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.
Everything about the film speaks to an environment that breeds corruption, interviewing an anonymous shoe-company executive about how the NCAA’s arcane guidelines — and the restrictions imposed on players — invite corner-cutting and cheating.
There’s no escaping the messenger here, which reinforces the message. James would have reaped rewards whether he attended college or not, but “Student Athlete” makes clear that his generation of players essentially dodged the farcical aspects of what’s come to be known as the “one and done” rule, which was devised to prevent basketball players from entering the pros straight out of high school.
James has become much more than an athlete, and his recent signing to play for the Los Angeles Lakers positions him for even more interaction with Hollywood. Since that deal he and his producing partner Maverick Carter have sold a flurry of new TV programs, augmenting an existing slate that includes the current docu-series “Warriors of Liberty City.”
James has also signed to star in a new version of the movie “Space Jam,” which featured Michael Jordan in 1996. While that reflects his first starring role, he’s already branched out on screen, appearing in the comedy “Trainwreck” and providing one of the voices in the new animated movie “Smallfoot.”
James has, by any measure, become a media and cultural force, one whose influence extends well beyond the basketball court. By lending his producing muscle and name to “Student Athlete,” he looks to be demonstrating that he hasn’t forgotten those harboring the same dreams — hoop, gridiron or otherwise — who are destined to be considerably less fortunate.
“Student Athlete” premieres Oct. 2 at 10 p.m. on HBO. Like CNN, HBO is a unit of WarnerMedia.