I, and I’d like to say this is the first film where I’ve had characters in my film who’re in need. Sharmeen and I have filmed and shared stories that we feel like need light shines on the where people are in fairly desperate need, and that is certainly the case for a couple of the people that we found, and it got progressively worse while we were filming and you are close to their family, and I hope that when you watch the film, you know, this is a more universal story.
We’re definitely connected with them, and we’re friends with these guys. I mean, we fell in love with them and part of the filmmaking process and being so close to people and then letting them into your lives, to me, I think you would be kind of crazy not to care or fall in love with them.
Our hope and point is to hopefully allow and let the audience even have some of that feeling for the people because they’re so — we found them so loveable. If you know people can connect with them and on any level like what we did we feel like that will help people want to help and want to help them create some kind of system that this doesn’t happen.
Trish: We’re still in close touch with the players, and one thing that we’ve even talked about on a specific note is like running some kind of a fundraiser. If there’s a family member running a fundraising campaign, then we would put that on our website so that if you watch the film and you want to help one of our characters to find work or just give him some money, you know, some of these guys are homeless and in a pretty bad situation, so I think in terms of specifically helping our players, we love to encourage that.
I think also knowing that are so many guys going through this if there could be part of like a bigger fund or changing the system so that there is a fund to prevent what’s going on happening to more players in the future. That’s our hope.
When it comes to someone like Silas, he had to go all the way to Germany to play. Do you find that a lot of the college players from football or basketball have to do that since their dream of going to the pros in America are gone, so they have to go to random leagues like the Canadian Football League? Not random, but not quite the dream and glory of making millions of dollars a year in the pros.
Trish: I feel like especially the top players, if they can make a living, the whole goal is to play professionally, and they’re being told that at the age of twelve. They tell them they’re the best, they’re going to do well, and then they do well.
Shamar said his jersey was worth like $1,500, and he was in video games, and he almost made it to the Chicago Bears before blowing his shoulder out in practice. It’s hard seeing if you’re so close and so I think that’s why he went on to play Arena League and has suffered injury after injury and it’s like not being able to, I think, transition out is very difficult if that’s been your whole focus of your life to then transition? So I think if anything, even if it’s like Silas earning 400 Euros a month, that’s at least not admitting to failure.
Sharmeen: Because the system is so heavily armed. The system as sold you this idea that you would make it, that you are a star from the age of twelve, so you’ve never been taught to think about plan B. You don’t even know what plan B of your life is ever going to be. All you know is basketball or football, and that’s a dream that you keep chasing and you never know when to give up on that dream, to extract yourself from that system, to find something else to do because you’re always thinking but I’ve always been told that I’m going to make it.
I find it interesting in the arguments about the NCAA. Many of my friends are huge college football fans, and they’ll argue that if a student athlete is injured or something, they’ll still have their college degree to fall back on. Many of them look at the plan A being the main focus, so they choose blow off classes of majors like in languages like Swahili. When they do get injured, the no longer have that plan B, so now they could return home poor again.
Sharmeen: But even with that scholarship, they get into the system. I mean, let’s be honest, these students have not been recruited for academics. They’ve been recruited for their sports and for their abilities to play a certain sport and they heavily really come from inner-city poor neighborhoods, predominantly African-American, that by the time to get into college , they’re not even up a level academically of the college that they’re attending.
What is the extra help that they’re getting to ensure that they meet the standard all start college academically? And when they are in the system, do they get to choose their classes? Do they get to choose that major? When do they have time to spend with their professors after class? They’re not even allowed to get internships, so when the NCAA or when fans say “Well, they get a college education” they do get a piece of paper, they do get a degree, but they do not get a college education.
Trish: On that note, when we were first researching we interviewed a lot of former players, lawyers, professors. There are some interviews on our website, and there’s a link to some of the interview clips that we just chose little bites from where they kind of nail it and when we wanted the film to let the player sort of speak for themselves, but wanted to kind of bring to light what a lot of these people are talking about which is kind of plantation theory – you start poor, you come back poor.
You follow Mike in our movie, and he’s the one that everybody thought made it. In his community, he comes back after graduation, and everyone thought, “You got out of the hood, that’s so great!” but his whole plan was to play, so he’s completely disoriented. What he knows is basketball and when we filmed with Mike in Chicago, he could walk down the street and he knew everybody. You walk down the street, didn’t matter what neighborhood we were in, and everybody knew that he was the big man, and to take that and then go get a job at Enterprise or some like you know otherwise not big job? It feels like admitting defeat.
The situation with Mike is something I’ve seen depicted in fictional sports films and TV all the time. You know, the high school and college hero had to come home and then has to figure out what to do with their lives?
Half the time they’re comedies when that isn’t ever the case in reality. In one segment, two guys are sitting on the couch, and his friend was telling him about how good the money is at Enterprise. No matter how good it is, it’s still not even close to what he wanted to do with his life.
Trish: Right, it’s like I didn’t put a decade of my life into this just to get a job at Enterprise. It just feels like… it’s hard to let go of the dream, and that’s what we wanted to show. I feel like it’s a little bit similar to veterans who kind of struggle with similar identities.
