The RTC Interview Series: One On One With Taylor Branch

Posted by nvr1983 on September 29th, 2011

Rush The Court is back with another edition of One on One: An Interview Series, which we will bring you periodically throughout the year. If you have any specific interview requests or want us to interview you, shoot us an email at

This time our interview subject is Taylor Branch, who is best known for his Pulitzer Prize-winning Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-63 and receiving a MacArthur Foundation genius grant. However, Branch took something of a sabbatical from his usual works on history to study the NCAA in “The Shame of College Sports” that was published in this month’s edition of The Atlantic and a recently released e-publication, “The Cartel: Inside the Rise and Imminent Fall of the NCAA”. Branch’s recent work has generated a lot of discussion and has led Frank Deford to write that it “may well be the most important article ever written about college sports.” When we were extended the opportunity to speak with him on the subject, we jumped at it and what follows is our discussion with him.

Branch Has An E-Book That Supplements His Article

Rush the Court: When we found out that we were going to speak with you we asked some of the other sportswriters that we knew what their thoughts were about your article, and we were surprised to hear that almost all of them had heard about it but very few of them had read the 14,573 words. For those people, could you summarize what the major thesis of your piece is about, because I feel like many people have read the critiques of your essay, but have not read the original article and miss some of the meat of it, which is where I think a lot of the substance is?

Taylor Branch: Right. It has kind of gone at warp speed right past me because there is already an e-book just days after the article came out. An original e-book company asked me if I had any more material and I had another 10,000 words so this is an extended version that includes more basketball. That is already an original e-book. That is what I was doing a Twitter chat about today. My kids are laughing at me because I have been print author for 40 years and now in just a week or 10 days since this thing went on a newsstand I already have an original e-book expansion called “The Cartel,” which is 25,000 words, and I had a Twitter chat just over an hour ago, which I didn’t even know how to do. [laughs] Obviously, I have stumbled into something. I just did this as a temporary magazine assignment between books and didn’t really realize that it was going to get this much attention. It began and is a survey of college sports including its history. I am a historian. I write about history for a living. I have been writing history books for 40 years. They asked me to write about it because I don’t write about sports so I could come at it fresh. My basic question was why is the United States the only country in the world that plays big-money sports at institutions of higher learning and where does that come from in our history. A lot of the book is that. Where did the NCAA come from? Where does it derive its powers and where it came from? I went to North Carolina and everybody in North Carolina cares about basketball. Where does the money from March Madness go? Inevitably, the focus became more and more on money because money is the driving force of college sports. And more and more for me the focus became how do we justify the amateurism rules that the NCAA applies to the players in college sports, but not to the coaches and the schools themselves, who have been making more and more money and marketing themselves more aggressively. Ultimately, I came to the conclusion that you cannot justify these rules. The sum total of what holds them up is like The Wizard of Oz because we put up with it. We don’t put up with it for the adults or coaches, but we do impose it on the kids. I think those rules cannot be justified.  That really touched a nerve because people are saying that I am demanding to pay college athletes. That’s not quite right. I am not demanding that any college pay an athlete. What I think you cannot justify is the college banding together and saying that we refuse and will conspire not to pay the athletes anything more than the value of your scholarship. I don’t think that can be justified. I think it is doomed. I think it is already falling apart. That is the basic thrust of my article.

RTC: Just to clarify, it sounds like initially you were just trying to do a narrative history and I am not sure if your article moved in this direction or the people who read your article moved it this direction, but while you have stated that you are against outright saying that the players need to be paid by colleges it seems like the NCAA needs to reform at a more basic, modest level outside of just paying athletes. So do you consider your work a narrative history or a call for reform at the NCAA level?

TB: It started off with a narrative history trying to answer why the NCAA seems to perpetually have these scandals and never did anything. My question was whether we can find out anything from the history of how the NCAA developed and how its powers developed and do they work. If I had any agenda in the beginning it was not to end amateurism. It was really William Friday, who was President of the University of North Carolina when I was there back in the 60s and headed the Knight Commission reform groups for years. When I talked to him about this interest of mine and the survey his basic mission was “Taylor, see if you can get in there and drain the NCAA’s sloth of all the money and give the universities back to academics. Give it back to Socrates. Because we were run over with this commercialism.” That is really what I wanted to do. I didn’t have it in mind coming out. I am abolitionist now on amateur rules. I think they are a total sham and a fraud. They don’t exist in law. They couldn’t exist in law. They are imposed on these athletes by the people running college sports, but I didn’t start out in that position. In fact, when I first thought about that it made me feel like I was running my fingernails down the blackboard because there was something precious involved. It is part of the conceit that we have all that there is some jumbled notion of innocence and youth that requires us to fleece these athletes. I had to let go of it.

