The civil rights historian, Taylor Branch, knew football. He had played for an Atlanta high school in the early 1960s. He was a middle linebacker and tight end recruited by Georgia Tech. But he had a bad shoulder and took an academic scholarship at North Carolina on one condition, that he would never again play football. As a father of students at the University of Michigan, he had attended three or four games at the Big House, most recently in 2005. Otherwise, he had been immersed in his trilogy on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and an interview project with President Bill Clinton. He had made it through life without paying much attention to big-time college sports.
Yet, in the darkness before dawn on November 26, 2010, he drove toward Tuscaloosa for the bloodletting known as Alabama-Auburn.
To get a feel for the day ahead, he turned on the car radio. Among the Roll Tide/War Eagle callers, he heard one sleepless man babble “that he couldn’t stop thinking about the coin toss.”
Then, in the daylight, Branch saw what he had never seen before.
“RVs everywhere, all the way to the outskirts of Tuscaloosa.”
He had arrived in Alabama as innocent as an American male could be.
“Some RVs had been there for days,” Branch said. “When I asked tailgaters without tickets why they’d come so early – just to watch the game on TV from the parking lot – they looked at me like I was crazy. One said, ‘If you have to ask why, you wouldn’t understand.’” From the tailgaters, Branch walked to the Bear Bryant museum packed with pilgrims paying respects to the Bear’s hounds-tooth hats.
After being locked in libraries, writing rooms, and other detention centers for nearly three decades, Branch had asked The Atlantic magazine for an assignment that would get him into the daylight. They failed to come up with an idea until Branch mentioned the spate of scandals around college sports. Bingo. Juicy stuff. A departure for a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian.
“So, it began as a kind of a lark,” Branch said.
It ended with 15,000 words in The Atlantic‘s October issue under the headline, “The Shame of College Sports.”
The innocent had become a sophisticate.
This is not the Pettus Bridge at Selma. But there is common ground. The movement to reform big-time college athletics is building to a force against which lies cannot stand. There will be meaningful reform. When that time comes, Branch’s piece will be remembered for its part in provoking change. He wrote it with an historian’s measured gait and tone. His indictment of the men and women who rule big-time college sports is so brilliant, well ordered and reasonable as to defy rebuttal.
The indictment is built on two truths:
1) Amateurism is a lie. “There is no such thing,” Branch wrote. “….(T)he NCAA’s ersatz courts can only masquerade as public authority. How could any statute impose amateur status on college athletes, or on anyone else? No legal definition of amateur exists, and any 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.” Which is the NCAA’s standard procedure.
2) Big-time college sports are exploitative to the edge of slavery. “Slavery analogies should be used carefully,” the MLK biographer wrote. But there is no ignoring the elephant in the room. Corporations and universities make billions of dollars using the cheap labor of college athletes, many of them African-American. Those athletes are not allowed to profit from the sale of their images or names. They are held up to the public humiliation of suspension if they so much as bum a ride to town; meanwhile, in 2006, NCAA panjandrums spent nearly $1 million of player-produced revenue to charter private jets. At Tuscaloosa, Branch noticed that Auburn’s Cam Newton suited up in apparel that carried 15 corporate logos advertising sponsors that paid the university for the use of his body as a billboard. To Branch, there was the “unmistakable whiff of the plantation.”
He doesn’t share the outrage over the latest scandals. “The real scandal,” he wrote, “is not that students are getting illegally paid or recruited, it’s that two of the noble principles on which the NCAA justifies its existence – ‘amateurism’ and the ‘student-athlete’ – are cynical hoaxes, legalistic confections propagated by the universities so they can exploit the skills and fame of young athletes. The tragedy at the heart of college sports is not that some college athletes are getting paid, but that more of them are not.”
Universities make billions of dollars on athletics. They give scholarships and nothing more to the young men and women whose performances earn the money. Studies have shown that the average scholarship doesn’t cover the cost of attendance. USA Today put the median basketball scholarship package at $27,923 (while also reporting the real value of the deal at $120,00, for coaching, training, et al.). NBA and NFL players get 57 percent of league revenue; using that number, HBO’s “Real Sports” decided that Duke basketball players last year were worth $1.2 million each.
Branch is at his best uncovering the NCAA’s camouflage of its exploitation. Step by legal step, he dissects the sham involved in the NCAA order that member institutions and representatives refer to players as “student-athletes.” The label was not designed to emphasize the primary value of education. It was built as a firewall against liability litigation. If players are “students,” they are not employees. They are not eligible for an employee’s protections and benefits.
Read Branch, if you will. Read “The Scandal Beat,” Daniel Libit’s good stuff in the current Columbia Journalism Review. Go to the archives and read sportswriters who have batted their heads against the NCAA stonewall for decades. Read them all and you will come away wishing there were laws against sham, cant, and hypocrisy, for if those were crimes, we could throw the entire NCAA in jail. It could share the billionaire-thieves wing with Bernie Madoff.
Here is Taylor Branch, no longer an innocent:
“The time has come for a major overhaul.” (He would end the pretense of amateurism. The Olympic model suits him.) “And whether the powers that be like it or not, big changes are coming. Threats loom on multiple fronts: in Congress, the courts, breakaway athletic conferences, student rebellion, and public disgust. Swaddled in gauzy clichés, the NCAA presides over a vast, teetering glory.”
Here is Branch, the sophisticate:
He now can pick Sonny Vaccaro out of a lineup.
Branch, who knows how to tell a story, chose to begin his with Vaccaro’s voice. That all-time champion hustler, famous as “the sneaker pimp,” tells the unshirted truth to the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics. When one distinguished former university president demanded to know why a university should be an advertising medium for Vaccaro’s shoe and apparel clients, Vaccaro says:
“They shouldn’t, sir. You sold your souls, and you’re going to continue selling them. You can be very moral and righteous in asking me that question, sir, but there’s not one of you in this room that’s going to turn down any of our money. You’re going to take it. I can only offer it.”
No news there. Only the dollar figures have changed. No enterprise based on a lie can be anything but corrupt. And the lie of amateurism has been created, nurtured, and sustained by universities from the start. Walter Camp graduated from Yale in 1880, became “the father of American football,” and soon set up a $100,000 slush fund for Eli football players. Chump change now maybe, a hundred years ago a hundred grand was real money. How perfect, that football’s daddy was also its first sugar daddy.
Camp knew the system was a fraud and that the players deserved more. A century and more later, our great universities continue to abide scandal because it’s cheaper than doing right by the players. In fact, my only quibble with Branch and The Atlantic is over the headline, “The Shame of College Sports.” The editors and the historian may find the universities’ behavior shameful. But the universities themselves?
If they had even an iota of shame, they’d pay reparations to every Division I athlete of the last century.
With a full measure of shame, they’d climb to the top of Notre Dame’s Hesburgh Library and throw themselves to the feet of Touchdown Jesus, there asking forgiveness.
Dave Kindred’s latest book, “Morning Miracle,” is an inside-the-newsroom account of two years in the life of The Washington Post. Now a contributing writer at Golf Digest, Kindred is a Red Smith Award winner and member of the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association Hall of Fame. He can be reached by email at email@example.com. He can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.