Why Scholarships Don't Count as Payment for College Athletes

The author of "The Shame of College Sports" responds to criticism from Sports Illustrated writer Seth Davis


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How to Fix College Sports Sports Illustrated columnist Seth Davis has posted a piece on SI.com tagged "Rebutting Taylor Branch." Let me respond briefly. First, here are links to the full text on both sides: my article earlier this month in The Atlantic, "The Shame of College Sports," and his criticism of it on Wednesday. Interested readers can compare them fully for context.

I wish Davis's post had offered a space as commonly allotted for direct comment, and I offer him a reciprocal opportunity on this site to clarify and narrow our disagreements. Transparent dialogue can reduce the waste of straw arguments and mischaracterization.

We agree on one stark reality well stated by him: "There is no movement—none—within the actual governing structure of the NCAA to professionalize college athletes." We also agree that sports departments lose money now at nearly every college, and that relatively few could afford to pay any athletes if allowed to do so.

The nub of our dispute is over the general terms of service for college athletes. Davis says I overlook the fact that athletes are paid already with scholarship packages, while I say these in-kind benefits beg the fundamental question of whether the colleges and the athletes should be free to bargain for more or less.

To insist that athletic scholarships settle the compensation issue is like saying that any worker who gets medical coverage doesn't need or deserve a salary. Worse, the NCAA demands adherence to this absurd standard by forbidding both sides to negotiate changes. Non-playing adults thus reserve to themselves all the wealth generated by college sports, whereas the NCAA punishes highly-valued athletes (famously the Georgia Bulldogs receiver A. J. Green last year) even for selling an old jersey.

Davis argues that scholarships are more than enough. ("If anything," he writes, "most of these guys are overpaid.") This is a convenient perspective for those who enjoy or benefit from the current structure, but that doesn't make it fair. The NCAA's unique amateur rules are imposed by private collusion of the colleges without sanction in law. College players, unlike Olympic athletes, are excluded from NCAA membership and from all rights of due process by the consortium that tries to govern them.

To me, the basics of genuine reform are simple. No college should be required to pay or not to pay students who play for them in any sport. Athletes should have the rights other citizens take for granted, and should be represented in every organization that depends upon their skill and devotion. 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, but genuine education will not begin until we stop pretending that compensation itself makes college athletes "dirty."

I invite Seth Davis to meet me in any verbal forum that can substitute for mid-court or the 50-yard line. There we can trade questions and answers openly. He can cross-examine me on any argument or fact in my survey of college sports from the Civil War to Cam Newton. We may have fun, because the arena is inherently colorful and wondrous, but I will challenge him to declare his basic premise. Exactly how does he justify fastening amateurism on somebody else, and on college athletes alone? By what presumption must we all be satisfied that they are not earning too much? Here's hoping that Davis and I can push forward in constructive debate.