Student Exchange on College Sports

Published on 12 December 2014 by in College Sports


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,


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.


Taylor Branch

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