The Conversation

Unsportsmanlike Conduct

Our October cover story, on the myth of amateurism in the NCAA, stirred up commentary from all corners.’s Jeff MacGregor and Chapman University’s newspaper, The Panther, alike said that Taylor Branch’s article has sounded the NCAA’s “death knell.” The Atlantic hosted an online debate among athletes, professors, and journalists, as well as a live chat on Twitter. Branch summed up his article, and much of the response to it, in a single tweet: “All the NCAA needs to do is phase out amateurism rules. If it fights to the death for its $, it may get nothing. #FixtheNCAA

Slavery analogies should be used carefully—and Branch doesn’t do that. The first step to “carefully” would be “sparingly,” but the whole college-athlete-as-slave motif shows up six times in this article. And even the repetition would be excusable if the idea itself were warranted, but it’s not. What it is, of course, is a gross historical insult …

Sports fans love to designate certain games as “the greatest ever,” the “match of the century,” and so forth. Well, I’d like to state that a piece in the October issue of The Atlantic … may well be the most important article ever written about college sports …

Mr. Branch provides ample evidence that our “student-athletes” are … lacking in their rights as American citizens.

Frank Deford
Excerpt from an NPR segment

Branch lays out a case for overhauling an organization that he describes as parasitic, corrupt, and, yes, antithetical to liberty. Branch wrote a trilogy of Martin Luther King Jr.books. He’s one of the few people in the country who can liken the NCAA and its proxies to slavers and be taken seriously. And, Lord, how it must suck to be called a racist by a man who’s penned 2,912 pages on civil rights.

Luke O’Brien
Excerpt from a blog post

The last time I checked, the most central defining aspect of slavery is that it’s involuntary. And the slaves who are there involuntarily dream of their freedom—not of eventually owning the plantation: Branch’s simplistic moral geometry omits one of the central forces driving the whole shoddy, money-grubbing apparatus that is college sports today—the players themselves …

Colleges make money from all their students, and the bespectacled kid in the computer-science lab who’s going to leave college and make $4 billion doesn’t expect to be paid while he’s on campus. Star college players in football and basketball and baseball can expect to make millions from professional franchises when they graduate—franchises that would never have had a chance to see what they could do post–high school if not for all those expensive new college sports arenas. Calling those athletes slaves when so many of them will go on to lives of ridiculous wealth (or even when so many of them have the chance for such ridiculous wealth) is the kind of grotesque blunder only an impassioned historian could commit.

Steve Donoghue
Excerpt from an Open Letters Monthly blog post

All revenue from college sports, including the licensing the NCAA does right now, etc. should be pooled. Eighty percent of that money should then be divided proportionately among all participating colleges and universities by student population and go toward the cost of tuition for every student. Coach compensation should be capped as well, and the remaining 20 percent should be divided equally to help pay the salaries of the athletic staff. This would take a lot of the nefarious financial incentives out of college sports and turn them into something that can help to bring down the cost of higher education for everyone.

R. G. Price comment

The NCAA has done a masterful job covering up and redirecting the stench that lingers around college athletics. It has romanced the American public with the pom-poms, the team mascots, the fight songs, and all the parties and pageantry that go along with big-time college sports. It has created a feel-good mirage that takes the focus off the billions of dollars that are being generated from college football and basketball programs. We need not look any further than the reported graduation rates of black male athletes in football and basketball (49 percent and 42 percent, respectively, from 2004 to 2008) to conclude that the NCAA’s primary interest doesn’t go far beyond the ringing of its cash registers.

As a former NFL player, I am stunned by the lack of support from other professional athletes. Both current and former pro athletes in the NFL and NBA are well aware of the hardships, vulnerabilities, and temptations that these young athletes must overcome. The lack of activism concerning this issue is shameful.

Alex Moyer
Santa Monica, Calif.

There’s no way the majority of universities would be able to compete with the behemoths that could afford to pay millions of dollars in student salaries. Remember how tiny Butler shocked the world by making it to basketball’s championship game two years in a row? Wouldn’t happen. College sports would start to look an awful lot like Major League Baseball, with the equivalent of the Yankees buying their way to titles …

Paying players according to their value would do nothing for the vast majority of athletes. [Cam] Newton would have made much more than the $180,000 his dad sought for his talents, obviously, but now he’s doing that anyway—he signed the largest endorsement contract ever for an NFL rookie with Under Armour, the same company that paid his university so much money for those 15 logos on his uniform last year. But only about 2 percent of Division I basketball and football players make it to the pros, and of the ones who do, most don’t throw for 432 yards in their second game. Everyone else would still be taken advantage of while their star teammates reaped the profits.

Megan Greenwell
Excerpt from a Good blog post

Student-athletes earn free tuition, which over the course of four years can exceed $200,000. They are also provided with housing, textbooks, food, and academic tutoring. When they travel to road games, they are given per diems for meals. They also get coaching, training, game experience, and media exposure they “earn” in their respective crafts …

If Branch or anyone else wants to argue that college athletes should be paid more, let them have at it. But to claim that college athletes earn “nothing”? Pure fiction …

If we’re going to say that players [should] be paid according to their value, then we should pay them less if their team doesn’t make a bowl game. That’s only fair. Or maybe the school should enter into individual contracts mandating that in return for access to its training program, practice facilities, game experiences, and television exposure, the players should pay the school a percentage of their future earnings. If the players don’t like the deal, they can sign somewhere else …

In the end, the greatest flaw of Branch’s article is his failure to address the question of why schools operate athletics programs despite having to incur such financial losses. Could it be that maybe—just maybe—they really do believe there is educational value in competing? That they think sports is a worthy investment because it gives tens of thousands of young people the opportunity to learn discipline, teamwork, and time management alongside calculus and English lit? Could it be that the schools really do want to enrich the lives of their “student-athletes” regardless of whether they are turning a profit?

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