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Please forgive my general silence in social media about Ferguson and other recent controversies over racial injustice. I have been immersed this fall in writing projects on that large subject in history. Here’s hoping they will contribute soon to the urgent debate.

Meanwhile, I try to keep abreast on other inquiries. Below from this morning is one digital exchange with a student on governance and corruption in college sports.

[...]

Dear Mr. Branch,

 

I am…a junior at Denison University, currently taking a Communication course on Sports in the Media, called “Of Virtue and Horror”. We have discussed and read many controversial issues within sports, both at the professional and college level, as well as gender, race and class issues that arise. These issues are important to me as a Division 3 athlete at Denison.

 

I had a few questions related to “The Shame of College Sports” article, if you have a chance to respond to any of them I would appreciate it. I was fascinated, even shocked, by the corruption within the NCAA and its power over athletes and Universities.

 

I am interested in the origin of the term “student-athlete”, which I know you discussed how it was constructed in order for the NCAA to avoid legal issues – yet do you believe that the term holds any integrity? Is it possible for one to be a student-athlete, particularly in Division 1 athletics?

 

Throughout the course, we have discussed the possibility of separating academic institutions from sports; would you see that as a potential solution to reduce corruption within Universities?

 

What repercussions would you predict to occur if the NCAA were to pay Division 1 athletes? Would there need to be certain criteria based on the skill level or success of certain athletes, on a case by case basis?

 

If you have the opportunity to comment briefly on any one of these questions, I would greatly appreciate it!

 

Thank you for your time,
[Signed]

REPLY

Dear [Signed],

 

Thanks for your interest. Here are some quick comments in response to your three questions.

 

[1] The term “student-athlete” serves no constructive purpose to my mind. I refuse to use it. By repetition, this mantra befuddles people into thinking that college athletes are unique hybrid creatures under NCAA jurisdiction. In fact, athletes are a small fraction of American students with active parallel careers. Some 14 million of the 20 million U.S. undergraduates have full- or part-time jobs while in school, but no one would think to call them “student-cashiers,” “student-teachers,” “student-investors,” or any of the myriad combinations. They are rightly students in the classroom, subject to academic rules, and free citizens in their outside pursuits. The same should hold true for athletes.

 

[2] Separating academics from athletics might make sense for some individual schools, especially those with highly commercialized sports, but the most needed change is clarity about the essential differences between sports and education. Without that, it is difficult or impossible to manage conflict between them with integrity. Currently, through the NCAA, colleges including yours impose on all college athletes a collusive work regimen that is the equivalent of a private tax on students who deliver pizza or give music lessons.

 

[3] No school can or should be required to pay athletes. If, however, the NCAA’s blanket restriction of college athletes is recognized as unfair, bogus, and potentially criminal under the anti-trust laws, colleges must make decisions on a new foundation. For the vast majority of U.S. colleges, bargaining rights for athletes would make little or no difference because there is not enough revenue to create a market for athletic talent. At the big-time sports schools, by contrast, fair markets in a multi-billion-dollar industry would tend to shift compensation from coaches and others to the players. In that case, some schools may choose to abolish revenue sports as incompatible with their academic mission. My guess is that most of the sports-intensive schools will develop separate conferences over time to compete at different financial levels.

 

Justice has been delayed because outsiders dream up every pretext not to address the basic rights of college athletes. They prefer to adjust those rights to convenience rather than the other way around. This is the true shame of college sports, which thankfully is besieged by reform on several fronts.

 

I hope these comments are helpful. The underlying issue is fairly simple, but vested interests and false education confuse things even at universities dedicated to rigorous thought. Please feel free to discuss your concerns further with me by phone.

 

Yours,
Taylor Branch

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Responding to charges of exploitation, the college-sports body promised big reforms at a Senate hearing. But questions about pay and rights for athletes remain unaddressed.

Originally posted on The Atlantic, July 24th, 2014

On July 9, 2014, the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation held a public hearing entitled, “Promoting the Well-Being and Academic Success of College Athletes.” The committee questioned NCAA President Mark Emmert about growing public controversy over the NCAA’s stewardship. News stories emphasized that Emmert promised numerous reforms under heavy “grilling” from the senators.

I was among five other witnesses. Committee Chair Jay Rockefeller asked me to testify largely because of my article for The Atlantic nearly three years ago, “The Shame of College Sports.” Compiling that survey of NCAA history turned me from a casual defender of “pure” college sports into an advocate for athletes’ rights. In my view, the NCAA’s elaborate amateur code is extra-legal and bogus, if not criminal, and universities cannot honestly address conflict between sports and academics while imposing their amateur rules.

While not pretending to be neutral, I do try to be objective about the overall direction of the current debate. Three major developments came out of the hearing: All involved recognized a crisis, senators resisted the “employee” model as an alternative to the “student-athlete” status quo, and Emmert promised to overhaul NCAA governance.

[...]

Join the enthusiastic debate following this article on The Atlantic’s website

Crisis Recognition

The senators and witnesses agreed in a virtual chorus that the structure of NCAA college sports requires major reform. In addition, senators from both political parties agreed that Congress has legal authority to compel changes if necessary. “We have jurisdiction over sports,” Rockefeller said. “All sports. And we have the ability to subpoena.” Republican Senator Dean Heller of Nevada wryly called it “lightning in a bottle” that for once he agreed with his Democratic chairman. “We do have jurisdiction in this Congress over the NCAA,” he said.

If the NCAA awarded truly democratic voting representation to college athletes, it would be a lesser version of political suffrage for women and slaves.

