Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy and Trish Dalton Explain the Broken College Athletics System
Bradford William Davis
"It took two kick-ass women to tell a story about men in sports.”
Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, a self-described outsider to the world of American sports, nonetheless understood how that distance could work in her favor when it came to her latest film, Student Athlete. Alongside co-director Trish Dalton (Bordering on Treason), the veteran documentarian (Saving Face, A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness) spoke with HBO.com about the exploitive system of college athletics, and how that lack of experience worked to their advantage.
HBO: How did you get involved with Student Athlete?
Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy: I was at a conference with (executive producer) Steve Stoute, making a presentation about another film. After the talk, Steve approached me and said, "I have a film you need to make.” Even though I don’t follow sports, my forte has always been human rights issues and Student Athlete fit into my interests as a director. When I realized I wanted a co-director, I spoke to Trish about collaborating because we've known each other for a long time, and while I don’t live in the United States, she lives and understands this country.
Trish Dalton: It helped to also have (executive producer) Maverick Carter involved. His experience as a former college athlete helped us understand where we should focus our story.
HBO: As we see in the film, there are plenty of people adversely impacted by the current college athletics system. What stood out about athletes and coach you chose to follow?
Trish Dalton: When we first started, we spoke to insiders, professors, former players and attorneys. They regularly recommended John and his wife Marcia Mount Shoop, who wrote a book that touched on this. Before he got fired by Purdue University, he was known for his player advocacy.
Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy: With John Shoop — we wanted a coach that could talk about their experience while offering perspective. Many coaches lack perspective because they're beneficiaries of the system. Shoop stood out because he was able to shed light on the problems.
For our player choices — we aimed to capture different stages of being involved in the system, so that people could see more than one story. That way, our viewers couldn't just say, "Oh, that's just one person's experience," and dismiss our film. One of our subjects — who was about to enter college when we began — has a story that complements that of the chronically-injured Mike Shaw, who was already well on his way to graduating.
Trish Dalton: In lieu of being able to follow these guys for eight years each, we chose to follow four guys for two years to give an approximation of a longer stretch of time.
HBO: How did you feel about college athletics when you started this film?
Trish Dalton: I'm actually half-Canadian and went to college in Canada. When I first heard the argument for the current system, college scholarships seemed like a logical exchange for playing sports. However, when I started Student Athlete, it didn’t take very much digging to change my mind. If you're a top athlete playing a revenue-generating sport like football or basketball, you're not there for an education. The financial pressure these institutions are under to win incentivize exploiting their athletes.
Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy: Student-athletes are recruited for their craft on the field or court, not their language or math skills. They frequently come from public schools where they haven't been given the skills to excel in their classwork. Their practice and travel schedules are brutal. They don't have time to find internships like regular students. They aren’t getting a college education. No, they're getting a piece of paper that says they have an “education” even though that consisted of classes they may not have even attended and a concentration they often didn’t even want. It’s not rocket science.
Trish Dalton: Also important is to understand that you basically cannot get into the NBA or NFL unless you went to college. If you have a system they have to go through, that system holds all the power over their lives. Our subject Silas Nacita, who was ruled ineligible, exemplified the lack of control they have over their future.
HBO: How did the distance from the lives of the athletes you spoke with and college sports aid your storytelling?
Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy: Sometimes it's better to approach a subject with a blank slate. We don't come with the same biases because we come from different worlds than they do. We concerned ourselves with their inner lives and feelings in a way that you don't necessarily see in other sports films.
Trish Dalton: There are other films that have made the explicit argument against the current college athletics system. There wasn't a need for us to blow the whistle, because it's penetrated the broader discourse about college sports. We believe the conversation needed a closer look at their lives off the field. The kind of films Sharmeen and I make let the subjects speak for themselves. That's what we were interested in and brought to this film.
HBO: What do you hope viewers learn about these men and take away from Student Athlete?
Trish Dalton: We fell in love with these young men, and want our viewers to care about them. The next time someone watches a game, hopefully they can reject negative stereotypes about these players and think about how they’re affected as people.
Watch Student Athlete on HBO GO, HBO NOW and HBO On Demand.