By BECKY BARTINDALE
Bob Gliner has made more than 30 documentary films on social issues, traveling the world to do it. Now he's turned his lens closer to home -- San Jose State University -- exploring new turf in the debate over playing Division I-A football. ''Playing for Time,'' which airs Monday at 9 p.m. on San Jose public television station KTEH, is not only the sociology professor's first character-driven film but also his first sports documentary.
The hourlong program follows the challenges -- on the field and in the classroom -- facing four players and their coach, Fitz Hill, who arrived at San Jose State in late 2000 as one of only four African-American head coaches in Division I-A, one of two with a doctorate. The players are in the first full class he recruited. African-American players make up about 50 percent of Division-I players. The only places with a larger percentage of African-Americans are the nation'sprisons, Hill notes in the film. ''He was going to push academics as well as doing well on the football field,'' Gliner said. ''I wanted to see if he could make a difference.'' Gliner began making documentaries by chance at Soledad Prison, where the university operated a program in 1984. The prisoners wanted to tell the stories of how they got to Soledad. A self-taught filmmaker, he has traveled to a half-dozen countries making social documentaries, often around the themes of consumer culture and alternatives to it.
For the San Jose State film, Gliner worked with virtually no budget and filmed from 2002 to 2004, stopping with Hill's resignation last year at the end of his fourth losing season.
Gliner said the answer to his initial question is far more complex than he expected. It's not just about grades. As he got to know players Trestin George, Kendrick Starling, Lamar Ferguson and Larnell Ransom -- visiting the places they grew up and meeting their families -- he developed a deeper understanding of what a college experience means for these athletes.
Driving around in his hometown of Inglewood, Ferguson tells Gliner that he comes from ''the worst neighborhood in America.'' It is a place, he said, where young men earn respect two ways: by playing football or being in a gang. It is where his best friend was murdered.
Partway through filming, the San Jose State faculty called for a sharp reduction in funding for intercollegiate athletics, saying that playing in Division I-A was diverting too much money from academics. The size of San Jose State's athletics budget ranks it toward the bottom of Division I-A teams, and the film shows the effect such a small budget has on a team.
One of the documentary's high points is what happens as pressure mounts on the team to win. As the players pour more time and effort into improving their on-field performance, their classroom work suffers. Although 2004 looked like it could have been a turnaround year, it didn't come together. The psychology of what was happening on the field spilled over into other parts of the players' lives.
Disillusioned with football, Ferguson says at the end of the film that he would rather be a student than an athlete. Instead of playing in the NFL, he's now thinking about returning to Inglewood when he graduates and becoming a counselor or probation officer.
''If these guys can go back to inner city neighborhoods as role models with degrees, they could have a pretty profound impact,'' said Gliner.
For those who are familiar with the football debate, Gliner said he hopes the film gives them a more nuanced view. ''Maybe each side would have greater empathy for the other's position.''
For those new to it, he said, ''I hope the program presents the debate in a fair and accurate manner so people can come to their own conclusions.''
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