It’s the same thing if you’re in the NFL or the NBA — if you come out and play professional sports anywhere and you’re 30-years-old, you’re still going to have sort of an identity crisis and have to deal with that, but I think if you come out you’re like “Wait, I don’t have any money, and I have this degree that I wasn’t planning to need because I was planning to go pro.”
Trish: I think the big conversation is how come this dream is still being sold in all the advertising for it. This is the path to your future, you know. A lot of guys come out there thinking they did everything right, went to class, followed all the rules, played really hard, and thought this was the ticket. Then it’s not for the 90,000-91,000 that don’t.
Like if you’re groomed to be a rockstar, learn how to play guitar for years, then you severely injure your hand. You’re going to have to figure out a whole new life. That’s what it looks like for a majority of players that get injured figure out what they’re going to do when they came from almost nothing.
Sharmeen: There’s no social net for these players to fall back on, so how do they come to terms with the fact that they didn’t make it? What kind of special services are given to them to deal with the loss because it is a loss and they needed to leave because they didn’t they didn’t make it, and 91,000 players played basketball and football, and 303 made it. What are the services available to the thousands of those who didn’t make it?
It’s not even a needle in a haystack. You’re gambling with the lives of all of these players because you’re telling them that you would win the big lots but buy into it, buy into the system so you can win big. They’re not telling them what to do when they don’t win big.
Trish: It’s just predicated on the exploitation of these guys. It’s saying that they’re giving you this, but the reality is they’re just using these guys.
The fact that just in portions of the film where it’s showing some of the athletes getting measured and weighed and watched by old, white men made me really uncomfortable. It looked like they’re going to a market to purchase people to play their sport. Sorry if that’s an oversimplification.
Trish: No, I’m glad that you got that from it. I mean, in real-life when we were at those things, it was even more. I felt dirty sometimes filming because it felt like everybody was there to exploit these guys. They’re covered in brands. Everybody’s trying to make money on them, and they have zero rights to complain about the rules or to get money. It really makes you sick. As you see in our film, the coaches obviously see it and are speaking out about it.
They give over total ownership and whoever wants to make money on them can. There’s nobody protecting them.
Speaking of brands, I noticed at The Patrick School, where the high school team played badly, the coach mentioned Nike when yelling at the players. I felt that his mentioning of it lessened the amount that it appeared he cared about his players. Did you get that feeling when you observed anyone during this process?
Trish: Yeah, I felt like it was shocking that he said that.
I thought it was like earlier when I thought he was fighting for them, then it was a total 180 degree turn.
Trish: This is a business, and everybody knows it’s a business, but the players have no rights or say or access to the financial business side of it which is really messed up. That’s what we’re hoping is to sort of change that, you know, change the perspective because I think a lot of my friends are like, “Trish, you’re not gonna make one of those films that’s like “Oh, these poor guys. Am I supposed to feel bad for the head football player that gets to get all the girls and has everything free and has the great resources” and it’s like in exchange for them working very hard?
Shamar Graves, the athlete who played for Rutgers, wakes up at 4 am to work at Old Navy, then works as a teacher, then coaches, and then goes to work as a security guard when he isn’t training. At one point he said he was only pulling in $1,500 a month working all of those hours. I thought that he would be making more at least.
Trish: It’s really low.
It’s sad that coaching doesn’t pay nearly as much in high school as it does in college.
Trish: Coaching in high school… I think he made around $5,000 for the whole semester for over four months.
That’s not much money.
Trish: And then it’s just like how are you supposed to stay mentally stable when you’re that strapped for money and you’re just figuring it out. Having been a star, I think that’s part of it. It’s like a lot of them just can’t let go of it. It’s like, you have a degree, we can figure this out, and the truth is there are resources, and part of it is there’s players out there that go and become doctors and lawyers, and it’s not like it’s prohibitive that you can’t do it at all, it’s just hard and you need somebody that’s going to teach you to go back to school. You’re going to have to do this and this and this and don’t just focus on the sport because that’s not a guarantee. Focus on your school while you’re there.
That’s really hard to tell somebody that’s been told they have a shot at the NFL, and they realistically did! They were the top guys on their team. And so if you could gamble and get the million dollar ticket or potentially go after three more years of school and getting a solid job — you go for the former. Then once you’ve figured out that you can’t do that, there’s no more school available to you.
I’m hoping people can take that and then join the conversation of what is the solution to this. Can these guys get extra credit? Can there be payment of some form? There’s a lot of conversations going on and flying around in the media and we just wanted people when they read about this or watch their next game to think about and wonder if those players are like those in this film instead of the all-star glory that’s portrayed.
It’ll be hard not to think about how their life could end up if it’s worse than show on the field. Then you never hear about them again.
Trish: Right, it makes the injury a very different level of severity when you see it actually affecting somebody.
Student Athlete is streaming on HBO GO & HBO NOW and available on HBO On Demand.
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Jeff Sorensen is an author, writer and occasional comedian living in Detroit, Michigan. You can look for more of his work on The Huffington Post, UPROXX, BGR, ScreenRant, and by just looking up his name.