Why I Can't Get Excited About the NCAA's New Reforms

College athletes can now get a $2,000 annual stipend—but they're still technically amateurs


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Sports Illustrated's Seth Davis attacked me again in a CBS Sports Network commentary on November 7:

I've transcribed Davis's remarks.  They are printed below so that readers can compare our views in one spot.
First, some housekeeping. Davis says in this broadcast that my original magazine article appeared in the September issue of The Atlantic entitled "The Shame of the NCAA."  It was the October issue, in fact, and the title was "The Shame of College Sports."  These errors, while minor, took some willful neglect because the broadcast projected an image of the actual Atlantic cover on the screen next to Davis.  (The article has now been expanded into a $3.99 ebook, "The Cartel," available at Byliner.)
His substitution of "NCAA" for "College Sports" could have been Freudian.  Davis does seem to identify with the NCAA and champion its cause, but it may be purely coincidental that his parent CBS network pays the NCAA $770-plus million each year just for broadcast rights to the March Madness college basketball tournament.

Davis indicts me for failing to cheer an NCAA reform handed down in the past few stormy weeks, which allows the major sports conferences to pay college players up to $2,000 more per year.  He says I'm not cheering because my real goal is to destroy college sports.  That's not true.  I'm a UNC alum who loves Carolina basketball among many college sports.  My research for The Atlantic story led me to question and finally reject only the NCAA's right to impose amateur rules on college players without their consent.  
In numerous interviews lately, I've welcomed the announced bonus for players while pointing out that the NCAA tortures ordinary language to insist that the $2,000 cash is not "pay."  The NCAA wants credit for generosity without any breach of amateur pretense.  If the slightest compensation for athletic performance were acknowledged as such, players inevitably would gain standing to bargain.  Instead, the NCAA tenaciously asserts a unilateral right to bestow benefits or not at its discretion, like tips to a bellman or waiter.   
The tip system has become harder to defend in lavishly commercialized college sports.  By excluding players from basic rights, the NCAA concentrates power unchecked in college athletic departments, where coaches have the gall to say they must keep the money for the players' own good, to protect the amateur purity of youth. 
Seth Davis distorts my portrayal of NCAA history, but it is far more important that he has ducked every challenge to justify the amateur rules imposed uniquely on college athletes.  Here as usual he resorts to bluster for lack of grounds in law or principle.  "Whether you like it or not," Davis declared on the air, "college athletes are in fact amateurs."  This dismissive stance faithfully echoes the NCAA.
Contrived monopoly is a formula for exploitation, economic and otherwise, as sadly evident in the unfolding criminal scandal at Penn State.  The best news from there so far is that classes across the Penn State campus are beginning ad hoc discussions on the structure and governance of college sports.

Broadcast November 7, 2011

SETH DAVIS: The NCAA's Division I Board of Directors recently approved legislation that will allow conferences to give athletes an additional two thousand dollars to meet the costs of attending school.  Since so many critics have been calling for just that kind of change, you might have expected the change to be greeted by roars of approval.  Instead, it's been met with deafening silence.  That's because many of the people who have demanded more money for students are actually demanding the end of college sports as we know it.

That is the explicitly expressed hope of renowned civil rights historian Taylor Branch, whose story headlined "The Shame of the NCAA" caused massive ripples when it was published in the September issue of The Atlantic.  In the countless interviews Branch has given since then, he has repeated his prediction—his wish—that the NCAA will someday soon go away.  He has pointed out that the United States is the only country where major college sports takes place, as if that's a bad thing.  And he has repeated his ludicrous analogy comparing college athletes on scholarships to slaves on a plantation.

There's a great disconnect between the dialogue initiated by Branch's article and the one that produced the reforms the NCAA just passed.  I think that's a good thing, because whether you like it or not, college athletes are in fact amateurs.  They'll never be compensated like professionals, but I'm glad the NCAA has found a way to get them a little bit more money to go with the priceless opportunity they've already been given to receive a free education.