A League of Fans Special Feature
Taylor Branch is a civil rights and presidential historian best known for his trilogy on Martin Luther King, Jr. and the civil rights movement. He won the Pulitzer Prize for the first part of that trilogy, Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-63. He also wrote The Clinton Tapes: Wrestling History With The President, among many other books, including Second Wind, which he wrote with basketball superstar Bill Russell. He also served as an editor with The Washington Monthly and Harper’s and was a columnist for Esquire magazine.
Sports have always been a sideline interest for Branch. His curiosity about why the NCAA seems to always be in perpetual scandal led him to conduct a survey history of college sports. Branch recently wrote a comprehensive feature article for The Atlantic summarizing this work entitled, “The Shame of College Sports,” in which he attacks the structure of big-time college sports and makes the case for paying college athletes.
Branch was interviewed by Ken Reed, League of Fans’ sports policy director.
Ken Reed: Do you think the plight of college athletes today is a civil rights issue?
Taylor Branch: It’s definitely a civil rights issue. The governance of college sports is a civil rights issue because the athletes are citizens and are being denied their rights by what amounts to collusion.
Colleges are telling football and basketball players they can’t get anything above a college scholarship. The athletes are being conned out of their rights.
We need modern abolitionists to fight this unjust and unstable system.
KR: What are your thoughts on the NCAA?
TB: The NCAA’s amateur ideals are contrived. The NCAA is unstable and unbalanced in a number of respects. They represent about 1200 schools but all their attention is on the big BCS schools. The NCAA is divided between the big-time football and basketball programs and everyone else. There’s a lot of financial infighting. The big schools resent the money from March Madness that’s paid to the smaller schools.
In terms of rules violations, the NCAA’s enforcement with the big schools is getting weaker and weaker because the NCAA is afraid the big-time conferences and schools will leave and form their own organization.
If you tell Ohio State you can’t be on TV, you’re talking about millions of dollars. OhioStateand the Big Ten wouldn’t stand for it.
Most of the harsh penalties today fall on the players, not the schools.
KR: When it comes to the challenge of college sports reform, where do we start?
TB: There are a lot of issues concerning the governance of college sports. Who are the stakeholders? What are their rights? Who’s stepping up to their responsibilities?
If we start by recognizing everyone’s rights, we can reform things fairly in college sports. We can’t deprive athletes of their rights, including the right to earn a livelihood.
This whole issue of the rights of college athletes is sitting there as the elephant in the room whenever the subject of college sports reform is brought up. My primary concern is the basic rights of these athletes.
KR: You believe college athletes have the right to seek pay for their services, correct?
TB: Absolutely. College athletes are both athletes and students. They have every right to seek pay as athletes.
If college athletes were at the decision-making table regarding how to run sports, along with administrators and faculty, we might have a more honest debate on the value of athletes to a university.
My basic belief is that players have rights to seek player compensation. They have the right to bargain for their own livelihood. There needs to be a players’ association. Student government structures could provide a model.
KR: Do you see the NCAA, and its member institutions, as hypocrites when it comes to college sports?
TB: Absolutely, they are hypocrites, especially when they use the term “student-athlete” to try and protect their idea of amateurism. I think it’s fundamentally dishonest the way the NCAA and these schools have taken advantage of athletes in college.
It seems to me we have to separate the student function and the athlete function, instead of fusing the two together. “Student-athlete” is such a dangerous confection. They are both students and athletes. To be either a student or an athlete in a good school is demanding. To do both well is a remarkable achievement.
KR: If the bigBCS schools start paying big-time football and men’s basketball players, what will happen to the rest of Division I schools?
TB: If universities have an honest discussion about college sports — with players, faculty, administrators, and board members at the table — it might lead to the de-emphasis of athletics at some schools. If some universities can’t keep up the pace at the highest level they can deemphasize sports.
It could lead to a reexamination of the role of sports in colleges. What are our priorities as a society? In some respects, sports have become more important than higher education. How much do we want sports to dominate what happens at our colleges and universities?