Heller also tempered any assumption that Republicans would defend the status quo or the NCAA from government intrusion. One by one, he branded the NCAA’s proposals for wholesale change an admission of wholesale failure in practice. “If tomorrow there was a bill in front of the United States Senate that would disband the NCAA,” he said to Emmert, “give me the reasons why I shouldn’t vote for that bill.”

Emmert presented seven reforms in progress. While a few are rhetorical, most are concrete and costly enough to be very controversial within the NCAA.

First, college athletes should be guaranteed “scholarships for life” until graduation, rather than the prevailing limit of one-year scholarships renewable at each school’s discretion.

Second, athletic scholarships should be increased to cover the “full cost of attendance.”

Third, the NCAA “should always lead in the area of health and safety.”

Fourth, the NCAA “must work assertively” on sexual assault prevention and support for victims. “This is a national crisis,” he said, citing a new study that some 30 percent of NCAA schools allow their athletic departments to handle allegations of sexual assault by athletes.

Fifth, the NCAA must close “any gaps in coverage” of medical treatment, including a $90,000 deductible in the NCAA’s insurance policy for catastrophic injury.

Sixth, the NCAA must provide college athletes with “the time as well as the resources they need” for academic success.

Seventh, the NCAA must support Title IX protections for female athletes, ensuring that reforms do not come at the expense of the “non-revenue-generating sports.”

No senator opposed these proposals, although Senator John Thune of South Dakota, the committee’s ranking Republican, said they “may disadvantage smaller schools that can’t afford them.” Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey, a former Stanford athlete, said he had been “quite taken aback” to learn from a private meeting that Emmert agreed “across the board” with his criticisms of NCAA policy. “Athletes are still exploited,” Booker said. “If they blow out their knee, if they somehow don’t meet the mandates of a coach, they lose their scholarship. They don’t get their degree.”

“If tomorrow there was a bill that would disband the NCAA,” Senator Heller said, “give me the reasons why I shouldn’t vote for that bill.”

When several senators doubted the NCAA’s capacity to deliver such sweeping change, Emmert disclosed that he would rely on a united initiative by all 65 universities from the five major athletic conferences (Southeastern Conference, Atlantic Coast Conference, Big Ten, Big 12, and PAC-12). Rockefeller interrupted to ask how anyone could expect positive leadership from the very schools that have commercialized college sports so aggressively. Emmert replied that they had the essential resources. Republican Senator Dan Coats of Indiana, who represents the NCAA Headquarters in Indianapolis, said he was encouraged because these top universities could exercise power “where these major issues fall.”

Thus, on the crisis front, the hearing revealed that Emmert has formed an internal alliance with the 65 strongest sports powers, bent on pushing tangible benefits for athletes through the NCAA’s full membership of some 1,100 colleges, universities, and athletic conferences.

The “Student-Athlete” vs. “Employee” Model

Senators from both parties worried that extended benefits for college athletes, while necessary and overdue, would undermine their special status. “I think the law here is headed in a very unfortunate direction … of regarding athletes at universities more and more as employees,” stated Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut. He said there was a “growing inequality and asymmetry” between the productive but restricted athletes and the colleges harvesting wealth from sports. “That is classically the reason why labor law protections have applied to individuals who are potentially the victims of exploitation,” he told the hearing, “whether it’s in garment factories or at construction sites, or universities.”

Blumenthal said the unwelcome prospect of employee status had advanced markedly since a surprise ruling in March by National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) magistrate Peter Sung Ohr, who granted football players at Northwestern University the option to seek recognition as a trade union. That preliminary decision already has shaken public opinion about the potential standing of athletes. If upheld, it would expose a gaping contradiction between law and the NCAA’s private compact among schools. The NLRB would extend collective bargaining to players who are denied individual bargaining rights. Under NCAA rules, colleges jointly agree to banish any player who seeks or receives an “unauthorized” sports benefit—however small or indirect—for “unethical” conduct.

Several senators dismissed the distant chance of unionized college athletes. Short of that great leap, they questioned the concept of regular employment. Senator Blumenthal expressed a common desire “to return truly to the model of student-athletes … because I, too, as Dr. Emmert has articulated well, value the student-athlete model rather than the employee-employer model.” Republican Senator Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire was troubled by the idea of different treatment for athletes who do and do not produce revenue. “Some will be employees, and some won’t?” she asked. “Some will be student-athletes, and some won’t? I don’t see how that works.” An “employer-employee relationship” in college sports, observed Ayotte, would create “sort of a second category of athlete on campus. I find that bothersome.”

In my judgment, common sense was lost in a fog of terminology about jobs. Undergraduate employment is anything but complicated, fateful, or rare. Of some 20 million students enrolled in the United States, more than 10 million work part-time and another four million hold down full-time employment on the side. These numbers dwarf the 460,000 fellow scholars in college sports. Working students fill hundreds of job categories without being labeled student-waiters, student-legislators, student-librarians, student-entrepreneurs, or the like. Doing so would blur functions and responsibilities that belong rightly in separate spheres.

For six decades, the NCAA has beguiled the world with its crafted phrase “student-athlete.” This hybrid designation, repeated incessantly, aims to cement a fused image of dependent college players. NCAA officials insist that multiple roles would violate the integrity of a “student-athlete” to the point of cutting him or her in half. Their mantra, rejecting career distinctions that are essential and normal elsewhere, defines these hybrids as “students-first” in the sports industry and yet different from others in class. Colleges cooperate by assigning the external, non-teacher NCAA a growing role in the academic certification of athletes. Inevitably, public debate will sort through defensive hysteria about sports jobs on campus.

