The Shame of College Sports: The CliffsNotes Version

Posted by rtmsf on September 15th, 2011

The average American can read between 300 to 500 words per minute.  If you’re at the high end of this range, it would still take you roughly a half-hour to read Taylor Branch’s seminal 14,573-word essay entitled “The Shame of College Sports,” published yesterday in The Atlantic.  To carefully consider the weight of his ideas, though, it would take you far longer.  And that’s what you should do.  If you’re a fan of college sports, and we’re going to assume that you are, then this might be the most important article you’ll ever read about the NCAA as an organization.  We highly encourage you to take the time, find a comfortable chair, and let the words and impressions from the Pulitzer Prize winner’s piece wash over you.  (Also consider yourself lucky — Branch’s award-winning trilogy on the life of Martin Luther King, Jr., totals almost 3,000 pages — we pity the poor history grad students who have to slog through those tomes)

We recognize, though, that not everyone is going to have the time nor inclination to read all of what is admittedly a dense article.  For those folks, we’ve decided that the piece is so important to the public discourse about the NCAA, its member institutions, administrators and student-athletes that we are providing a CliffsNotes version of the essential excerpts from Branch’s work.  Our recommendation remains that you should read the entire thing, but if you don’t, here’s what you need to know.

The primary point of the article is that the NCAA, at its heart, is an eminently self-interested and ignoble organization that cares little about the very students that it purports to protect:

For all the outrage, the real scandal is not that students are getting illegally paid or recruited, it’s that two of the noble principles on which the NCAA justifies its existence—“amateurism” and the “student-athlete”—are cynical hoaxes, legalistic confections propagated by the universities so they can exploit the skills and fame of young athletes. The tragedy at the heart of college sports is not that some college athletes are getting paid, but that more of them are not.

Branch asks those who believe in the sentimental notion of collegiate amateurism that they merely open their eyes to a stark reality:

But after an inquiry that took me into locker rooms and ivory towers across the country, I have come to believe that sentiment blinds us to what’s before our eyes. 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.  […]  Perhaps a more apt metaphor is colonialism: college sports, as overseen by the NCAA, is a system imposed by well-meaning paternalists and rationalized with hoary sentiments about caring for the well-being of the colonized. But it is, nonetheless, unjust. The NCAA, in its zealous defense of bogus principles, sometimes destroys the dreams of innocent young athletes.  […]

The debates and commissions about reforming college sports nibble around the edges—trying to reduce corruption, to prevent the “contamination” of athletes by lucre, and to maintain at least a pretense of concern for academic integrity. Everything stands on the implicit presumption that preserving amateurism is necessary for the well-being of college athletes. But while amateurism—and the free labor it provides—may be necessary to the preservation of the NCAA, and perhaps to the profit margins of various interested corporations and educational institutions, what if it doesn’t benefit the athletes? What if it hurts them? […]

A deeper reason explains why, in its predicament, the NCAA has no recourse to any principle or law that can justify amateurism. There is no such thing. Scholars and sportswriters yearn for grand juries to ferret out every forbidden bauble that reaches a college athlete, but the NCAA’s ersatz courts can only masquerade as public authority. How could any statute impose amateur status on college athletes, or on anyone else? No legal definition of amateur exists, and any attempt to create one in enforceable law would expose its repulsive and unconstitutional nature—a bill of attainder, stripping from college athletes the rights of American citizenship.

The concept of the modern ‘student-athlete,’ so much a part of our sports lexicon, was one invented by the NCAA to shield itself from workers’ compensation claims.  It’s today morphed into a catch-all phrase that justifies a corrupt system of faux-amateurism:

Today, much of the NCAA’s moral authority—indeed much of the justification for its existence—is vested in its claim to protect what it calls the “student-athlete.” The term is meant to conjure the nobility of amateurism, and the precedence of scholarship over athletic endeavor. But the origins of the “student-athlete” lie not in a disinterested ideal but in a sophistic formulation designed, as the sports economist Andrew Zimbalist has written, to help the NCAA in its “fight against workmen’s compensation insurance claims for injured football players.”  “We crafted the term student-athlete,” Walter Byers himself wrote, “and soon it was embedded in all NCAA rules and interpretations.” […] The term student-athlete was deliberately ambiguous. College players were not students at play (which might understate their athletic obligations), nor were they just athletes in college (which might imply they were professionals). That they were high-performance athletes meant they could be forgiven for not meeting the academic standards of their peers; that they were students meant they did not have to be compensated, ever, for anything more than the cost of their studies.Student-athlete became the NCAA’s signature term, repeated constantly in and out of courtrooms.

Because it might damage the unrelenting cash cow of college basketball and football, the ‘student-athletes’ whom the NCAA purports to represent and protect have ended up with virtually no constitutional rights when it comes to NCAA proceedings:

Searching through the archives, Johnson came across a 1973 memo from the NCAA general counsel recommending the adoption of a due-process procedure for athletes in disciplinary cases. Without it, warned the organization’s lawyer, the association risked big liability claims for deprivation of rights. His proposal went nowhere. […] Moreover, the NCAA’s 1975 convention adopted a second recommendation “to discourage legal actions against the NCAA,” according to the minutes. The members voted to create Bylaw 19.7, Restitution, to intimidate college athletes in disputes with the NCAA. Johnson recognized this provision all too well, having won the temporary court judgment that the rule was illegal if not downright despotic. It made him nearly apoplectic to learn that the NCAA had deliberately drawn up the restitution rule as an obstacle to due process, contrary to the recommendation of its own lawyer. “They want to crush these kids,” he says.

