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A League of Fans Special Feature

Taylor Branch

Taylor Branch is a civil rights and presidential historian best known for his trilogy on Martin Luther King, Jr. and the civil rights movement.  He won the Pulitzer Prize for the first part of that trilogy, Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-63.  He also wrote The Clinton Tapes: Wrestling History With The President, among many other books, including Second Wind, which he wrote with basketball superstar Bill Russell.  He also served as an editor with The Washington Monthly and Harper’s and was a columnist for Esquire magazine.

Sports have always been a sideline interest for Branch.  His curiosity about why the NCAA seems to always be in perpetual scandal led him to conduct a survey history of college sports.  Branch recently wrote a comprehensive feature article for The Atlantic summarizing this work entitled, “The Shame of College Sports,” in which he attacks the structure of big-time college sports and makes the case for paying college athletes.

Branch was interviewed by Ken Reed, League of Fans’ sports policy director.

Ken Reed:  Do you think the plight of college athletes today is a civil rights issue?

Taylor Branch:  It’s definitely a civil rights issue.  The governance of college sports is a civil rights issue because the athletes are citizens and are being denied their rights by what amounts to collusion.

Colleges are telling football and basketball players they can’t get anything above a college scholarship.  The athletes are being conned out of their rights.

We need modern abolitionists to fight this unjust and unstable system.

KR:  What are your thoughts on the NCAA?

TB:  The NCAA’s amateur ideals are contrived.  The NCAA is unstable and unbalanced in a number of respects.  They represent about 1200 schools but all their attention is on the big BCS schools.  The NCAA is divided between the big-time football and basketball programs and everyone else.  There’s a lot of financial infighting.  The big schools resent the money from March Madness that’s paid to the smaller schools.

In terms of rules violations, the NCAA’s enforcement with the big schools is getting weaker and weaker because the NCAA is afraid the big-time conferences and schools will leave and form their own organization.

If you tell Ohio State you can’t be on TV, you’re talking about millions of dollars. OhioStateand the Big Ten wouldn’t stand for it.

Most of the harsh penalties today fall on the players, not the schools.

KR:  When it comes to the challenge of college sports reform, where do we start?

TB:  There are a lot of issues concerning the governance of college sports.  Who are the stakeholders?  What are their rights?  Who’s stepping up to their responsibilities?

If we start by recognizing everyone’s rights, we can reform things fairly in college sports.  We can’t deprive athletes of their rights, including the right to earn a livelihood.

This whole issue of the rights of college athletes is sitting there as the elephant in the room whenever the subject of college sports reform is brought up.  My primary concern is the basic rights of these athletes.

KR:  You believe college athletes have the right to seek pay for their services, correct?

TB:  Absolutely.  College athletes are both athletes and students.  They have every right to seek pay as athletes.

If college athletes were at the decision-making table regarding how to run sports, along with administrators and faculty, we might have a more honest debate on the value of athletes to a university.

My basic belief is that players have rights to seek player compensation.  They have the right to bargain for their own livelihood.  There needs to be a players’ association.  Student government structures could provide a model.

KR:  Do you see the NCAA, and its member institutions, as hypocrites when it comes to college sports?

TB:  Absolutely, they are hypocrites, especially when they use the term “student-athlete” to try and protect their idea of amateurism.  I think it’s fundamentally dishonest the way the NCAA and these schools have taken advantage of athletes in college.

It seems to me we have to separate the student function and the athlete function, instead of fusing the two together.  “Student-athlete” is such a dangerous confection.  They are both students and athletes.  To be either a student or an athlete in a good school is demanding.  To do both well is a remarkable achievement.

KR:  If the bigBCS schools start paying big-time football and men’s basketball players, what will happen to the rest of Division I schools?

TB:  If universities have an honest discussion about college sports — with players, faculty, administrators, and board members at the table — it might lead to the de-emphasis of athletics at some schools.  If some universities can’t keep up the pace at the highest level they can deemphasize sports.

It could lead to a reexamination of the role of sports in colleges.  What are our priorities as a society?  In some respects, sports have become more important than higher education.  How much do we want sports to dominate what happens at our colleges and universities?

KR:  Do you see theBCS conferences separating from the NCAA at some point?

TB:  I think the bigBCS schools separating from the NCAA will ultimately happen.  It will lead to some type of national association of big-time sports programs.

TheBCSsystem in Division I football is already run apart from the NCAA.  If we ever get a playoff in Division I football, it won’t be run by the NCAA.  If a future football playoff is run successfully, without the NCAA’s involvement, the same schools could turn around and say, “We could do the same thing in basketball,” and then create their own basketball tournament apart from the NCAA.

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