RTC: I think about a week before your piece in The Atlantic came out, the NCPA released a report citing some figures saying that Division I college football and basketball players would be worth around $150,000 and $250,000 a year if they adopted a revenue-sharing program. Once we looked through those numbers they seemed to be inflated. One of the other things that we took issue with in that report, and I’m not sure if you have read it, is the discussion about paying players, which I know you have said was never your position. What are you thoughts on the possibility that giving some money to players in revenue-generating sports might actually take away opportunities or scholarships from those in non-revenue-generating sports? For example, Terrelle Pryor at Ohio State might get paid $25,000 or even $100,000 a year, but that would take away from the #3 golfer on the Ohio State golf team. Or, as some others have suggested, athletes might be paid in an Olympic-style model like what Jay Bilas has suggested. What are your thoughts on that? How would an 18-22 year-old be expected to navigate that? Would they have an agent at that point if you support an Olympic model?

TB: Let me take your questions separately. How would it affect other sports? In a more straightforward and honest way, but there is no getting around the fact that it would affect those sports. Right now all those non-revenue sports are supported by the athletes from the revenue sports without their consent. Basically those budgets flow on the unpaid labor of the athletes who generate a surplus. Most athletic departments still run a deficit, but the revenue sports surplus pays for the volleyball coach, the swim coach, and the all those others. All I am saying is that the function of the university is to decide how to allocate all this money. I mean the history department doesn’t turn a profit, but we don’t say that we aren’t going to have a history department. We say how much of the university’s resources do we devote to history teaching. The same would be true of volleyball or anything else.  Right now we take the money from the revenue athletes without even thanking them and without their consent. If the universities want to have these sports that they can’t band together and say that our starting principle was we are not going to pay these revenue athletes anything more than the value of their scholarship by cartel agreement. If you didn’t have that, each university would have to decide if they are going to pay or not. If so, how will that affect everything else like salaries for coaches and if they can afford to do other sports. Right now it is being done with smoke and mirrors. The Olympic model is very good. People thought that the world would end if the Olympics ever abandoned amateurism. Remember the AAU is older the NCAA and was far purer in that it said that college scholarships for athletes were a fatal compromise of amateurism and the world would end if you paid Olympic athletes. That went by the board in 1978 when Congress took the Olympics away from the AAU and established these Olympic committees with voting representation for the athletes. That is what the NCAA needs. These athletes deserves representation at the NCAA’s table and to decide what happens because their participation is so essential. I think that non-playing students should be at the table, too, because the non-playing student fees subsidize athletic departments. I think the Olympic model is very good because it starts with the basic premise that essentially running two careers — an academic career and an athletic career — you deserve representation and consent for the value of what you produce.

RTC: Do you expect the 18-22 year-olds to be negotiating by themselves or with the help of their parents or some other figures in their lives? Or do you expect them to have an agency or union represent them?

TB: Well that is up to them. You have to treat them like adults because they are adults. They are fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. We are asking them to maintain two careers that are more taxing than most single moms now with an academic and an athletic one so we should allow them to make their own decisions about this and their representation.

RTC: In terms of this bargaining, does the transient nature of the college athlete (typically lasting four or five years) make their collective bargaining position harder to negotiate from? It is different than an autoworkers’ union where someone might work for 40 or 50 years. How can they overcome that?

TB: Well, they are at a disadvantage. It is a short-term thing. I doubt that there would be a union involved. I mean unions are diminishing in our overall society. I think it would be hard for college athletes to do. What would happen is that if universities would want to field competitive teams in the revenue sports they are going to have to have an eye out for what other universities do. If they say that a hard-working offensive guard at Purdue or Clemson is killing himself for the team is worth ten or twenty or even fifty thousand dollars above his scholarship so much the better. Maybe you can have it put in escrow and when they come out of college they could have it, but that would all be subject to agreement by the school and the athlete. It would be more fair than the way it is now.

RTC: We have been trying to think of another group of highly skilled individuals who are paid well below their fair market value, and the most well-known example that we could come up with is medical residents. Obviously, unlike college athletes, they are actually getting paid, but many of them have nearly $200,000 in student loans outstanding. Are there any other workers that you know of that are like this other than people like apprentices who generate so much revenue, but are compensated below what their fair market value would be if they were given a legitimate opportunity to negotiate?

