In "Horse Feathers," a 1932 comedy starring the Marx Brothers, Groucho plays a new college president.
"And I say to you, gentlemen, that this college is a failure," he declares as he takes office. "The trouble is we're neglecting football for education."
That these skewed priorities have not changed, but have only intensified, is one message of "Schooled: The Price of College Sports," which debuts Wednesday on Epix (available locally via Dish and Verizon FiOS).
The film, energetically directed by Ross Finkel, Jonathan Paley and Trevor Martin, looks at the questions of money, exploitation, fairness, what might be called the curse of amateurism, and the autocratic power of the National Collegiate Athletic Assn. The NCAA regulates college sports, levying fines where it sees fit and controlling the eligibility of individual players, who have no legal recourse against its decisions.
That the film is based on a book, by Taylor Branch, titled "The Cartel: Inside the Rise and Imminent Fall of the NCAA," which began as an article in the Atlantic, "The Shame of College Sports," will give you an idea of its thematic slant.
When I say "slant," I don't mean that the film is propaganda, or that the NCAA isn't the self-important, hypocritical institution it does very much seem to be. (I imagine it does some good amid all that, however.) But the film is out to make a case and persuasively does.
Still, that the NCAA and representatives of four dozen schools declined to participate does leave the argument substantially one-sided, a forfeited game. Among those interviewed for "Schooled," former NCAA vice president Wallace Renfro and University of Nebraska-Lincoln Chancellor Harvey Perlman carry the ball nearly alone.
That argument concerns primarily what many now consider an outmoded, and fantastical, idea of noble amateurism, born in 19th-century England to keep sport the province of the upper class and imported whole to the American Ivy League. Ironically, if not surprisingly, this ideological insistence on purity — on protecting players, as Renfro says approvingly, "from the influences of commercialism and professionalism" — has created a system that is itself morally questionable.
If "Horse Feathers" imagined buying football players in a speak-easy, "Schooled" details a $12-billion-a-year, tax-exempt business in which everybody's getting fat, as New York Times columnist Joe Nocera says here, "because of the labor of the 19-year-old kids on the field." Everybody except the kids on the field.
What's more, their supposed recompense — a free education — is by no means guaranteed. (And even nominally "full" scholarships fall short of a player's actual expenses.) Prompted by what one commentator calls the "original sin of college athletics," the drafting of academically ill-prepared players, systems have emerged to ensure that the good ones stay eligible, even at the cost of learning.
"I knew it was more valuable to my school that I get a C on my exam and an interception on Saturday than I get straight As and no interceptions on Saturday," says former Bronco, Falcon and Raven Domonique Foxworth, currently president of the NFL Players Assn. (and also, for what it's worth, a producer of this film.)
Even Walter Byers, the man who more or less created the NCAA, and directed it for years — and who originated the phrase "student athlete" as a hedge against workers' compensation claims if a player were injured — eventually wound up decrying "the neo-plantation mentality that exists on the campuses of our country and in the conference offices and in the NCAA: The rewards belong to the overseers and the supervisors."
Byers predicted that the amateur code, "held in place for sheer economic purposes, will not long stand the test of the law." He said that two decades ago.
'Schooled: The Price of College Sports'
When: 5 and 8:45 p.m. Wednesday
Rating: TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children)Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times