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.

Read the rest of this entry »

Share this story

Morning Five: 09.22.11 Edition

Posted by jstevrtc on September 22nd, 2011

  1. A couple of top prospects made their college choices within the last couple of days and the rich keep getting richer. On Tuesday night, Kentucky opened its account within the 2012 class when 6’4”, 180-pound shooting guard Archie Goodwin tweeted his intent to be a Wildcat. It was Perry Ellis‘ turn on Wednesday, and the 6’8”, 220-pound forward chose Kansas, citing Bill Self’s knack for getting the most out of his Jayhawk bigs as motivation for heading to Lawrence. Goodwin is ranked 13th overall and Ellis is 37th in the ESNPU 100 class of 2012 rankings. Ellis was also the first ranked recruit to commit to Kansas from that class, but it goes without saying that neither program is finished mining its talent.
  2. Oklahoma took some heat for the ultimatum it gave to the Big 12 on Tuesday, claiming that it would stay in the conference if, among other demands, some restrictions were placed on exactly what Texas’ Longhorn Network could show, and if current Big 12 commish Dan Beebe was removed. Nobody (including us) bought it as a good-faith negotiating tactic, but it turns out that OU might be getting at least part of what it wants. Evidently Oklahoma isn’t the only school that would welcome Beebe’s ouster, and the most recent word is that the presidents of the conference’s member institutions are having a conference call (no pun intended) tomorrow that will determine the future of the Big 12, beginning with the removal of Beebe and the installment of former Big 8 commissioner Chuck Neinas as the new boss.
  3. Last week, when people who follow college sports weren’t talking about conference realignment, they were talking about the piece that appeared in The Atlantic by essayist and historian Taylor Branch entitled “The Shame Of College Sports.” The 14,573-word diatribe against the NCAA was lauded by almost everyone as a stinging polemic, to say the least, and an utter rout for Branch. CBS’ Seth Davis, however, took Branch and his essay to task yesterday, charging Branch with basing his 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 above.
  4. Rick Pitino had a chat with ESPN’s Andy Katz yesterday in which the Louisville coach predicted that the Big East would survive Realignment ’11, that the conference would add two service acadamies (football only) by the end of the week, it would still remain one of the strongest basketball conferences in the land, and that he is “happy with Big East basketball.” Pitino has a gift for spin that makes even the most skilled of lobbyists envious, but he’s probably right about the Big East staying strong. Obviously it won’t be what it once was if Syracuse and Pittsburgh follow through with their departures, but as far as basketball power, assuming Rutgers and Connecticut leave and Notre Dame and West Virginia stay, you’d have those two programs plus Louisville, Marquette, Georgetown, Cincinnati, Villanova, and St. John’s, all NCAA Tournament teams last year.
  5. We bet you can win a few bar bets — though your chances of success increase dramatically if you’re outside the state of Michigan — on one of the great riddles in college basketball: who was Michigan State’s only three-time basketball all-American? Hint: he was a point guard. Your sucker will probably pounce at the chance to answer “Magic Johnson!” and expect to relieve you of your cash, but he’d be wrong. Magic was a two-time AA as a Spartan (because he only played two years). It’s a Flintstone named Mateen Cleaves who holds that honor, and today he will be inducted into Michigan State University’s Athletics Hall of Fame. Despite feeling as humbled and honored as you’d expect, the 34-year old Cleaves told Eric Woodyard of the Flint Journal and, “It does make me feel old that I’m entering the hall of fame.” No comment.
Share this story

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.

Read the rest of this entry »

Share this story