NCAA Governance

Two major announcements by NCAA President Mark Emmert went relatively unnoticed in the press. First, he declared support for imminent plans to concentrate the NCAA’s governing authority in a small fraction of the membership. Second, he said the NCAA soon may award voting representation to college athletes themselves. The latter shift, if truly democratic, is basic enough to become a lesser sports version of political suffrage for women and slaves.

“In less than a month now,” Emmert told the senate hearing, “the Division I Board will vote on a completely changed decision-making structure that will put all of the subjects we are describing here today in the hands of the 65 universities that have the largest [sports] revenue.” Those universities comprise less than 20 percent of the 350 Division I schools and six percent of the overall NCAA membership. Vesting power in them would breach Emmert’s parallel assertion that the NCAA “is a democratically governed, membership-led association of nearly 1,100 colleges and universities … Members make rules through a representative process much as you do in Congress.”

Working students fill hundreds of job categories without being labeled student-waiters or student-librarians. So why “student-athletes”?

Raw politics peeked from earnest testimony about the NCAA’s stated mission: “to integrate intercollegiate athletics into higher education so that the educational experience of the student-athlete is paramount.” Emmert declared he would use public pressure from the Senate hearing as a “cattle prod” to drive home the structural changes necessary for reform. That means convincing Division I schools to accept hegemony under the 65 sports powers able to stretch their competitive advantage by improving conditions for athletes. Their five dominant sports conferences now own the forthcoming college football playoffs outright, with no share due the NCAA, heralding a bonanza richer and more secure than the NCAA’s broadcasting contract for March Madness basketball. The ascendant conference commissioners, plus television executives in the wings, have sought greater autonomy from the NCAA with hints of secession.

Emmert made the best of being caught in a devil’s bargain. He emphasized that NCAA bylaws give him no vote or formal authority, and Rockefeller lamented the vague lines of accountability. “How can you make the case for saying you can be a participant in all this change,” he asked, “when you say they don’t have to listen to anything you say?” Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill of Missouri said she felt for Emmert’s plight, “because part of me thinks you’re captured by those you are supposed to regulate … And I can’t tell whether you’re in charge or whether you’re a minion to them.” Asking why he could not secure transparency for crucial proceedings, McCaskill made public a recent NCAA roll call in which most member schools voted—far from guaranteeing athletic scholarships “for life,” or for the four college years—to restore the 40-year ban on scholarship offers longer than one year at a time. “I think you’ll be surprised,” she told fellow senators of the strange coalitions revealed. Harvard, which does not offer athletic scholarships, voted for the one-year limit in order to reduce cost burdens on poorer schools. Sports-mad Texas, whose coaches had pushed for the original 1973 rule, voted likewise in order to maximize control over its athletes.

The senators secured no promise of transparency in college rule-making or finance, which are notoriously opaque. Emmert relieved a gloomy stretch of testimony by volunteering the prospect of NCAA membership for college athletes. Mentioning my earlier praise for the Olympic and Amateur Sports Act of 1978, in which Congress established a voting stake for active athletes on the 39 U.S. Olympic committees, he said his reform package to be voted on in August “will include full representation of students as voting members alongside the presidents and athletic directors on all the [NCAA] legislative bodies.” This news startled me.

Emmert promptly qualified his potential break with the NCAA’s paternal structure, adding that students already hold “advisory” NCAA positions. “If I might, ma’am,” he told Senator McCaskill, “the student-athlete advisory committees advised against putting in the multi-year scholarships, because they happen to agree with coaches that it was a good incentive for their colleagues to remain engaged.” He said student influence explained why some universities voted to restore the one-year limit in the roll-call she had unearthed. “Their very own student-athlete advisory committees said, ‘No, no, no, don’t give multi-year scholarships’,” Emmert testified. “‘We like one-year scholarships’.”

McCaskill looked nonplussed, beyond skeptical. “I would like to talk to those students …” she said. “I have a hard time imagining that any student thinks it’s in their best interest to get a one-year scholarship rather than a four-year scholarship.”

The hearing lurched between revelation and disappointment. Changes menace the NCAA on many fronts, driven mostly by the few universities that have built a multi-billion-dollar side business on talent captured from their undergraduates. Sound governance remains hostage to deadlock, credulity, and shell games, while everyone professes devotion to education for the young. “Congress doesn’t usually follow through,” Rockefeller said in closing. “… I mean the world works in ways that protect itself, but this is a particularly ugly one.”

Join the enthusiastic debate following this article on The Atlantic’s website

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July 9, 2014

Thank you, Senator Rockefeller. Thank you, Senator Thune. Thank you, members of the Committee. I am honored to be here.

My name is Taylor Branch, from Baltimore, Maryland. My educational background includes an AB degree in history from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (1968) and an MPA (Master of Public Affairs) degree from the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University (1970). Since 1976, I have made my living primarily as an independent author of books.

Pertinent to the title for your session today, “Pursuing the Well-Being and Academic Success of College Athletes,” I wrote a capsule history of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) for the October 2011 issue of The Atlantic Monthly, entitled “The Shame of College Sports.” Because of widespread public debate that ensued, I expanded the Atlantic article into a digitally published e-book called The Cartel, and I proposed a short “Three-Point Reform Agenda for Sports in Higher Education.” The agenda is available on my website.

What follows are summary comments for possible discussion under three headings: Amateurism, Balance, and Equity.

AMATEURISM

“Amateurism” has become the distinguishing feature of NCAA governance. It is identified in official pronouncements as “a bedrock principle of college athletics .” The NCAA Bylaws define and mandate amateur conduct as follows: “Student athletes shall be amateurs in an intercollegiate sport, and their participation should be motivated primarily by education and by the physical, mental and social benefits to be derived. Student participation in intercollegiate athletics is an avocation, and student athletes should be protected from exploitation by professional and commercial enterprises.”

