Posts about college athletics appear separately on this site in the Ongoing Debate section under NCAA Sports.


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 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 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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Seth Davis has attacked me again in a CBS Sports Network commentary on November 7. Here’s a YouTube link, with apologies for the introductory commercial.

I’ve transcribed Davis’s remarks. They are printed below so that readers can compare our views in one spot.

First, some housekeeping. Davis says in this broadcast that my original magazine article appeared in the September issue of The Atlantic entitled “The Shame of the NCAA.” It was the October issue, in fact, and the title was “The Shame of College Sports.” These errors, while minor, took some willful neglect because the broadcast projected an image of the actual Atlantic cover on the screen next to Davis. (The article has now been expanded into a $3.99 ebook, “The Cartel,” available at

His substitution of “NCAA” for “College Sports” could have been Freudian. Davis does seem to identify with the NCAA, and champion its cause, but it may be purely coincidental that his parent CBS network pays the NCAA $770+ million each year just for broadcast rights to the March Madness college basketball tournament.

Davis indicts me for failing to cheer an NCAA reform handed down in the past few stormy weeks, which allows the major sports conferences to pay college players up to $2,000 more per year. He says I’m not cheering because my real goal is to destroy college sports. That’s not true. I’m a UNC alum who loves Carolina basketball among many college sports. My inquiry led me to question and finally reject only the NCAA’s right to impose amateur rules on college players without their consent.

In numerous interviews lately, I’ve welcomed the announced bonus for players while pointing out that the NCAA tortures ordinary language to insist that the $2,000 cash is not “pay.” The NCAA wants credit for generosity without any breech of amateur pretense. If the slightest compensation for athletic performance were acknowledged as such, players inevitably would gain standing to bargain. Instead, the NCAA tenaciously asserts a unilateral right to bestow benefits or not at its discretion, like tips to a bellman or waiter.

The tip system has become harder to defend in lavishly commercialized college sports. By excluding players from basic rights, the NCAA concentrates power unchecked in college athletic departments, where coaches have the gall to say they must keep the money for the players’ own good, to protect the amateur purity of youth.

Seth Davis distorts my portrayal of NCAA history, but it is far more important that he has ducked every challenge to justify the amateur rules imposed uniquely on college athletes. Here as usual he resorts to bluster for lack of grounds in law or principle. “Whether you like it or not,” Davis declared on the air, “college athletes are in fact amateurs.” This dismissive stance faithfully echoes the NCAA.

Contrived monopoly is a formula for exploitation, economic and otherwise, as sadly evident in the unfolding criminal scandal at Penn State. The best news from there so far is that classes across the Penn State campus are beginning ad hoc discussions on the structure and governance of college sports.


CBS Sports Network Commentary

Broadcast November 7, 2011

SETH DAVIS: The NCAA’s Division I Board of Directors recently approved legislation that will allow conferences to give athletes an additional two thousand dollars to meet the costs of attending school. Since so many critics have been calling for just that kind of change, you might have expected the change to be greeted by roars of approval. Instead, it’s been met with deafening silence. That’s because many of the people who have demanded more money for students are actually demanding the end of college sports as we know it.

That is the explicitly expressed hope of renowned civil rights historian Taylor Branch, whose story headlined “The Shame of the NCAA” caused massive ripples when it was published in the September issue of The Atlantic. In the countless interviews Branch has given since then, he has repeated his prediction—his wish—that the NCAA will someday soon go away. He has pointed out that the United States is the only country where major college sports takes place, as if that’s a bad thing. And he has repeated his ludicrous analogy comparing college athletes on scholarships to slaves on a plantation.

There’s a great disconnect between the dialogue initiated by Branch’s article and the one that produced the reforms the NCAA just passed. I think that’s a good thing, because whether you like it or not, college athletes are in fact amateurs. They’ll never be compensated like professionals, but I’m glad the NCAA has found a way to get them a little bit more money to go with the priceless opportunity they’ve already been given to receive a free education.

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Taylor Branch in high schoolBelieve it or not. That’s me, #85, about to tackle the opposing #30 for my high school Westminster Wildcats of Atlanta, Georgia in 1963, not long before the Kennedy assassination.

Needing a scholarship to attend college, I played through several shoulder injuries that season to keep the attention of recruiters, and came within two days of signing a grant-in-aid commitment to play for my home-town idol Bobby Dodd at Georgia Tech, which was then in the Southeastern Conference (SEC).

Luckily for me, the chance for an academic scholarship at UNC in Chapel Hill came just in time. I took it, and reluctantly gave up football, because I knew my body would have a hard slog in the college game. (Tech had talked to me already of having surgery before the fall.) It was a turning point in my life.

