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?

Seth Davis
Excerpt from a Sports Illustrated blog post

[Seth] Davis concludes that because the NCAA has gathered all sources of demand for college athletes under its control, college athletes have little value and most of them are overpaid. Instead, what Davis has shown is that the NCAA has monopoly power in the industry. Because virtually all of the sources of demand have agreed that they will not pay college athletes more than a scholarship, this has created an ironclad, industry-wide pay cap. With respect to athlete compensation, this makes the NCAA a very successful cartel …

Despite Davis’s claim that most college football players are overpaid, what we don’t generally see is high-school football players getting partial-scholarship offers … That’s what the world would look like if players were worth less than a full scholarship, because there is no NCAA minimum scholarship requirement. It’s a basic economic tenet that in the absence of a minimum wage, you won’t see employers paying more than a competitive wage for workers …

The irony is that Davis and Branch and I actually all should agree that we don’t need any rules against paying players. Branch and I think we should drop the rule to let market forces kick in and for college athletes to earn what they are worth. Davis thinks college athletes are overpaid, and if that were true we could drop the NCAA rules prohibiting pay and nothing would change. Since we’re agreed, let’s drop the rule and see what happens.

Andy Schwarz
Excerpt from a blog post

Branch’s look at the NCAA … is easily the most important writing on the issues in a generation … It will be the starting point now for anyone who begins to analyze the culture and economics of big-time college sports.

Lester Munson
Excerpt from an blog post

I hope this article prompts needed systemic change, starting with the Bowl Championship Series’s control over college football. The BCS is the real cartel—the driving force that leads Branch to observe, “Educators are in thrall to their athletic departments because of these television riches.”

For years, the BCS has distributed postseason honors and revenues on the basis of entitlement, not performance. Undefeated teams from the “wrong” conferences are denied the chance to compete for football’s national title. Revenues, naturally, are largely reserved for the “right” conferences.

At most publicly funded institutions, athletics are money-losers, partly because the BCS has shrunk the pie and safeguarded the largest slices for its favorites. The current conference realignments are about getting a bigger slice, about the rich getting richer, so football’s BCS cartel drags other athletic programs (men’s and women’s basketball, for example) on the chase.

Stephen Weber, Ph.D.
Former president, San Diego State University
Hancock, Maine

Paying a student a grant-in-aid, a scholarship, is not a violation of [the] amateurism principle. So if we paid athletes to play for us, clearly, they wouldn’t be, could not be, amateurs. And we will stay as long, at least, as it is possible, by adhering to the principle of amateurism, no pay for players …

There is no way, short of huge additional outlays, to hire athletes to pay them for what they do. That means not just the stars of Division 1A, but the third-string halfback in football or the 13th bench player in basketball and athletes in Divisions II and III. Division III is a non-scholarship division, the biggest division in the NCAA …

In addition, there is Title IX. Surely, if we bestowed dollars on players who make a difference more than other players, we would have a tremendous tussle with the meaning of Title IX, which is equality for women. And to put this into institutions of higher education at a time when, across the country, budgets for higher-educational institutions, public and private, are being reduced in double-digit numbers—it’s just impractical.

Joe Crowley
Former president, University of Nevada at Reno
Excerpt from a PBS NewsHour interview

Taylor Branch replies:

Thanks for the outpouring of fresh debate on the critical juncture of college sports with higher education. I’ll stand with Andy Schwarz’s comments on the basic economic structure of college sports. Only wishful thinking can construe it to be an equitable or free market.

Let me respond to Steve Donoghue on the slavery analogy. He is one of many readers who find it extreme and inaccurate, but I stand by the comparison because I think it illuminates patterns of thought. My analogy was qualified, of course. College athletes are not literally slaves. However, they have in common the fact that immense wealth has been created from their skilled, diligent labor, in such a way that denies them the full rights of American citizenship.

The NCAA excludes college athletes from membership. They have no voice or vote. The organization forbids them from bargaining over their high-value skills, and even punishes small favors to them or their relatives. All of this is done without the slightest foundation in law, whereas even slavery, for all its horrors, was debated and codified in detail.

Anyone who wonders how slavery survived so long would do well to ponder the NCAA. It rests on fiat and inertia. People shy away from considering its basic justification, because there is none. Similarly, people once despised the abolitionists, not in defense of slavery in principle, but precisely because they were upset that the abolitionists were right.

Nowhere else in our society do we strip citizens of essential rights to livelihood. Nowhere else would we withhold one group’s rights for the convenience of another group.

College myths are convenient. We disparage “dumb jocks” while envying the few stars. All of the athletes deserve more respect, especially the vast majority who will never become pros. Let’s get past the myths to the basics. So long as we pretend that “dirty athletes” corrupt college sports by seeking compensation, we cannot address the real questions of sports in higher education.

Slam Dunk
Readers offered their own ideas for fixing college sports:

• Create minor leagues for basketball and football.
• Award four-year, instead of one-year, scholarships.
• Detach athletics from schools, as in the European club model.
• Pay students in royalty fees for merchandise sales, etc.
• Allow students to market themselves to pro teams.
• Give athletic-scholarship holders a full stipend.

laughter is the best medicine

Menopausal women, and many of their husbands, responded enthusiastically to Sandra Tsing Loh’s October meditation on The Change, “The Bitch Is Back.”

Brilliant. I’m debating whether I should share this piece with my wife, because I’m not sure if it will elicit an I’m-glad-you-are-trying-to-understand hug or a punch in the mouth.

Richard_Tull comment

I shared it with her. She completely understood the entire thing and laughingly said f&ck you for making me read it!


Thank you, thank you, thank you to Sandra Tsing Loh for one of the best, most affirming pieces on menopause ever written. I howled with laughter, recognized every plight, and cried the overly sentimental tears of the perimenopausal. Forget the books, the doctors, the creams, and the personal trainer—my new prescription for all my 50ish women friends is to hand them this article.

Kimberly Bergs
Belmont, Mich.

Hang on, honey. It doesn’t get better but it does get funnier, which should be good for business.

Annette Licitra comment

Let’s Talk About Sex

In October’s “Sex and the Married Politician,” David Greenberg asked if media organizations should report political sex scandals. Is such exposure in the public’s interest? Sometimes yes and sometimes no, he concluded, but readers were less equivocal: