A major investigative piece took the sports media world by storm this month. Historian Taylor Branch‚Äôs massive article in The Atlantic magazine traces the history of the NCAA, and examines with a critical lens the amateur system as it has been long enshrined in big-time college sports.
Branch contends that the ideals of ‚Äúamateurism‚ÄĚ and the ‚Äústudent-athlete‚ÄĚ are ‚Äúcynical hoaxes,‚ÄĚ particularly when one considers the big profit-making sports, namely, Division-I men‚Äôs basketball and football. He outlines what he considers the hypocrisies at the center of NCAA operations and the funding of college sports, and the myriad exploitations of players, concludes that the system must be overhauled and the athletes paid.
He goes on: ‚ÄúThe tragedy at the heart of college sports is not that some college athletes are getting paid, but that more of them are not‚Ä¶ Big time college sports are fully commercialized. Billions of dollars flow through them each year. The NCAA makes money, and enables universities and corporations to make money, from the unpaid labor of young athletes.‚ÄĚ
This isn‚Äôt just Branch‚Äôs opinion. Political and legal pressure for change is mounting from several quarters, including a series of ongoing lawsuits, and Branch details those as well.
The piece is long, at 15,000 words, and can take a while to digest. For the curious, here is a cheat sheet to Branch‚Äôs major points, and most fascinating details. Which do you find most thought-provoking? Surprising? Which do you agree or disagree with? What do you think should be done about amateurism and college sports?
And for a look at a list of some of the many responses to the article, check out Taylor Branch‚Äôs own homepage, which keeps a tally of media coverage, both supportive and critical.
On The NCAA Today
Branch calls the NCAA a ‚Äúclassic cartel.‚ÄĚ In other words, an explicit agreement among competing firms (in this case, colleges and universities) to fix prices, marketing, and production.
- The NCAA is a non-profit, but it spends lavishly on luxuries for its leaders, including millions yearly on chartering private jets, and $50 million on a 116,000-square-foot headquarters in the early 2000s.
- Although the NCAA‚Äôs records are not fully public, analysis of documents released as part of several ongoing lawsuits suggests that the organizations spends only about 1% of its budget on enforcement of rules.
- The NCAA does not use principles of due process in its enforcement actions against athletes, schools, and other individuals, and has fought against claims that it should do so.
- Coaches are growing more powerful, due to rising salaries, and more immune to oversight. The current average head football coach‚Äôs salary at public universities is more than $2 million, up 750% in real dollars from 1984. (Salaries at private universities are not usually made public.) ‚ÄúNCAA rarely tangles with such people, who are likely to fight back and win,‚ÄĚ writes Branch. And win they have ‚Äď including in lawsuits against the NCAA for trying to enforce salary caps for coaches and to discipline coaches for ethics violations.
On Using Players as Commodities
- An NCAA rule prohibits colleges from offering any athletic scholarship longer than a one-year commitment, to be renewed or not, unilaterally by the school. In fact, about 22% of basketball scholarships are not renewed. A former Rice player, Joseph Agnew was cut from his team just before his senior year when the coach who had recruited him was replaced, leaving him with $35,000 in tuition and other bills if he wanted to finish his degree. In a current anti-trust lawsuit against the NCAA, Agnew argues ‚Äúthat without the one-year rule, he would have been free to bargain with all eight colleges that had recruited him, and each college could have decided how long to guarantee his scholarship‚Ä¶If the premise of Angew‚Äôs case is upheld by the courts, it will make a sham of the NCAA‚Äôs claim that its highest priority is protecting education,‚ÄĚ Branch writes.
- The term ‚Äústudent-athlete‚ÄĚ is taken for granted as an inherent part of the amateurism ideal. But Branch contends that the term did not occur naturally. Rather, it was carefully crafted by NCAA lawyers who wanted to fight off a lawsuit for workers‚Äô compensation benefits from the family of a football player who died on the field from a head injury in the 1950s. Most recently, the ‚Äústudent-athlete‚ÄĚ defense was used in a case against Kent Waldrep, a Texas Christian University running back who became completely paralyzed after a collision in a game in 1974. ¬†TCU paid Waldrep‚Äôs medical bills for nine months, and then stopped, leaving Waldrep and his family to cover rehabilitation and other medical costs for all of the following decades. Waldrep lost his last appeal for workers‚Äô compensation in 2000. TCU claimed that although he received a full scholarship, which is counted as paid compensation for the purposes of income tax, among other things, that he had been recruited and paid the scholarship ‚Äúas a student, not an athlete,‚ÄĚ which Waldrep called ‚Äúabsurd.‚ÄĚ
- The NCAA now profits from selling the image of former college players, both on DVDs of old games, and through video games based on players and games of the past. One of the biggest lawsuits against the NCAA now working its way through the courts is a class-action brought by former UCLA basketball player Ed O‚ÄôBannon, a 1995 John Wooden Player of the Year, now a car salesman in Las Vegas. He contends that he and other players have a right to royalties that the NCAA and colleges are earning from using their likenesses to make millions of dollars on video games.