The word “amateur” reflects conflicted attitudes about money, youth, and the purpose of recreation. Its broad ambivalence has opened a muddled flexibility in public habits, allowing the United States to become the world’s only nation to develop commercialized sports at institutions of higher learning. Even the major universities involved, which were founded to uphold intellectual rigor, routinely ignore or excuse the contradictions of a multi-billion-dollar side-industry built on their undergraduate students.

Confusion and mythology begin with the word itself. Dictionary synonyms for “amateur” range from a wholesome “enthusiast” or “devotee” to a bumbling “dabbler” or “rookie.” Merriam-Webster gives a stinging illustration of the latter tone: “The people running that company are a bunch of amateurs.” Accordingly, the same word expresses praise and scorn without distinction. This ambiguity gains reinforcement in our uniquely designed world of sports, where fans are encouraged to cheer and boo without thinking objectively.

The ideal of ancient Greek amateurism has always been misleading, because the athletes of Olympus actually competed for huge prizes. Aristotle researched well-rewarded champions back through records of the earliest Olympic festivals, and modern scholars have confirmed evidence of high-stakes victory and loss . “Ancient amateurism is a myth,” noted the classicist David Young . “Purists who refused to mix money with sport did not exist in the ancient world,” concludes Michael B. Poliakoff, “and victors’ monuments boast of success in the cash competitions as openly as they boast of victory in the sacred contests .”

Golf legend Bobby Jones is enshrined in modern sports history as the model amateur, and gentleman, who declined every championship prize he earned. His reputation fits the true definition of “amateur,” which is derived from the Latin “amator,” or “ lover,” specifying one who chooses to pursue a skill out of subjective devotion rather than the hope of financial gain .

Some non-college sports still allow athletes to declare and renounce amateur status.

Significantly, students called themselves amateurs when they invented intercollegiate sports after the Civil War . Until 1905, students retained general control of the new phenomenon in everything from schedule and equipment to ticket sales. They recruited alumni to construct Harvard Stadium in 1903 with zero funds from the college . “Neither the faculties nor other critics assisted in building the structure of college athletics,” declared Walter Camp (Yale class of 1880), who became the “father” of college football in his spare time.

The NCAA, created in 1906, slowly transformed the amateur tradition inherited from college athletes . Its board declared a goal of “total faculty control” as late as 1922, and the weak NCAA organization could not hire its first full-time staff member until 1951 . After that, however, burgeoning revenue from television contracts allowed NCAA officials to enforce amateur rules as an objective requirement rather than a subjective choice . This is problematic, because attempts to regulate personal motivation and belief commonly run afoul of the Constitution. Even if internal standards were allowed, and somehow could be measured, NCAA rules contradict their requirement that college sports must be an “avocation,” or calling (“vocare,” to call, from “voc-, vox,” voice), by denying athletes an essential voice. NCAA rules govern the players by fiat, excluding them from membership and consent.

BALANCE

Checks and balances are required for sound governance, and the NCAA structure is unbalanced in at least four respects. First, NCAA enforcement suffers an inherent conflict of interest between alleged violations in football, as opposed to basketball, because the organization lost its television revenue from college football and is almost wholly dependent on a sole-source broadcasting contract for the March Madness basketball tournament .

Second, the NCAA structure creates a false impression of common practice between the few schools that aggressively commercialize college athletics—roughly 100-150 of some 1,200 NCAA members—and the vast majority of schools with small crowds and negligible sports revenue. An elastic NCAA “amateurism” stretches all the way from a Division III cross-country race to Notre Dame football on ESPN.

Third, NCAA officials resolutely obscure differences between commercialized sports and the academic mission on campus. In the classroom, colleges transfer highly valued expertise to students, but this traditional role is reversed in big-time sports. Athletes there deliver highly valued expertise to the colleges. This distinction is basic, and is fundamental to your committee’s stated purpose of promoting educational integrity. College athletes are, or should be, students in the classroom and competitors in the athletic department. They face multiple roles, like most Americans, but their conflicting demands cannot be managed or balanced until they are squarely recognized. The NCAA undermines this logical separation by insisting that sports are an educational supplement for a hybrid creature under its jurisdiction, called the “student-athlete.” Universities implicitly concur by offloading some of their academic responsibility to the NCAA.

Fourth, the NCAA and its member schools strip rights from athletes uniquely as a class. No college tries to ban remunerative work for all students, and no legislature could or would write laws to confiscate earnings from one targeted group of producers in a legitimate enterprise. On the contrary, universities sponsor extensive work-study programs, and student-citizens exercise freedom to market skills everywhere from bookstore jobs and pizza delivery to the entrepreneurial launch of Facebook—unless they are athletes. For college athletes alone, the NCAA brands such industry “unethical.”

EQUITY

Basic fairness requires attention to the rights and freedoms of participants above the convenience of observers. Applied to college sports, this principle would mean that no freedom should be abridged because of athletic status. While I am neither a lawyer nor a professional economist, I find ample historical evidence that experts object to collusion in the NCAA’s regulatory structure.

In Microeconomics, a prominent textbook, professors Robert Pindyck and Daniel Rubinfeld make the NCAA a featured example of an economic cartel that reaps anti-competitive profit . The courts have agreed in two landmark cases. In NCAA v. Board of Regents of the University of Oklahoma (1984), the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the NCAA’s exclusive control of college football broadcasts as an illegal restraint of trade . Overnight, the major football schools won freedom to sell every broadcast their markets would bear, without having to share the proceeds with smaller schools through the NCAA. (“We eat what we kill,” bragged one official at the University of Texas.) In Law v. NCAA (1998), assistant coaches won a $54-million settlement along with an order vacating the NCAA’s $16,000 limit on starting salaries . The compensation of assistant football coaches has cracked the $1 million barrier since then , with salaries skyrocketing even in “non-revenue” sports. By 2010, the University of Florida paid its volleyball coach $365,000 .

