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  love their sports too much, and  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
Sports Forum Podcast
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 long-time member of The Drake Group, a college sports reform think tank.
Follow on Facebook: @SportsForumPodcast
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.
Episode #26 – League of Fans’ Sports Forum podcast: How Can We Fix Youth Sports? – John O’Sullivan is Founder and CEO of Changing the Game Project and author of “Changing the Game: The Parents Guide to Raising Happy, High Performing Athletes and Giving Youth Sports Back to Our Kids.”
Episode #25 – League of Fans’ Sports Forum podcast: Physical Education Should Be a Critical Component of K-12 School Design – Michael Horn is co-founder of the Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation.
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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