The Big Bad NCAA: Hollywood's New Antagonist

October 20, 2018

It's another warm Saturday in Southern California, and from the balcony of my campus apartment I am watching high school football, wondering how many of these kids have dreams to one day play in the NCAA. My guess is not many, but only because they aren't very good—the best player on the field is the 5' 7", 150-pound quarterback who also plays linebacker and kicks field goals. It's a dying sport in private high schools across the country, in fact, they've gone to 8 on 8 in the California Independent Schools League for this exact reason: they just don't have the numbers anymore. Yet this is the anomaly; elsewhere across the country the sport rages on, high school athletes dreaming to suit up for an NCAA program and be part of the multi-billion dollar amateur athlete industry.

 

Some may be having second thoughts these days, however, as the National Collegiate Athletic Association has been taking hits of late, with filmmakers and show-runners alike committed to portraying the Association as the consummate bad-guy. Take, for instance, "Student Athlete," an HBO documentary, produced by Lebron James, which follows the paths of five potential or former college athletes as they work odd-jobs, fight through injury, and get tied down in bureaucracy as they scrap to turn sport into a living. The film zooms in on men's college football and basketball in particular, and by romanticizing the plight of their struggling protagonists, we see the NCAA as a nebulous evil— exploitative, corrupt, and indifferent in their dominance of young, primarily black, men.

["Student Athlete" (2018, HBO) In which one student works four jobs while training for one final tryout]

 

Netflix has had success in documenting the lives of these amateur athletes as well. Their show "Last Chance U," an Emmy-nominated docu-series features players in junior colleges who jump through academic hoops and do their best to stay out of trouble for one last shot at getting through clearinghouse and becoming NCAA eligible.

 ["Last Chance U" (Season 3 now on Netflix) In which ju-co football is the hottest ticket in town]

 

Even Hollywood's highest paid actor has joined the fight against the Association—in the most recent season of HBO's "Ballers," Dwayne Johnson's character Spencer Strasmore, a former NCAA hero and NFL lineman, leaves his lucrative career as a financial advisor-to-the-pros so he can live out his long-standing, personal vendetta against the NCAA, whom he blames for the suicide of his brother. Alongside an absolutely absurd recruitment plot, the show burns the NCAA from the inside and out as Strasmore throws down the gauntlet against his former "employers." 

 ["Ballers" (4 Seasons, HBO) In which Ohio State puts The Rock in a prison cell for getting smart]

 

But the NCAA isn't just finding its way into roles as a main antagonist, instead, it is on the receiving end of digs across the aisle, from Saturday Night Live, to Jon Oliver, and in even unlikelier places, like the romantic comedy "Set It Up," where a hard-hitting writer played by Lucy Liu randomly bitches out some white guy in a Nike jacket who works for the Association not because it fits in the plot, but just because it seems like the thing to do.

 

Though attacking the NCAA is not a brand-new trope, it is fair to say the NCAA's soft power is waning as bigger and louder voices join the discussion, many of them thinking it a crime to not be paying at least some of these young athletes. In fact, just this morning, the New York Times ran an op-ed from Michael Sokolove, author of "The Last Temptation of Rick Pitino: A Story of Corruption, Scandal and the Big Business of College Basketball," in which he posits that the "fiction" of the student-athlete has reached its end and a reckoning is near.

 

Yet, despite the attacks, the NCAA trumps on unchanged, lawyered to the nines and bloated with more money than they know what to do with. Just as the NFL bobbed and weaved a boycott, and just as the big banks got their bailout, regardless of reputation, these organizations still seem too big to fail.  But no reason to stop making good television! In truth, here's one guy who is waiting for a look at the NCAA akin to "The Wire," a glance at the organization from all sides: hockey players, tennis coaches, D3 drunkards, Ivy League soccer stars, administrators, officials, good, bad, and ugly. Let's keep the hits coming, it beats watching high school football.

 

 

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