- Athletes do not have control over the use of their own bodies for expressing messages. For instance, fotball players are forbidden from putting symbols and messages in their eyeblack, including Bible verses and messages of support for other players, but schools ‚Äúcodify precisely how and where commercial insignia from multinational corporations can be displayed on college players, for the financial benefit of the colleges.‚ÄĚ Players at Auburn documented, for example, that they wore at least 15 corporate logos on their uniforms, as part of Auburn‚Äôs $10.6 million deal with Under Armour.
On the History of the NCAA
Branch contends that the idea of a golden era of student-athleticism when the players of big college sports where just as devoted to books as to the ball field is pure fiction, and he says that imagining a time when money was not part of the equation is just a romanticized ideal that never really existed. He reports:
- From the founding of college football teams at elite Northeastern schools in the late 1890s, the sport was immediately attracted criticism, money, and ways to skirt the rules. ‚ÄúDeaths and injuries are not the strongest argument against football,‚ÄĚ said Harvard President Charles Eliot. ‚ÄúThat cheating and brutality are profitable is the main evil.‚ÄĚ Harvard hired its first football coach in 1905, at nearly twice the average salary for a full professor.
- The NCAA was created at the request of President Theodore Roosevelt, and its very birth was associated with crooked dealings. TR, a Harvard alum, wanted to keep football from being completely eliminated by its critics. The new organization had the power to set playing rules across the conference, and the TR maneuvered to ensure that Harvard‚Äôs coach would become the leader of the organization, thereby benefiting ‚ÄúHarvard‚Äôs playing style at the expense of Yale‚Äôs.‚ÄĚ
- The NCAA‚Äôs early history was one of ineffectiveness. It ‚Äúenshrined amateur ideals that it was helpless to enforce.‚ÄĚ The Carnegie Foundation reported in 1929 that ‚Äúthe scramble for players had ‚Äėreached the proportions of nationwide commerce.‚Äô‚ÄĚ Inducements were everywhere ‚Äď colleges offered payrolls for students, and other benefits like no-show jobs.
- The big change in the NCAA‚Äôs power came in 1951, and it was all because of TV. As hard as it is to believe now, many people in college sports mistakenly believed that televised games would ruin the big games‚Äô profit-making potential. Member colleges agreed, through the NCAA, to limit the number of college football games on TV to one per week, for the entire conference. From each contract the NCAA negotiated, it took a cut. Its power grew with its revenues.
- Power dynamics changed somewhat in 1984, when 61 big football schools revolted against the NCAA‚Äôs control of TV contracts. In a lawsuit, NCAA v. Board of Regents of University of Oklahoma, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed with schools that the NCAA‚Äôs rules amounted to price-fixing and an illegal ‚Äúrestraint of trade.‚ÄĚ From then on, individual schools were allowed to negotiate their own agreements with television stations, which led to a drop in revenue for NCAA, as well as for smaller schools that previously received an equal cut of the NCAA television revenues.
- But around this time, college basketball was gaining fans and an audience, and the NCAA still controlled the rights to the annual March Madness championship tournament. NCAA still controls the contracting process with the television networks. Today, 95% of the Associations revenue of $1 billion per year comes from March Madness.
On Potential Solutions
Branch calls for a total reform of Division I sports, and an abandonment of the cherished ‚Äúamateur‚ÄĚ ideal. He thinks college athletes should be paid. How to get there is another question. Undoubtedly, establishing a new funding system would turn college sports upside down. Meanwhile, here are a few more modest proposals:
- The first and most basic call from would-be reformers is to let the sun shine in. The third Knight Foundation Commission on Intercollegiate Sports recommended in 2010 that all university financing of sports be made public ‚Äď including stadium bonds, shoe deals, conference budgets, salaries, and video game and TV contracts. Currently, much of this information is hidden, though new details are coming to light thanks to the discovery process of several of the ongoing lawsuits. Knowing the full amounts that colleges make from college sports would help players determine their worth.
- ‚ÄúThe most basic reform would treat the students as what they are ‚Äď adults, with rights and reason of their own ‚Äď and grant them a meaningful voice the NCAA deliberations.‚ÄĚ Branch recommends that all student-athletes, for every sport and at every division, are granted a meaningful voice in NCAA deliberations.
- South Carolina football coach Steve Spurrier has proposed that coaches pay their players $300/game out of their own pockets. Several other SEC coaches have agreed with him that it‚Äôs a good idea.
Image: March Madness, the cash cow of the NCAA. Courtesy Flickr user protoflux. Some rights reserved.