Thus, the supervisors of college sports won economic freedom, and they enjoy enormous largesse from a distorted cartel market that now shackles only the most vital talent: the players. “To reduce bargaining power by student athletes,” wrote Pindyck and Reubinfeld, “the NCAA creates and enforces rules regarding eligibility and the terms of compensation .” NCAA officials, of course, steadfastly assert that their whole system is devoted to the educational benefit of college athletes. “Football will never again be placed ahead of educating, nurturing, and protecting young people,” NCAA president Mark Emmert vowed when he announced NCAA sanctions for the recent scandal at Penn State . Such professions must be reconciled with NCAA rules that systematically deny college athletes a full range of guaranteed rights—from due process and representation to the presumption of innocence. These rules can turn words on their head, like Alice in Wonderland. The NCAA’s bedrock pledge to avoid “commercial exploitation” of college athletes, for instance, aims to safeguard them from getting paid too much, or at all, rather than too little in the ordinary usage of the word exploit: “to use selfishly for one’s ends—employers who exploit their workers. ”

In closing, I would suggest one hopeful precedent from the past work of your Commerce Committee. This is not the first time that the governance of amateur sports, together with the education of college athletes, has presented a daunting tangle of passions and vested interests. Fifty years ago, an early bonanza in sports revenue intensified a bitter feud between the NCAA and the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU), which controlled access to the Olympic Games. AAU leaders accused an “unpatriotic” NCAA of sabotaging U.S. chances to win medals. They claimed that college athletes already were “paid,” and therefore not amateurs at all, once the NCAA approved athletic scholarships in 1956. NCAA officials retorted that AAU coaches were “parasites” on college training facilities. The two sides nitpicked, boycotted, sabotaged, and disqualified each other until President Kennedy enlisted no less a mediator than General Douglas MacArthur to mediate U.S. hopes for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. The squabbling exhausted MacArthur, who recommended Blue Ribbon commissions that brought proposals eventually to this Committee.

Your predecessors shaped what became the Olympic and Amateur Sports Act of 1978 . One key provision of that law secured for active athletes a twenty-percent share of the voting seats on each of the thirty-nine new U.S. Olympic Committees. Though small, this representation soon transformed amateur sports. Granted a voice, athletes tipped the balance on governing committees in the United States and inexorably around the globe. Marathon races, then tennis tournaments, recognized a right for players to accept prize money and keep their Olympic eligibility. New leagues sprang up to popularize volleyball and other games with corporate sponsors. Olympic officials came to welcome “professional” competitors in every sport except boxing. By 1986, when the International Olympic Committee expunged the word “amateur” from its bylaws, the modified Games defied every prediction of disaster. Indeed, most people scarcely noticed the change. Some of you helped recognize success in the revised Ted Stevens Olympic and Amateur Sports Act of 1998.

This example suggests a good place to start. Wherever possible, make the athletes true citizens rather than glorified vassals in college sports. Challenge universities in turn to make wise, straightforward decisions about the compatibility of commercialized sports with education.

Thank you.


[1] Opening sentence of the NCAA website page headed, “Office of the President, Remaining Eligible, Amateurism,” at www.ncaa.com.

[2] NCAA Bylaw 2.9.

[3] Michael B. Poliakoff, Combat Sports in the Ancient World.  New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987, pp. 3, 131.

[4] David Young, The Olympic Myth of Greek Amateur Athletics.  Chicago: Ares Press, 1985, p. 7.

[5] Poliakoff, Combat Sports in the Ancient World,  p. 19.

[6] http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/amateur.

[7] Joseph N. Crowley, In the Arena: The NCAA’s First Century.  Indianapolis: The NCAA, 2006, p. 37.

[8] Mark F. Bernstein, Football: The Ivy League Origins of an American Obsession.  Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001, p. 72.

[9] Ronald A. Smith, Sports & Freedom: The Rise of Big-Time College Athletics.  New York: Oxford University Press, 2006,  pp. 83-88, 118.

[10] Crowley, In the Arena: The NCAA’s First Century, p. 44.

[11] Ibid., p. 67.

[12] John Sayle Watterson, College Football: History, Spectacle, Controversy.  Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 200, pp. 265-276; Paul R. Lawrence, Unsportsmanlike Conduct: The National Collegiate Athletic Association and the Business of Collge Football.  New York: Praeger Publishers, 1987, pp. 71-82

[13] Lawrence, Unsportsmanlike Conduct, p. 148; Keith Dunnevant, The Fifty-Year Seduction.  New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2004, pp. 160-167.

[14] Robert S. Pindyck and Daniel L. Rubinfeld, Microeconomics (Eighth Edition)New York: Prentice Hall, 2001, pp. 480-481.

[15] Dunnevant, The Fifty-Year Seduction, pp. 160-167.

[16] Law v. NCAA, 134 F.3d 1010 (10th Cir. 1998).

[17] Kevin Zimmerman, ÚSC’s Monte Kiffen’s Salary Highest Among NCAA assistant coaches,” SB Nation, Dec. 18, 2012.

[18] Joe Drape and Katie Thomas, “As Colleges Compete, Major Money Flows to Minor Sports,” New York Times, Sept. 2, 2010.

