“The real question is when the conferences will be large enough to be able to announce they will sponsor a national playoff championship system in football for, say, the top eight teams.”
Throughout his career, historian Taylor Branch has cared for underdogs.
In 1988, he won a Pulitzer Prize for the telling the story of those who sparked the American civil rights movement in “Parting the Waters: America in the King Years.” In 2009, Branch published recollections from a series of interviews with Bill Clinton during his presidency. Branch had roomed with Clinton for four months in 1972 as both men coordinated presidential candidate George McGovern’s Texas campaign. McGovern would lose to the favored Richard Nixon. Branch and Clinton next spoke 20 years later in the Oval Office, which the “Comeback Kid” had reached in part by nurturing an image as a fighter of entrenched power.
In his cover story for The Atlantic’s October issue, “The Shame of College Athletics”, Branch stands up for athletes against the National Collegiate Athletic Association, college sports’ largest organizing body. Sixty-two colleges and universities founded what’s now called the N.C.A.A. in 1906 to protect their athletes from on-field danger and off-field exploitation, but the organization has exacerbated exploitation rather than limit it, Branch contends.
For decades many colleges paid their athletes, but in the mid-1900s the N.C.A.A. consolidated its power through the development of two ideas – amateurism and the student-athlete. Both principles are actually cynical hoaxes, Branch writes.
The term student-athlete was deliberately ambiguous. College players were not students at play (which might understate their athletic obligations), nor were they just athletes in college (which might imply they were professionals). That they were high-performance athletes meant they could be forgiven for not meeting the academic standards of their peers; that they were students meant they did not have to be compensated, ever, for anything more than the cost of their studies.
New cases winding their way through courts threaten to upend this status quo. In 2009, Ed O’Bannon, who led U.C.L.A. against Arkansas in basketball’s 1995 national title game, filed a class-action antitrust suit against the N.C.A.A.. O’Bannon had seen his likeness used in video games, and it chafed him the N.C.A.A. and U.C.L.A. still profited from those game sales while he couldn’t. Former basketball and football players have joined the suit as co-plaintiffs. They seek to expose the untenability of a waiver clause found in a “Student-Athlete Statement” the N.C.A.A. requires to be yearly collected from each college athlete.
Q. Taylor, explain the controversy surrounding this clause.
A. In it, you attest you are an amateur and you’re giving the N.C.A.A. the right to exploit your image to promote sports. The N.C.A.A. has been trying to maintain it can keep athletes amateurs not only while they are in college but for the rest of their lives in so far as the N.C.A.A. owns the value of the athletic performance. If the pattern of [legal case] history is run through, everywhere else those kind of monopoly restrictions have been the challenged, the N.C.A.A. lost.
Q. Some people say college athletes are already compensated because a degree ends up being worth a lot of money. Moreover, even if that degree isn’t finished, some athletes can leverage their fame from their playing days for profit. Your response?
A. That’s right, but the real nub of the question is how do you justify the N.C.A.A. rules that forbid schools from paying them a nickel more than a scholarship and forbid the athletes from getting a Christmas card from a pro coach? If they were already getting paid everything they were worth, you wouldn’t need to put in systems that forbid them by collusion among the schools from bidding for their services. These athletes are generating hundreds of millions of dollars collectively more than the value of their scholarships.