NCAA: Self-Interested Paternalism, but Not Colonialism

By Andrew Zimbalist

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In "The Shame of College Sports," Taylor Branch writes that the NCAA has "an unmistakable whiff of the plantation" and that student-athletes are denied their Constitutional right to due process. Agree or disagree?

How to Fix College Sports Taylor Branch has written an extremely interesting, important, and provocative article that is unfortunately flawed at a few critical junctures. One such flaw is his fleeting suggestion of a likeness between college sports and slavery and another is his invocation of colonialism as an appropriate metaphor for the labor system in college sports. The former is Bachmannesque, the latter is misleading.

While it is true that some college athletes are exploited (both in the sense that their compensation is far less than the value they produce and that they are compelled to live an academic lie), the vast majority are not. The starting players on an FBS football team and Division I basketball team undoubtedly produce a value above their compensation (tuition, fees, room and board). This is not necessarily true, however, for the other players on these teams and it is certainly not true for the hundreds of other athletes who play on the non-revenue sports at each school (with many receiving partial or full scholarships). The starting players, while cash poor (unless it is supplied under the table), are given first-class treatment on and off the campus. This is not the stuff of colonial exploitation.

Branch's assertion to the contrary, college presidents do not run the NCAA. It is run by athletic directors, coaches and conference commissioners, with a smattering of jock-crazed college presidents serving on NCAA committees who have done the bidding of the athletic programs and pass periodic reforms to help preserve a modicum of legitimacy for the system. Call it self-interested and hypocritical paternalism, but don't call it colonialism.

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