[19] Pindyck and Rubinfeld, Microeconomics, p. 455.

[20] Emmert quoted in Taylor Branch, “The NCAA Entrenches Itself as Part of the Problem,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, August 1, 2012.

[21] Listing for “exploit” at www.dictionary.reference.com.

[22] Kenny Moore, Bowerman and the Men of Oregon.  New York: Rodale, Inc., 2006, p. 349; Joseph M. Turrini, The End of Amateurism in American Track and Field.  Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2010, pp. 74-83, 140-147.

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I have concentrated this year on my career-long commitment to civil rights history, teaching an experimental online seminar at the University of Baltimore while promoting a newly published book, The King Years.

Still, with the NCAA’s March Madness approaching, more questions arrive about my recent foray into college sports.  In The Cartel, I concluded that fans and educators have recoiled from basic issues of fairness.  A rationalizing inertia undermines not only the rights of college athletes but the integrity of higher education.

(It is not particularly easy to find quick links to purchase The Cartel as an e-book or paperback on Byliner’s site. As such, I have provided them at the bottom of the blog post)

Here is a question to ponder as the annual frenzy over college basketball builds again in the coming weeks.  Would it matter if the NCAA’s amateur rules were nullified at the vast majority of its 1,066 member schools that do not pursue commercialized sports?

[...]

More than 700 Division II and Division III institutions sponsor intense but relatively inconspicuous games, with few athletic scholarships or none.  If permitted, would Pomona College, Florida Southern, and Saginaw Valley barge into the athletic marketplace?  Would Middlebury and Texas Lutheran scramble to give athletes salaries on top of new scholarships?

Invariably, officials at such schools tell me no.  They could not and would not pay players any more than they would offer wages to the drama club or dance troupe.  They say professional shows would violate their educational mission.

I applaud this stance.  No college should be compelled to start a side business or to pay anyone.  We should recognize, however, that this focus at most colleges is grounded in principles and practicality wholly independent of NCAA rules.  Indeed, the heads of smaller schools bristle at any suggestion that they shun commercialized sports because the NCAA requires it.

Here then is the rub.  By lending—or renting—their educational idealism to the NCAA, the smaller colleges create a façade of universal amateurism that shields rapacious, predatory sports programs.  Roughly a tenth of the NCAA membership has chosen to commercialize campus sports to the hilt.  These big-time sports schools chase multimillion-dollar license and broadcast deals to finance a vast, lucrative complex for all but the core talent.   No voices—not even the blue-ribbon reform commissions—forthrightly justify the amateur vows imposed on college players.

A few academic thinkers have begun to cut through this bedrock presumption.  In “The Illusion of Amateurism in College Athletics,” for instance, Warren Zola of Boston College dismantles the NCAA’s claim to exist solely for the educational enhancement of students through sports.  Zola makes clear that education and big-money athletics are separate worlds, with distinct standards.  Managing them starts with honesty.

Suppose for a moment that the 700 smaller colleges either withdrew from the NCAA or used their super-majority within it to renounce one-way amateurism.  Nothing would change for most of these schools.  They would retain proper responsibility both for their athletes in the classroom and for their students in the sports arena. To address conflict, they could apply the three-point agenda I gleaned from campus consultations last year: [1] Transparency (in academic and financial records); [2] Balance (in goals for education and sports); and [3] Equity (in governance).

By contrast, the powerhouse sports programs fail a key test of equity: “No freedom shall be abridged because of athletic status.”  The schools strip from athletes many basic freedoms that all fellow students—let alone other citizens—take for granted.  These include the rights of due process, equal opportunity, consent, representation, labor, and fair market value.  Such blanket deprivation lies beyond the reach of any single university or conference.  It has prevailed by NCAA collusion and fiat, without sanction in law.

March Madness brings into focus the commercial engine of college sports.  CBS-Turner pays $771 million directly to the NCAA in broadcast rights for the one-month event.  This huge sum accounts for more than 90 percent of the NCAA’s annual income.  Of the NCAA’s 340 Division I basketball teams, the 68 entrants selected each year come mostly from 124 BCS (Bowl Championship Series) schools that also dominate college football.  An occasional “Cinderella” advances beyond early rounds, but last year, typically, 15 of the “Sweet 16” were BCS teams.

The BCS and NCAA are nervous rivals.  Last month, in an interview with NPR host Tom Hall, I described them as “overlapping cartels.”  The BCS schools, which negotiate separate football contracts, have been jumping around wildly to consolidate bargaining strength in the BCS conferences that will launch a four-team football championship in 2014.  Competitive complaints and legal pressures will push toward a three-round playoff structure, mimicking basketball’s “Elite Eight,” but one thing is certain: the NCAA will have no say or stake in the mammoth television bonuses to be reaped from a BCS gridiron tournament.  It was precisely to avoid sharing revenue with NCAA Headquarters, and with its myriad small colleges, that Big Football revolted from NCAA control in the 1980s.

So the NCAA remains dependent on a basketball monopoly while the BCS builds its competing football juggernaut.  Nearly a thousand humbler colleges and universities give this unstable raw casino a fig leaf of amateur purpose.  They may see no reason to question their minimal participation, which serves tradition and unity.  Yet if dollar-driven campus games rest on the exploitation of athletes, as I contend, corrective action is never wrong.   It might spur a broader wake-up to skewed values in higher education.

To the inevitable howls from our college sports empire, amateur schools have a truly educational response: “If you don’t want to pay your students, don’t use them for business.”

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I took part in a panel discussion entitled “College Sports at a Crossroads: Entertainment or Education?” at the Aspen Ideas festival. Below is a short clip of Joe Nocera (New York Times columnist) and Craig Robinson (Oregon State head basketball coach). The 1 hour, 10 minute video is available with a FORA.tv subscription.