Forty-eight years later, I agreed to revisit the world of college sports for The Atlantic magazine, this time as a nostalgic outsider to explore the history of NCAA games that seem to be in perpetual scandal. It was quite an adventure. Ours is the only country in the world that hosts big-time, big-money sports events at institutions of higher learning. How and why is a colorful story, featuring the “flying wedge” and unlikely sports nuts dating back to Thomas Edison and Cole Porter.

My reform impulse going in was to purify collegiate sport by somehow draining its commercial swamp. To my surprise, I came out convinced that the NCAA’s imposed amateur rules are both phony and unjust. They have blotted out true education beneath callous sentiment. My journey through modern college games was still fun, but discoveries there made me an abolitionist. Many people make excuses for the amateur system, including my former self, but no one justifies its foundation in principle.

My report in The Atlantic struck a nerve. In less than a month, it has morphed into an expanded original E-Book published by This experimental new form has thrust me into high-speed digital publishing, which is quite a change for an old author who once adjusted to the electric typewriter. In the past week, I have taken remedial Twitter lessons in order to follow caroming debates in new social media.

College sports and higher education are intertwined. Excellence is endangered in both. Heavily vested interests impede thought even on our university campuses. I invite everyone to tour the hidden wonders and then join an informed debate.

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Response to Seth Davis

Published on 23 September 2011 by in College Sports, NCAA


Sports Illustrated columnist Seth Davis has posted a blog on tagged “Rebutting Taylor Branch.” Let me respond briefly. First, here are links to the full text on both sides: my article last week in The Atlantic, “The Shame of College Sports,” and his criticism of it on Wednesday. Interested readers can compare them fully for context.

I wish Davis’s blog had offered a space as commonly allotted for direct comment, and I offer him a reciprocal opportunity on my site to clarify and narrow our disagreements. Transparent dialogue can reduce the waste of straw arguments and mischaracterization.

We agree on one stark reality well stated by him: “There is no movement—none—within the actual governing structure of the NCAA to professionalize college athletes.” We also agree that sports departments lose money now at nearly every college, and that relatively few could afford to pay any athletes if allowed to do so.

The nub of our dispute is over the general terms of service for college athletes. Davis says I overlook the fact that athletes are paid already with scholarship packages, while I say these in-kind benefits beg the fundamental question of whether the colleges and the athletes should be free to bargain for more or less.

To insist that athletic scholarships settle the compensation issue is like saying that any worker who gets medical coverage doesn’t need or deserve a salary. Worse, the NCAA demands adherence to this absurd standard by forbidding both sides to negotiate changes. Non-playing adults thus reserve to themselves all the wealth generated by college sports, whereas the NCAA punishes highly-valued athletes (famously the Georgia Bulldogs receiver A. J. Green last year) even for selling an old jersey.

Davis argues that scholarships are more than enough. (“If anything,” he writes, “most of these guys are overpaid.”) This is a convenient perspective for those who enjoy or benefit from the current structure, but that doesn’t make it fair. The NCAA’s unique amateur rules are imposed by private collusion of the colleges without sanction in law. College players, unlike Olympic athletes, are excluded from NCAA membership and from all rights of due process by the consortium that tries to govern them.

To me, the basics of genuine reform are simple. No college should be required to pay or not to pay students who play for them in any sport. Athletes should have the rights other citizens take for granted, and should be represented in every organization that depends upon their skill and devotion. We are the only country in the world that hosts professionalized sports at institutions of higher learning. There are profound questions about whether these two missions can or should coexist, but genuine education will not begin until we stop pretending that compensation itself makes college athletes “dirty.”

I invite Seth Davis to meet me in any verbal forum that can substitute for mid-court or the fifty-yard line. There we can trade questions and answers openly. He can cross-examine me on any argument or fact in my survey of college sports from the Civil War to Cam Newton. We may have fun, because the arena is inherently colorful and wondrous, but I will challenge him to declare his basic premise. Exactly how does he justify fastening amateurism on somebody else, and on college athletes alone? By what presumption must we all be satisfied that they are not earning too much? Here’s hoping that Davis and I can push forward in constructive debate.

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  • James Bennet, Editor-in-Chief of The Atlantic on MSNBC Morning Joe




  • Deadspin: The aftershocks from “The Shame of College Sports,” Taylor Branch’s devastating cover story in The Atlantic, continue to ripple. Two other pieces are out today advancing the notion that college athletes deserve financial compensation.”
  • Deadspin: “Aside from reminding Americans for the next 15 minutes that history has actual value, Taylor Branch’s devastating article, “The Shame of College Sports,” finally fully legitimized the discussion of paying college athletes for their performance. It certainly didn’t approve the notion by fiat, but simply allowing it to enter the conversation as an equally reasonable proposition was triumph enough.”
  • “For more on the “student-athlete” rhetorical device, set aside some time for Taylor Branch’s landmark piece on the NCAA.”
  • Orlando Sentinel: “This behemoth will take a long, long time to read. But it is absolutely worth it as Pulitzer Prize-winner Taylor Branch takes a look at the NCAA and the myth of amateurism.”
  • “With Taylor Branch serving the NCAA the largest body blow to date in October’s The Atlantic Monthly, it is clear there is no other option: the NCAA not only has to die, it is inevitable that is will die.”