TB: That’s a good question. There are certainly none that I am aware of with the gap at the extremes between what the allowed compensation is and what the actual value is so great probably more so in basketball than anywhere else. In medical interns and that sort of thing, you do have the same thing, but the controversy there is more often over the hours. They are forced to work over 80 hours a week sometimes and the basis for that is possibly under review. There are court cases on it so it is controversial where it exists. I think it is still evolving even there, but it hasn’t even begun to evolve in the NCAA because the schools are still managing to enforce this amateurism. That is one of the things that disappointed me. I started this off with my friend Bill Friday, who is 91 now and he was the head of the Knight Commission, and I told him I wanted to preserve amateurism. In the end, I went back to him and told him that schools can’t even have an honest debate about how to structure their sports and whether it is compatible with quality education until they examine the basic premise of amateurism. Where does it come from? What is its justification? How do we impose it here and nowhere else? They didn’t do that. Unfortunately, I have to hold Bill to task for that. It is unfair. I think one day we will look back on it and be amazed that this presumption lasted as long as it did.

RTC: Going back to the primary focus of your career you have been the author of some of the most significant works on the Civil Rights movement. How do you feel about the language that is being used to describe the current state of college athletics? In your book “The Cartel: Inside the Rise and Imminent Fall of the NCAA” you state, “Slavery analogies should be used carefully. College athletes are not slaves.” Then you mention “an unmistakable whiff of the plantation,” then take a step back by referring to it as something more akin to “colonialism.” I have seen some of these terms used in the NCPA report and other pieces discussing college athletics. Do you just view this as literary license? If not what is your opinion on the racial undertones of the current discourse?

TB: First of all on race remember that these amateurism rules long predate the predominance of African-American athletes in the skill sports or anywhere. I still am not sure that they are predominant by numbers overall in the revenue sports even if they are in the more prominent skill positions. These amateur rules date back to a time when the African-American athletes not only weren’t prominent they were largely excluded from these very same schools. Alabama didn’t have any black football players in the 1950s and the amateurism rules were strong back then. Alabama was already rabid and on television. It has come about now so that element is more emphasized.  When I use the term “colonial” it has racial overtones, but that is not what I mean about its structure. What I mean about its structure is that it is built on the unpaid labor of essential highly skilled people without them having a voice. The NCAA does not allow athletes to have a vote in the NCAA. They are excluded from NCAA membership. The only members of the NCAA are the colleges and the athletic association. They don’t let the athletes in the room. Colonialism was just like that and also in the conceit that the colonial regimes said they were doing it for their own good. Every time they took over a colony without the colony having a say in it they said that we are doing it for your own good. That is exactly what the NCAA does so in that sense it is like colonialism. While it is certainly not like slavery and my life work is about race relations so I don’t use it lightly, but I do think that it is instructive that even slavery for all of its horrors was debated and active in state and local laws and statute books. I have some statute books from the Civil War era. Half the laws were about race relations and slavery and how you mortgage a slave. By contrast, the NCAA’s amateurism rules have no statutory authority whatsoever and can’t. They depend on all of us to have brains go napping the minute they say student-athlete and say that they don’t have any rights. In that sense it is like a plantation. I don’t apologize for those analogies at all. I think people have become lulled to sleep so that we have become blind to them.

Branch Is Known For His Books On The Civil Rights Movement

RTC: One of the proposed solutions you have mentioned would be going towards a club system? In our eyes, that would greatly diminish the significance of what we currently think of as college athletics. In your response to Seth Davis that you posted both on your blog and on The Atlantic website you say, “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.” Do you think that the NCAA, the schools, or athletes are willing to risk such a large venture to implement real reform? I know that you feel that athletes are undervalued or not compensated to the appropriate level and I don’t want to get into a debate like you and Davis had, but they are still getting something. Do you think there is a risk that if you go to a club system that you could significantly diminish the interest that we have in it?

TB: The Olympic model would suggest otherwise. I don’t think the Olympics are any less popular than they were before and in fact I think there is less controversy about the Olympics when they were amateur. I think people value college sports because they are excited about them and inherently interested. I don’t think those people would revolt if athletes were given a stipend on top of their scholarship. You are absolutely right that anytime you pay someone fairly who had been exploited before it requires reallocation elsewhere whether that comes from the coach or the lavish facilities that are being put up on all these colleges or whether it comes from the other sports. There may be less money available for baseball or soccer or any other sports. It is really up for the university to decide. Frankly I think it should be up to all these athletes to make the decision together. Right now it is done by smoke and mirrors and it is blatantly not fair.

RTC: I guess my real question is the discussion of the point of whether they should coexist. For example, if you were to take Michigan and have the same football team, but take the name Michigan off the stadium. You could have them play in the same 100,000-seat stadium. Is there the risk that you lose the interest in it? Take the soccer mom who went to Michigan and wears her maize and blue sweatshirt to the games in November. Is she going to be as interested in the team if it becomes the Ann Arbor Amateur Football Club instead of Michigan? Isn’t there a risk in doing that?