Nocera & Robinson: Student Athletes Only Taught Cynicism from on FORA.tv

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I leave today for public discussions this week on sports and education. These issues have exploded for me as a sideline since my capsule history of NCAA sports appeared last fall in the October issue of The Atlantic.

Tomorrow morning, in Dallas, I will appear at the national convention for all the college athletic directors in the United States. Here, on page 41 of a voluminous 58-page agenda, the panel features three respected sports leaders.

My role will be to explain and advocate the 3-point reform agenda I first presented in a blog this month. I am nervous in anticipation of controversy, as I will warn that the crucial reforms of transparency and balance are doomed until colleges recognize basic rights for their athletes. Moreover, I plan to argue that the vast majority of schools have blindfolded themselves unnecessarily, and corrupted their core educational mission, by tolerating national rules that impose “amateurism” on athletes to enrich only a hundred or so of the 1,200 NCAA schools among the nation’s 4,000+ colleges overall.

The next day, Thursday June 28, at the Aspen Ideas Festival, I join what should be a fiery panel, entitled, “College Sports at a Crossroads: Entertainment or Education?” Vice President Wallace Renfro will represent the NCAA. New York Times columnist Joe Nocera and I will renew our urgent criticism. Our fellow panelist Craig Robinson, the head coach for men’s basketball at Oregon State University, is better known nationally as the older brother of First Lady Michelle Obama. This conversation could go in a hundred directions. Most of them will be new to audiences, and we hope to find some clarity.

On Friday, from 5:30 to 6:30pm at Aspen’s Hotel Jerome, I will be in one-on-one public conversations with actress Anna Deavere Smith about sports as the window to possibly a larger crisis in higher education. Anna is a treasure of innovation for American theater and film. She is best known for her own one-woman plays in which she inhabits a panoply of real-life characters.

I met Anna about twenty years ago, when she was playing Anthea Burton in the Tom Hanks-Jonathan Demme film about AIDS, Philadelphia. She is from Baltimore, where I have lived the past 26 years. Beyond her stage talent, I admire Anna for her creative spirit of free inquiry into crucial dramas and issues in American life. She sees college sports in the larger framework of an impending crisis for higher education. I think she’s right. We’ll see how the illustrious and assertive Aspen audience responds.

Hidden away, largely out of public view, the vast majority of U.S. colleges still do emphasize classroom teaching within a student-centered governance and curriculum. These are the nation’s fast-growing community or “junior” colleges. Last week in Denver, I spoke to 400 students from their Phi Theta Kappa honors society. They were an inspirational group.

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Three-Point Reform Agenda for Sports in Higher Education

Three-Point Reform Agenda for Sports in Higher Education

1 . TRANSPARENCY

At any college or university that hosts an intercollegiate sports program, the principal stakeholders must be assured candid, complete, and verifiable records for athletic revenues and obligations as well as for academic standards and performance. These records should be open for public inspection and accountability, subject only to appropriate privacy protections for the identity of individual students.

The body of sports stakeholders should include representatives of the school’s trustees and administrative leadership, its athletic department, its faculty, and students both on and off its sports teams.

2.  BALANCE

Stakeholders must exercise joint responsibility for the separate spheres of academics and sports. To uphold integrity in both areas, they must manage conflict and competing goals.

They should, for instance, address in detail any variance allowed for athletic recruits in college admissions. More generally, they could allocate a percentage of sports broadcasting and advertising receipts to the academic budget. They could adjust the class calendar to accommodate seasonal demands on athletes, and take steps to encourage interaction in campus life between athletes and non-athletes. They should seek external alignments to compete athletically with schools of comparable balance and purpose, as reflected in conference rules.

3.  EQUITY

Colleges and universities shall respect the basic rights of all students, applied consistently to athletes and non-athletes alike. On campus, as under the law, adult students retain the full attributes of citizenship. These include the rights and duties of informed consent, equal opportunity, representative government, and due process.

No freedom or right shall be abridged because of athletic status. To meet practical needs and aspirations, all students are eligible to seek fair compensation in full- or part-time jobs, entrepreneurial ventures, teaching appointments, work-study programs, and all other legitimate enterprise whether for or separate from their school.

Three-Point Reform Agenda for Sports in Higher Education (PDF)

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Author of “A Critique of the Misguided Calls to Give Up on the Student-Athlete Ideal”

Forgive me, blogosphere. Because of MLK Day and other obligations, I have neglected a month’s continuing fallout over my survey of NCAA college sports in The Atlantic magazine (“The Shame of College Sports,” October 2011 issue) and its expanded ebook The Cartel: Inside the Rise and Imminent Fall of the NCAA (published by Byliner.com).

There have been many kind reviews and questions mixed with a steady stream of attacks. I have offered numerous comments on Twitter, which in itself has been an adventure in digital media for me. Previous blogs have included two exchanges with CBS Sports commentator Seth Davis.

I am glad that so many lawyers have entered the debate. Neil H. Buchanan, a prominent economist and law professor at George Washington University, posted a sweeping response to me in his January 5, 2012 “Verdict” column for Justia.com. Here is a link: http://verdict.justia.com/category/entertainment-law. Please read the full posting if you are interested in the NCAA controversy. Professor Buchanan reflects mainstream assumptions in sports culture as well as law. I am going to say very harsh things about his argument. Still, I do not wish to distort his position as I believe he distorts mine.

