Toward Basic Rights for College Athletes, Cont'd

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

In response to the successful strike by the Mizzou football team that forced the resignation of the university’s president, Taylor Branch just wrote a piece for us asking, “Could similar tactics be used to get campus-sports stars across the country paid?” Taylor has long championed the cause for paying college athletes, most prominently in our October 2011 cover story. Perhaps the most provocative passage from it:

Slavery analogies should be used carefully. College athletes are not slaves. Yet to survey the scene—corporations and universities enriching themselves on the backs of uncompensated young men, whose status as “student-athletes” deprives them of the right to due process guaranteed by the Constitution—is to catch an unmistakable whiff of the plantation.

South Park ran with that analogy:

A reader comments on Taylor’s latest piece:

Interesting read. But there are a number of practical problems with essentially paying students. For one thing, if relatively few athletes can vote themselves a share of the pie, what could the vastly numerous non-athletes vote themselves? Take Mizzou’s 35,000 students and only a relative handful of athletes. If 35,000 people strike, then you have serious problems. Why would they meekly allow some dude who can kick a football through the goalposts a free ride PLUS fat stacks of cash, while they are holding down two jobs and trying to make classes?

For that matter, would room and board and tuition continue to be free, or since the players are now being paid, would they get charged? Why would the various trainers and specialty coaches not demand more money as well? And are you going to see collective bargaining among other athletes, where the fencing team demands a cut of the football money? How about the debate team?

I think the players think that nothing will change except them getting paid, and I’m not sure it’s that simple.

Taylor responds:

If college athletes had the right to seek compensation like other Americans, their pay would be determined not by votes but by bargaining in a market that inevitably would develop.

The reader fears that non-athletes would strike against high earnings that would ensue for college players. Perhaps, but no student body or college faculty has yet mounted protest against the million-dollar salaries that proliferate for coaches and assistant coaches who are merely on the sidelines of spectacles starring those players.

If the non-athletes or faculty did strike against paid players, they might force an either-or choice between commercialized college sports and the academic mission. At least that would be an honest debate. Currently we have commercialized sports with degraded education for exploited players.

Another reader points to “the true underlying problem: the money in college sports”:

The University of Missouri problem brought this again into the open. The university president was paid $490,000 per year as a salary, but the football coach was paid $13-14 MILLION per year. Really? Actual collegiate education is being subverted by big money politics. We need to stop this insanity and re-establish college sports as what they were meant to be: amateur athletics.

Taylor responds:

Millions of people agree with this reader that we should abolish commercialized sports on college campuses. However, millions of other people and billions of dollars argue otherwise. My question is whether people who dislike commercialized sports should be scornful or indifferent to justice issues for the college athletes. Such indifference shores up the current system of highly commercialized sports that exploit the athletes. If compensation rights for the college players were to sharpen the basic distinction between academics and the sports business, pushing choices to be made more honestly, why would that be bad?

Have a question for Taylor or want to address something in his piece? Email and we’ll post the best contributions to the debate.