TB: Of course, but I think there is also not much of a risk that the University of Michigan would allow all of its facilities to be used for something that didn’t have anything to do with the University of Michigan. Why would they do that? They may have big debates about whether they want them to be student. They may just hire them to let them play and call them the University of Michigan. That may detract from people’s interest if they are not students at Michigan and they are only playing, but that should be a factor in that decision whether they want to have it or not. Some of my best conversations were with athletic directors where they said that if they had to pay the players they would have to have long hard discussions about that and whether we would even want to have those sports here at the university. I think those are essential conversations that ought to be had. Right now they are being avoided. The University of Michigan brand is valuable. Part of that is sentiment for the old school. That would argue for trying to preserve the connection with the school and maybe even improve the scholarship for the athletes if their salary was dependent on their maintaining their status as good students they might figure out a way to study harder. They might arrange their schedule so they could do that more. No matter how valuable you say the name of Michigan is or the brand or The Big House or anything else the brand can’t catch a pass. These players can. They are super-skilled, super-dedicated athletes and you are asking them to spend 60 hours a week and also being students. I don’t think you should have an artificial constraint on the value of their services.

RTC: OK. Finally, we have a few basketball questions we wanted to ask in particular regarding Adolph Rupp and the 1952-53 Kentucky season. I am assuming when you were doing you research on this you came across the rulings from Manhattan judge Saul Streit, who said that Rupp “failed in his duty to observe the amateur rules, to build character, and to protect the morals and health of his charges” and also suggested that Rupp was aware of betting activity on the game in relation to a Lexington bookmaker named Ed Curd. Michigan State reportedly had a similar incident occur with significantly more money involved at the same time, but was allowed to participate in the conference tournament and NCAA Tournament. This appeared to be a punitive measure by [NCAA president] Walter Byers. Was there anything in your research that explained why Kentucky was singled out in this case? Were they something like a scalp for Byers to show everybody how powerful the NCAA was or was there something beyond that?

TB: I think it was a target of opportunity because at that time the NCAA had zero enforcement power and never had any enforcement. Remember it wasn’t much before that the freshman players at Pittsburgh went on strike because they weren’t getting paid as much as the sophomores. They didn’t have any power on that. Walter Byers was the founding architect of the NCAA because he figured out how to establish, really by bluff, the first enforcement in place. He took over the NCAA right when this scandal was in the headlines and you had basketball players and gangsters in handcuffs all over the newspapers. He essentially got the University of Kentucky to accept this penalty as an emergency. He managed to pull this off by the University of Kentucky that established the precedent for the NCAA’s power at the same time he was getting all of college football’s television contracts routed through the NCAA and that gave him revenue. It was like a perfect storm in 1951 and 1952 that Walter Byers established a precedent for punishing schools and gathered the revenue to hold these schools hostage so it could have a semblance of power. That really is an amazing part of NCAA history. I didn’t know any of it. I didn’t know about Walter Byers when I started this and I sure didn’t know that the main linchpin of the television contract was fixing an amazing misperception at the time that television was going to ruin college sports because people were going to stay home and watch for free and not buy tickets. Byers convinced the NCAA or its membership that televising college football was dangerous like nuclear weapons and had to be controlled by the NCAA so it only televised one game a week on network television and that was controlled by the NCAA. The revenue came to the NCAA and went out to its members. That was the basis of its powers until 30 years later when the big football schools won the right to have their own TV contract in 1984 and make as much money as they wanted without giving the NCAA a nickel and that’s the way it is today.

Rupp Has Become A Controversial Historical Figure (Credit: James Drake/SI)

RTC: One last question. You briefly mentioned the threatened walk-out from the NCAA championship game before losing in the national semifinals that has become something of an urban legend. I was wondering if you could give us a little more information. I don’t know if you even know the name of the team or anything like that. Roughly when did this happen and based on what people told you how real was the possibility that it was going to happen.

TB: I can’t really say who the school was. I know who it was. I know when it was. It was in the 1990s and it was real enough. It did expose at least for a moment what riding on the willingness of the five starters for the team that might have had a wildcat strike and how much was riding on them willingly walking out on that court without getting paid as scholarship athletes. The whole country is waiting. We are all obsessed with our pools waiting around the TV. Ninety-five percent of the NCAA’s revenue comes from that one month. All the subsidies for a thousand schools were all hostage to the volunteer efforts of these five players. It is something to think about because scholarships for all these athletes comes from the money generated by these revenue athletes including the scholarships for soccer and lacrosse and these other sports. It is not that the university except in very rare instances pays for these scholarships. They are paid for by the athletic department therefore they come from the revenue generated by these revenue athletes so by their willingness to forgo compensation they so far have subsidized all the other scholarships and the schools that are never on television like the Division III schools. It is an amazing system if you can get away with it.

nvr1983 (1398 Posts)

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