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The Shame of College SportsThe Shame of College Sports was released yesterday on the Atlantic web site and has received quite a bit of media attention.

Frank Deford wrote a response to the article and spoke about it on NPR. His endorsement was the highlight for me in an avalanche of press reactions yesterday.  They promise to spark fresh national debate on the place of sports in higher education.

Following is a list of stories and reviews about the article.


MSNBC’s Daily Rundown

CNN’s Inside the Newsroom

NPR’s All Things Considered

NPR’s Frank Deford

Columbia Journalism Review
“Taylor Branch’s cover story in the new Atlantic is a devastating indictment of the NCAA, a must-read for anyone interested in college athletics and the business of sports. It’s a superb synthesis of the history of the NCAA, the hypocrisy of keeping athletes from getting paid while the commercialization of college sports (football and basketball, that is) runs amok, and why a reckoning may be in store.”
“If you read one piece of sports journalism this week, it should be The Atlantic magazine’s huge cover story by Taylor Branch, a Pulitzer-Prize-winning civil rights historian . Branch isn’t doing much new by calling out the NCAA as a morally defective institution-a “classic cartel…[that] presides over a vast, teetering glory” and exudes “an unmistakable whiff of the plantation.” He’s just doing it much, much better than most. In fine-bladed fashion, Branch lays out a case for overhauling an organization that he describes as parasitic, corrupt, and, yes, antithetical to liberty. Branch wrote a trilogy of Martin Luther King, Jr. books. He’s one of the few people in the country who can liken the NCAA and its proxies to slavers and be taken seriously. And, Lord, how it must suck to be called a racist by a man who’s penned 2,912 pages on civil rights.” (Article 2):
“There is too much amazing material in Taylor Branch’s Atlantic piece about the NCAA for us to handle it all at once , so we’re just going to keep pulling shiny gems from the treasure trove whenever a new one catches our eye.”
“…Historian Taylor Branch’s latest work at the Atlantic-“The Shame Of College Sports”-is the latest addition to the canon, and it’s as comprehensive as any work so far. It could be its own book, but for now you’ll have to settle for 15,000 words online, and a definitive work of journalism to point to the next time someone asks why certain college athletes should be getting paid. Check it out, and keep it bookmarked. One day a few years from now, it might be fun to go back and remember when the NCAA was run by “whoremasters.”
“Through thorough argument and excellent historical context, Branch, sledgehammers every facet of what he believes to be college football’s shamelessly corrupt infrastructure and presents the case for college athletes to be paid.”

The Post Standard (Syracuse)
“Taylor Branch, the Pulitzer Prize winning author of Parting the Waters, America in the King Years has written a fascinating piece for The Atlantic that castigates the NCAA and its member institutions for profiting from the performances of their “student-athletes.” The long story, entitled “The Shame of College Sports” is worth the read.”

The Week (Deford’s commentary):

Boston Globe

LA Observed

Pittsburgh Post Gazette

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The Shame of College SportsFrank Deford released an article this morning called, The NCAA and The So-Called ‘Student-Athlete’. Additionally, a 3-minute piece on NPR by Mr. Deford is available below. Click the play button below to begin listening.

The NCAA and The So-Called Student-Athlete

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Dear friends and readers:

I have written for The Atlantic magazine a short history of college sports in the United States. It will be released on the web next Tuesday, September 13. For more, see below.

Meanwhile, please excuse my low profile over the past year. I have been burrowed away on several new initiatives. For the long term, I have been researching two projected books based in the Constitutional era of U.S. history, which is a significant and enthralling jump back in time for me.

I have also joined novel experiments to reform the teaching of American history in our schools.  Improvement is sorely needed.  Students score abysmally low on history and basic civics, in part because schools have been evaluated on test scores limited to math and reading.  With textbooks dying out, and inadequate, our goal is to provide teachers with story-based resource material in engaging, digestible units at low cost, or for free.  My part so far has been to extract from my civil rights trilogy the most essential narrative lessons for both printed edition and access via the internet.  I began the process a reluctant, old-fashioned author but have become an eager convert.  The upcoming efforts will be announced in the next few months and launched next year.

The Atlantic assignment took me, a casual sports fan, into unfamiliar worlds of colliding passion. Many people think big-money sports have corrupted higher education, while others think greedy athletes have corrupted college sports. Instead, I found thoughtless exploitation beneath the NCAA’s Oz-like amateur ideal. It made me an abolitionist, and I hope at least to broaden the scope of debate. I welcome your reaction. Advance tidbits of my argument will be posted daily until Tuesday.

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