Pulitzer Prize winner Taylor Branch on why BCS Playoffs could destroy the NCAA

 “The real question is when the conferences will be large enough to be able to announce they will sponsor a national playoff championship system in football for, say, the top eight teams.”

Throughout his career, historian Taylor Branch has cared for underdogs.   

In 1988, he won a Pulitzer Prize for the telling the story of those who sparked the American civil rights movement in “Parting the Waters: America in the King Years.” In 2009, Branch published recollections from a series of interviews with Bill Clinton during his presidency. Branch had roomed with Clinton for four months in 1972 as both men coordinated presidential candidate George McGovern’s Texas campaign. McGovern would lose to the favored Richard Nixon.   Branch and Clinton next spoke 20 years later in the Oval Office, which the “Comeback Kid” had reached in part by nurturing an image as a fighter of entrenched power.

In his cover story for The Atlantic’s October issue, “The Shame of College Athletics”, Branch stands up for athletes against the National Collegiate Athletic Association, college sports’ largest organizing body. Sixty-two colleges and universities founded what’s now called the N.C.A.A. in 1906 to protect their athletes from on-field danger and off-field exploitation, but the organization has exacerbated exploitation rather than limit it, Branch contends.

For decades many colleges paid their athletes, but in the mid-1900s the N.C.A.A. consolidated its power through the development of two ideas – amateurism and the student-athlete. Both principles are actually cynical hoaxes, Branch writes.    

The term student-athlete was deliberately ambiguous. College players were not students at play (which might understate their athletic obligations), nor were they just athletes in college (which might imply they were professionals). That they were high-performance athletes meant they could be forgiven for not meeting the academic standards of their peers; that they were students meant they did not have to be compensated, ever, for anything more than the cost of their studies.

New cases winding their way through courts threaten to upend this status quo. In 2009, Ed O’Bannon, who led U.C.L.A. against Arkansas in basketball’s 1995 national title game, filed a class-action antitrust suit against the N.C.A.A..  O’Bannon had seen his likeness used in video games, and it chafed him the N.C.A.A. and U.C.L.A. still profited from those game sales while he couldn’t. Former basketball and football players have joined the suit as co-plaintiffs. They seek to expose the untenability of a waiver clause found in a “Student-Athlete Statement” the N.C.A.A. requires to be yearly collected from each college athlete.

Q. Taylor, explain the controversy surrounding this clause.

A. In it, you attest you are an amateur and you’re giving the N.C.A.A. the right to exploit your image to promote sports. The N.C.A.A. has been trying to maintain it can keep athletes amateurs not only while they are in college but for the rest of their lives in so far as the N.C.A.A. owns the value of the athletic performance. If the pattern of [legal case] history is run through, everywhere else those kind of monopoly restrictions have been the challenged, the N.C.A.A. lost.

Q. Some people say college athletes are already compensated because a degree ends up being worth a lot of money. Moreover, even if that degree isn’t finished, some athletes can leverage their fame from their playing days for profit. Your response?

A. That’s right, but the real nub of the question is how do you justify the N.C.A.A. rules that forbid schools from paying them a nickel more than a scholarship and forbid the athletes from getting a Christmas card from a pro coach? If they were already getting paid everything they were worth, you wouldn’t need to put in systems that forbid them by collusion among the schools from bidding for their services. These athletes are generating hundreds of millions of dollars collectively more than the value of their scholarships.

Q: Speaking of collusion, you named your new e-book, an expanded version of the article, The Cartel.  Why?

A. The N.C.A.A. is a cartel in the sense that it is making rules for governing and restricting money, and keeping it from athletes and diverting it to coaches by collusion. It has no sanction in law. You couldn’t write a law to do this. It’s only done by private, cartel power and we’re kind of complicit in this. So, I’m trying to get people to realize that there are some real basic equity issues involved in here, as well as the whole structure of our educational system.

Q: Many Arkansans want a postseason tournament for the nation’s largest college football programs. Currently, the best of those teams are selected for separate bowl games, and only the No. 1 and No. 2 teams play for the national title. Explain why such a tournament would hurt the N.C.A.A., which gets no money from television contracts in football.

A: Football is really run by the schools themselves and the power is concentrated in the conference commissioners’ offices because these commissioners can negotiate contracts for the conference that protect all the schools and maximize their value.   The real question is when the conferences will be large enough to be able to announce they will sponsor a national playoff championship system in football for, say, the top eight teams. And when they do, they would probably generate an extra $1 billion because the ratings would skyrocket.   If the major football conferences can run on their own … then those conferences’ schools could say ‘Well … why do we need the N.C.A.A. to run the basketball tournament?’ Because the N.C.A.A. gets $770 million for just one month’s work to run that tournament.   If the [powerful football] schools said we want to run a basketball tournament, too, with the same schools that are really important, the N.C.A.A. would essentially have its throat cut.

Q: As these developments unfold, do you also see athletes themselves starting to get paid?

A: Since my article came out, the N.C.A.A. has announced a plan to pay athletes an extra $2,000 a year in Division I football programs … but in my view the N.C.A.A. tortures any understanding of ordinary language to say this extra $2,000 isn’t pay.   The N.C.A.A. rulebook defines pay as compensation that has not been authorized by the N.C.A.A. so if they authorize it, then it’s not pay. If they said the players were getting paid, then the players could bargain for their pay like anybody else. They could bargain for scholarships, and they would no longer be enforced amateurs. They would have a choice. They could represent themselves, and the N.C.A.A. doesn’t want that.  Essentially, they want to give the players whatever they want to give them, like a tip. So, I think [financial reimbursement] is gonna happen anyway. It’s just a question if there will be a change in principle, that people will say amateurism is a sham….”

 The N.C.A.A. has no recourse to principle and law that can justify amateurism … No legal definition of “amateur” exists, and the attempt to create one in enforceable law would expose its repulsive and unconstitutional nature – a bill of attainder, stripping from college athletes the rights of American citizenship.

All quotations are taken from the  The Cartel: Inside the Rise and Imminent Fall of the N.C.A.A,  available for $3.99 at taylorbranch.com

This article was originally published in the January issue of Arkansas Life magazine.

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