KR: Do you see theBCS conferences separating from the NCAA at some point?
TB: I think the bigBCS schools separating from the NCAA will ultimately happen. It will lead to some type of national association of big-time sports programs.
TheBCSsystem in Division I football is already run apart from the NCAA. If we ever get a playoff in Division I football, it won’t be run by the NCAA. If a future football playoff is run successfully, without the NCAA’s involvement, the same schools could turn around and say, “We could do the same thing in basketball,” and then create their own basketball tournament apart from the NCAA.
Sports Forum Podcast
Episode #32 – League of Fans’ Sports Forum podcast: Prolific Author Joe Posnanski Joins the Show – Posnanski is one of America’s best sportswriters and has twice been named the best sports columnist in America by the Associated Press Sports Editors. We chat about his new book, “Why We Love Baseball,” his new Substack newsletter called Joe Blogs, and we cover topics including how baseball treats its fans, MLB’s numerous rule changes this past season, how the sport can become more fan-friendly, the greatness of Negro Leagues champion Buck O’Neil, and much more.
Follow on Facebook: @SportsForumPodcast
Episode #31 – League of Fans’ Sports Forum podcast: Foul Ball Safety Is Still an Important Issue at Ballparks – Our guests are Jordan Skopp, founder of FoulBallSafety.com and Greg Wilkowski, a Chicago based attorney. We discuss the historical problem of foul balls injuring fans and why some teams are still hesitant to put up protective netting in some minor league and college baseball parks.
Episode #30 – League of Fans’ Sports Forum podcast: The State of College Athletics with Dr. David Ridpath: Problems and Potential Solutions – Ridpath is a sports administration professor at Ohio University and a member of The Drake Group, a college sports reform think tank.
Episode #29 – League of Fans’ Sports Forum podcast: The Honorable Tom McMillen Visits League of Fans’ Sports Forum – McMillen is a former All-American basketball player, Olympian, Rhodes Scholar and U.S. Congressman. We discuss the state of college athletics today.
Episode #28 – League of Fans’ Sports Forum podcast: A Chat With Mano Watsa, a Leading Basketball and Life Educator – Watsa is President of PGC Basketball, the largest education basketball camp in the world. We discuss problems in youth sports today.
Episode #27 – League of Fans’ Sports Forum podcast: Kids’ Sports: How We Can Take Back the Game and Restore Quality Family Time In the Process – Linda Flanagan is author of “Take Back the Game: How Money and Mania Are Ruining Kids’ Sports and Why It Matters.” We discuss how commercialized and professionalized youth sports are hurting kids and their families.
Media"How We Can Save Sports" author Ken Reed appears on Fox & Friends to explain how there's "too much adult in youth sports."
Ken Reed appears on Mornings with Gail from KFKA Radio in Colorado to discuss bad parenting in youth athletics.
“Should College Athletes Be Paid?” Ken Reed on The Morning Show from Wisconsin Public Radio
Ken Reed appears on KGNU Community Radio in Colorado (at 02:30) to discuss equality in sports and Title IX.
Ken Reed appears on the Ralph Nader Radio Hour (at 38:35) to discuss his book The Sports Reformers: Working to Make the World of Sports a Better Place, and to talk about some current sports issues.
- Reed Appears on Ralph Nader Radio Hour League of Fans’ sports policy director, Ken Reed, Ralph Nader and the New York Times’ Tyler Kepner discussed a variety of sports issues on Nader’s radio show as well as Reed’s updated book, How We Can Save Sports: A Game Plan. Reed's book was released in paperback in February, and has a new introduction and several updated sections.
League of Fans is a sports reform project founded by Ralph Nader to fight for the higher principles of justice, fair play, equal opportunity and civil rights in sports; and to encourage safety and civic responsibility in sports industry and culture.
Vanderbilt Sport & Society - On The Ball with Andrew Maraniss with guest Ken Reed, Sports Policy Director for League of Fans and author of How We Can Save Sports: A Game Plan
Sports & Torts – Ken Reed, Sports Policy Director, League of Fans – at the American Museum of Tort Law
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