By Ken Reed

Taylor Branch is a well-known civil rights and presidential historian. His trilogy on Martin Luther King, Jr. and the civil rights movement is definitive.

That said, his work on college sports is also of the highest quality. In 2011, Branch wrote a highly-regarded 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 and giving them a “meaningful voice in NCAA deliberations.”

League of Fans recently caught up with Branch and asked him how he saw the evolution towards increased civil and economic rights for NCAA athletes occurring. Here’s his response:

Taylor Branch: Change could occur quickly if college athletes in the 5 big-money conferences began to protest. Even a symbolic gesture (signing autographs for charity, wearing a “why?” armband, etc.) would force discussion that sports broadcasts steadfastly avoid. A refusal by key teams to play in a March Madness championship or a playoff football game would crash the system.

None of the above is likely to happen soon for two reasons: the players [1] love their sports too much, and [2] are so young and so controlled by coaches that they don’t realize how exploited they are until they’re near or past graduation.

This means that top universities and the stakeholders in their athletic departments take advantage of young people whose welfare they profess to ensure.

They will hang on to the stolen windfall as long as they can against a slow adverse tide in public opinion. The commercial numbers have reached such heights that the NCAA no longer extols “amateurism” in the face of sarcastic criticism over the plunder. Its new mantra for amateurism is “the college system.”

The courts could void the NCAA’s collusive restraints on the bargaining rights of college athletes, as the Supreme Court has done twice already to overturn NCAA controls on earnings by adults (coaches and member schools). However, the courts have been timid in the O’Bannon antitrust case and others so far, as judges seem nearly as brainwashed as the public about an alleged purity in the unpaid “student-athlete.” Anyone who uses that term, as most professors and even some reformers do, surrenders subjectively to the NCAA’s chief conceit, namely that a student in class cannot be distinguished conceptually and legally from a productive citizen outside of class. Roughly 14 million of the 20 million US undergraduates have jobs outside of the classroom, but only the NCAA athletes have their student identity fused to their economic role, which serves to strip them of basic rights.

The NCAA also uses general attitudes about sports to help fleece the athletes. Many people see the whole point of sports as an escape from political arguments into a separate world where they can cheer and boo however they please. Fans widely envy or resent college athletes as privileged stars in that fantasy world, which helps the NCAA resist any responsibility to address their rights. It is sad that such blindness prevails on college campuses dedicated to independent thought and academic integrity.

Congress could reform college sports the way it transformed Olympic Sports by law in 1978. The new requirement for athletes themselves to be represented on governing committees inexorably dissolved Olympic amateur rules that were even stricter than the NCAA’s. That transformation produced two lessons that the NCAA vigorously conceals. First, money for athletes did not ruin the Olympics. Second, the reform did not require an elaborate new system to be conceived in advance. NCAA defenders marshal hypothetical complications against any and all reform, obscuring the Olympics lesson that reform will evolve from the simple justice of giving athletes the bargaining rights we all take for granted. Still, Congress has shown no inclination to challenge vested interests in the swamp of NCAA college sports.

Finally, there’s a small chance that the NCAA might come apart over internal disagreements. The big-money sports schools have very little in common with the vast majority of NCAA member schools that generate negligible sports revenue. All the latter schools get a tiny bit of largess from the NCAA, but otherwise it is difficult to understand why they support economic restrictions that are irrelevant to their sports programs. By contrast, the 65 or so sports giants like Alabama and Ohio State have been tempted to get rid of the NCAA’s niggling harassment, but they fear that any curtailment of the arcane NCAA rules will put them on a slippery slope to full rights for athletes.

Ken Reed, Sports Policy Director, League of Fans


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