Buchanan makes three essential points. First, he dismisses my work as the product of “righteous anger,” extremism, compromised judgment, and a “morally repugnant” analogy between big-time college sports and the slave plantations of old. To do so in passing, he ignores substance and context along with my explicit qualifications.

Second, Buchanan declares a primary goal of reform to be the protection of college athletes from exploitation. I agree. From there, however, he focuses on physical exploitation (concussions, injuries, etc.) to the exclusion of other kinds of abuse. He glosses over the potential for economic, sexual, academic, or legal exploitation.

Most oddly, for a law professor, Buchanan never discusses legal redress. Not once does he discuss any rights by which college players could or should protect themselves like other citizens. Buchanan treats them as helpless ciphers rather than participants. Indeed, no baby in diapers could be more dependent, excluded, and voiceless than college athletes in his design for their welfare.

Third, Buchanan proposes one catchall solution. He says a strengthened and resolute NCAA should divert money from high-salaried coaches and bloated athletic budgets into scholarship support for higher education. This idea sounds noble until you think. It is irrelevant to his stated goal of protecting athletes. Legally, it overlooks antitrust decisions by the Supreme Court that prohibit collusive limits on sports earnings by colleges and their employees.

Buchanan’s proposal, even if it were practical, would do nothing but transfer funds from athletic departments into the academic reservoir from which he draws his own salary. Thus, by cant and paternalism, NCAA supporters perpetuate the abridgment of fundamental rights for college athletes.

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George Dohrmann of Sports Illustrated has launched an ambitious model to investigate the feasibility of paying college athletes. His results so far are posted on the SI site, prefaced admirably as follows: “The mission of our universities is to educate, but college sports is big business, and no one wants young athletes exploited.”

I applaud Dohrmann for this effort. It seems well motivated, and it shows that knowledgable people are thinking seriously at last about the fundamental structure of college sports.

Still, readers should pay attention to the basic design of Dohrmann’s model. Its starting point is the current athletic budget at leading universities, and its question is how much if anything those athletic departments can afford to pay their players. Not surprisingly, he concludes that “the vast majority of athletic departments do not generate enough profit to pay athletes.” Any revenue for such pay has been allocated elsewhere. Dohrmann’s model tracks the difficulty of re-allocation on a presumption that money to pay football and basketball players must come from the elimination of other teams.

This framework seems skewed to me. It purports to be an open-minded exploration while tacitly accepting too much of the status quo. “SI [Sports Illustrated] is not advocating paying college players,” Dohrmann states at the outset. “That’s a decision best left to college administrators.” Embedded there is a presumption that those administrators unilaterally can and should decide whether or not to pay their key talent. Why should they? What boss would give up discounted labor, especially when the resultant savings have been distributed among the bosses and coaches themselves?

I suggest a more basic starting point. Who should be involved in decisions about pay for college players? Does exclusion from the process exploit them inherently? If athletes are entitled to bargain for their own livelihood, like other citizens, then colleges must be free to pay them or not. A market would evolve. Salaries for coaches doubtless would decline. The overall college community, including the players, would make decisions about whether and how big-time sports are compatible with education. Players would cope straightforwardly with separate standards in two careers, academics and (often) commercialized sports.

Currently the system is rigged by a shaky cartel agreement through the NCAA. My survey of NCAA history, which appeared in The Atlantic, is now expanded and current for $3.99 in a Byliner.com ebook, “The Cartel,”. By confronting the hoax of amateurism, Sports Illustrated could re-build George Dohrmann’s worthy model on a sounder basis.

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Several domestic and foreign media outlets have asked whether I see connections between the explosive Penn State sexual abuse scandal and the structural flaws I perceived in a recent survey of NCAA college sports.

The short answer is yes. (My inquiry first published in The Atlantic’s October issue, is currently available in an expanded Byliner.com ebook, The Cartel.)

Any prolonged exploitation demands aquiescence that can be imposed only by gross disparities in power. The governance of college sports is telling in this respect. By fiat, the NCAA has concentrated almost complete control in precisely those college officials alreay fired or indicted at Penn State: the coaches and chief administrators.

So far, the NCAA has remained almost silent on the periphery of an unfolding investigation at Penn State. “To be sure,” said NCAA President Mark Emmert in a four-sentence statement, “civil and criminal law will always take precdence over [NCAA] Association rules.”

This deference to law is proper. It is also strikingly humble in contrast to the NCAA’s customary posture of quasi-legal authority. Sports officials speak formally of NCAA “legislation,” and the enforcement process for college scandals mimics the judicial aura of regular courts.

The gruesome allegations from Penn State stripped pretense quickly aside. NCAA rules have no standing in law. Their enormous influence on college campuses, allocating billions of sports dollars nationwide, rest wholly on private collusion without sanction from any level of government.

I think the most positive development since the Penn State revelations has been a rash of spontaneous seminars to examine the insulated world of college sports. How could athletic officials conceal abuses so long at such human cost? What reconciles the diverse roles of student and citizen, player and worker, teacher and fan? Can big-revenue sports be compatible with quality education? Who decides?

There is a healthy new cry for accountability. Some professors argue that faculties must no longer abdicate their share of responsibility for the university as a whole. Some students realize that NCAA rules exclude them all from membership, denying players the basic rights of representation, due process, opportunity, property, and freedom, among others.

Inevitably, reform would grant NCAA players, like Olympians, a stake in sports governance. Newly established checks and balances could curb the corruptions of concentrated power, but change will not come easy. The NCAA system is deeply entrenched at more than a hundred schools where big-money sports are glorified. It promotes greed, punishes the weak, rewards the exploiters, and fleeces the players, all while claiming to police itself. An overhaul, while sadly too late for the Penn State victims, is long overdue.

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