The remedial band-aid measures that the NCAA implements as a result of its investigations of wrongdoing often rains down on those most unable to defend themselves:

Cruelly, but typically, the NCAA concentrated public censure on powerless scapegoats. A dreaded “show cause” order rendered Brenda Monk, the tutor [at Florida State], effectively unhirable at any college in the United States. Cloaking an old-fashioned blackball in the stately language of law, the order gave notice that any school hiring Monk before a specified date in 2013 “shall […] show cause why it should not be penalized if it does not restrict the former learning specialist [Monk] from having any contact with student-athletes.” Today she works as an education supervisor at a prison in Florida.

The nuclear option of blowing up the NCAA that we’ve discussed many times before is one that haunts the organization, for without the billions of dollars derived from the NCAA Tournament, there will be no way for it to sustain itself in any realistic way:

Thus the playoff dreamed of and hankered for by millions of football fans haunts the NCAA. “There will be some kind of playoff in college football, and it will not be run by the NCAA,” says Todd Turner, a former athletic director in four conferences (Big East, ACC, SEC, and Pac-10). “If I’m at the NCAA, I have to worry that the playoff group can get basketball to break away, too.”  This danger helps explain why the NCAA steps gingerly in enforcements against powerful colleges. To alienate member colleges would be to jeopardize its own existence. Long gone are television bans and the “death penalty” sentences. […] Institutions receive mostly symbolic slaps nowadays. Real punishments fall heavily on players and on scapegoats like literacy tutors.

The Olympics were once all-amateur, all-the time, too.  And yet it changed, successfully:

For all our queasiness about what would happen if some athletes were to get paid, there is a successful precedent for the professionalization of an amateur sports system: the Olympics. […]  In November 1978, President Jimmy Carter signed the bipartisan Amateur Sports Act. Amateurism in the Olympics soon dissolved—and the world did not end.

With no moral, legal, ethical, political or policy basis for its system, the NCAA must sell the public on sentiment to keep itself alive:

Without logic or practicality or fairness to support amateurism, the NCAA’s final retreat is to sentiment. The Knight Commission endorsed its heartfelt cry that to pay college athletes would be “an unacceptable surrender to despair.” Many of the people I spoke with while reporting this article felt the same way. “I don’t want to pay college players,” said Wade Smith, a tough criminal lawyer and former star running back at North Carolina. “I just don’t want to do it. We’d lose something precious.”

Branch, a University of North Carolina graduate, had trouble individually coming around to the idea of college players as something more than amateurs, but he believes that the winds of change on this issue are imminent:

I, too, once reflexively recoiled at the idea of paying college athletes and treating them like employees or professionals. It feels abhorrent—but for reasons having to do more with sentiment than with practicality or law. […] But one way or another, the smokescreen of amateurism may soon be swept away. For one thing, a victory by the plaintiffs in [Ed] O’Bannon’s case would radically transform college sports. Colleges would likely have to either stop profiting from students or start paying them. The NCAA could also be forced to pay tens, if not hundreds, of millions of dollars in damages.

As we noted above, Branch is an accomplished historian.  His piece provided several additional tidbits that we found completely fascinating from the perspective of explaining how the NCAA in its present form came to be so.  For example:

If you want to blame anything for college basketball getting the shaft in conference realignment movements, start here:

In the landmark 1984 NCAA v. Board of Regents of the University of Oklahoma decision, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the NCAA’s latest football contracts with television—and any future ones—as an illegal restraint of trade that harmed colleges and viewers. Overnight, the NCAA’s control of the television market for football vanished. Upholding Banowsky’s challenge to the NCAA’s authority, the Regents decision freed the football schools to sell any and all games the markets would bear. Coaches and administrators no longer had to share the revenue generated by their athletes with smaller schools outside the football consortium. “We eat what we kill,” one official at the University of Texas bragged.

In an irony that will have John Calipari’s haters doubled over in laughter, did anyone know that a Kentucky dean essentially created the NCAA’s enforcement arm?

But Byers managed to impanel a small infractions board to set penalties without waiting for a full convention of NCAA schools, which would have been inclined toward forgiveness. Then he lobbied a University of Kentucky dean—A. D. Kirwan, a former football coach and future university president—not to contest the NCAA’s dubious legal position (the association had no actual authority to penalize the university), pleading that college sports must do something to restore public support. His gambit succeeded when Kirwan reluctantly accepted a landmark precedent: the Kentucky basketball team would be suspended for the entire 1952–53 season. Its legendary coach, Adolph Rupp, fumed for a year in limbo.

Um, wow.  Would love to read more details on this someday — who, when, where?

William Friday, the former North Carolina president, recalls being yanked from one Knight Commission meeting and sworn to secrecy about what might happen if a certain team made the NCAA championship basketball game. “They were going to dress and go out on the floor,” Friday told me, “but refuse to play,” in a wildcat student strike. Skeptics doubted such a diabolical plot. These were college kids—unlikely to second-guess their coaches, let alone forfeit the dream of a championship. Still, it was unnerving to contemplate what hung on the consent of a few young volunteers: several hundred million dollars in television revenue, countless livelihoods, the NCAA budget, and subsidies for sports at more than 1,000 schools. Friday’s informants exhaled when the suspect team lost before the finals.

rtmsf (3998 Posts)

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One response to “The Shame of College Sports: The CliffsNotes Version”

  1. […] whole article on a faulty premise and conveniently leaving out obvious counterpoints. We provided a CliffsNotes version of the Branch essay, and we highly recommend you check out Davis’ response, too, linked […]

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