I have already blogged once about college sports, but I just had to comment on this groundbreaking and thought-provoking article, “The Shame of College Sports”, by civil rights historian Taylor Branch. Many of my students follow college sports already (even though Boston is notorious for its apathy toward college athletics and its preference for professional sports), but they probably have not yet experienced the ups and downs of following your college’s team run up and down the field/court/curling ice. As a Davidson alumnus, one of the main ways for me to connect with my alma mater is the college’s tradition-rich men’s basketball team. I grew up watching Georgia-Florida football games with my Dad in Jacksonville, my hometown. (And it’s happening this weekend, folks! Go Dawgs!) I am a great fan of collegiate athletics, so Branch’s article hit home with me not just because of its historical bent. Before you take on this hefty article, I suggest that you check out the video below, which features Branch and most of his key arguments.
On a basic level the information in Branch’s article is nothing new: he notes that the NCAA and its paternalistic regulations are hopelessly out of touch with the realities faced by student-athletes. For decades now critics of the NCAA have denounced it even more loudly and vehemently than Branch has here as hypocritical, legalistic, and unapologetic in its support for big institutions and their bank accounts. What makes this article different from those standard critiques, however, is its thorough treatment of the shocking early history of the NCAA. I had no idea that this governing body had usurped power from universities so easily and so seemingly irreversibly. Branch also does a great job of explaining how strange, ironic, and singularly American the NCAA’s oversight has been. No other country in the world cares about college sports like we do, and, while you could say the same thing about how Americans think about the free market, for some reason we don’t allow a free market to exist for college sports. This is shameful. What is shameful as well is that the NCAA does all of this in the name of the mythological creature known as the “Student Athlete” (academicus athletica, if you will). This myth is convenient for the NCAA, because it allows them to cash in on the obscene amount of money these young men and women make for their colleges and, as yet, not at all for themselves.
Branch is brilliant in describing the injustice of this arrangement, likening it to, of all things, European colonialism. The “we know best” attitude of the NCAA certainly echoes how Western cultures justified their less than honorable actions abroad. It is as if, like in the famous imperialist soap advertisement shown above, the NCAA excuses its exploitation of thousands of athletes because it is virtue to be an impoverished and “clean” amateur. It is easy for us to accept this myth as a virtue, especially given the hedonism and selfishness of professional sports leagues in the West. Yet, I agree with Branch that it is a crime to deny American citizens the right to keep the fruits of their labors. Another aspect of Branch’s argument which I enjoyed is his admission that he is reluctant to advocate paying NCAA athletes. I appreciate his honesty, and I share his discomfort with this change. In the end, though, there is really no better way. With billions of dollars flowing through collegiate sports, why shouldn’t the players share in that windfall? One last strength of Branch’s article that I would like to underscore here is his clever redirection away from athletes’ countless violations of NCAA rules. By focusing on the system rather than just the ways the system has been defied (by the likes of Miami, Ohio State, Connecticut, and so many others), his article has the potential of causing significant change. If we are to end this unjust colonialist approach to collegiate athletics, who will be our Sons of Liberty?