Your Study Guide To The Atlantic's Massive, Withering Story About The Wretchedness Of The NCAA

If you read one piece of sports journalism this week, it should be The Atlantic magazine's huge cover story by Taylor Branch, a Pulitzer-Prize-winning civil rights historian. Branch isn't doing much new by calling out the NCAA as a morally defective institution—a "classic cartel...[that] presides over a vast, teetering glory" and exudes "an unmistakable whiff of the plantation." He's just doing it much, much better than most. In fine-bladed fashion, 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.

The thrust of Branch's story is that a sham morality pervades college sports. School administrators openly cluck about the sanctity of athletics as they extend their hands for corporate largesse. This cynicism begets a system that is, at its core, exploitative. And you can guess who's being exploited:

For all the outrage, the real scandal 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. ...

Slavery analogies should be used carefully. College athletes are not slaves. Yet to survey the scene—corporations and universities enriching themselves on the backs of uncompensated young men, whose status as "student-athletes" deprives them of the right to due process guaranteed by the constitution—is to catch an unmistakable whiff of the plantation.

Perhaps a more apt metaphor is colonialism: college sports, as overseen by the NCAA, is a system imposed by well-meaning paternalists and rationalized with hoary sentiments about caring for the well-being of the colonized. But it is, nonetheless, unjust. The NCAA, in its zealous defense of bogus principles, sometimes destroys the dreams of innocent young athletes.

As the story unfolds, Branch shows us that:


1.) Amateurism in college sports has always been something of a pretense:

In 1939, freshman players at the University of Pittsburgh went on strike because they were getting paid less than their upperclassman teammates.

2.) The man single-handedly responsible for the concentration of power in the NCAA was a thug:


In 1951, the NCAA seized upon a serendipitous set of events to gain control of intercollegiate sports. First, the organization hired a young college dropout named Walter Byers as executive director. A journalist who was not yet 30 years old, he was an appropriately inauspicious choice for the vaguely defined new post. He wore cowboy boots and a toupee. He shunned personal contact, obsessed over details, and proved himself a bureaucratic master of pervasive, anonymous intimidation."

A point-shaving scandal allowed Byers to consolidate NCAA control over college sports. The advent of TV made the power shift permanent, as Byers bullied schools into allowing the NCAA to negotiate all TV contracts. If the NCAA was a cartel, Byers was its Escobar. And he knew it. In describing college sports, he said:

"This is the plantation mentality resurrected and blessed by today's campus executives."

3.) The term "student-athlete" was coined to get colleges out of paying workmen's compensation for injured athletes. If athletes were identified primarily as students—despite much evidence to the contrary and what are arguably contractual relationships (athletic scholarships)—schools could insulate themselves from paying the medical benefits to which an employee would normally be entitled:

That they were students meant they did not have to be compensated, ever, for anything more than the cost of their studies. Student-athlete became the NCAA's signature term, repeated constantly in and out of both a legalistic defense and a noble ideal. Indeed, such is the term's rhetorical power that it is increasingly used as a sort of reflexive mantra against charges of rabid hypocrisy.

4.) Athletes are fighting the hypocrisy in ways that could force change. See: Ed O'Bannon. See also: Joseph Agnew, a football player at Rice who was cut and had his scholarship revoked before his senior year. Agnew filed another antitrust suit seeking to make it possible for students (or athletes, it seems) to finish their educations. The NCAA stipulation that schools only offer one-year athletic scholarships that are then renewed "effectively allows colleges to cut underperforming student-athletes, just as pro sports teams cut their players," Branch writes. Agnew was stuck paying $35,000 in tuition and other bills if he wanted to finish his sociology degree.

5.) The NCAA goes after petty violations in order to distract from bigger issues. When A.J. Green, a wide receiver at Georgia, sold his jersey to raise cash for a spring-break vacation, he was suspended, even as Georgia kept selling A.J. Green jerseys for $39.95. Even the investigations reek of hypocrisy:

The moral logic is hard to fathom: the NCAA bans personal messages on the bodies of the players, and penalizes players for trading their celebrity status for discounted tattoos, but it codifies precisely how and where commercial insignia from multinational corporations can be displayed on college players, for the financial benefit of the colleges. Last season, while the NCAA investigated him and his father for the recruiting fees they'd allegedly sought, Cam Newton compliantly wore at least 15 corporate logos—one on his jersey, four on his helmet visor, one on each wristband, one on his pants, six on his shoes, and one on the headband he wears under his helmet—as part of Auburn's $10.6 million deal with Under Armour.

6.) For all the noise about enforcement, the NCAA's money goes somewhere else. Where? There's little transparency, and the system encourages people to keep quiet.

From the summary tax forms required of nonprofits, [Rick Johnson, a lawyer who represented two college pitchers investigated by the NCAA] found out that the NCAA had spent nearly $1 million chartering private jets in 2006. "What kind of nonprofit organization leases private jets?," Johnson asks. It's hard to determine from tax returns what money goes where, but it looks as if the NCAA spent less than 1 percent of its budget on enforcement that year. Even after its plump cut for its own overhead, the NCAA dispersed huge sums to its 1,200 member schools, in the manner of a professional sports league. These annual payments are universal—every college gets something—but widely uneven. They keep the disparate shareholders (barely) united and speaking for all of college sports. The payments coerce unity within the structure of a private association that is unincorporated and unregulated, exercising amorphous powers not delegated by any government.

7.) The NCAA actively works against the rights of athletes. Branch writes that the NCAA's infractions-committee vice chair, Josephine Potuto, has repeatedly argued that college athletes have no stake to seek their rights to freedom or property in their own athletic efforts because they have no rights at stake:

Potuto's assertion might be judged preposterous, an heir of the Dred Scott dictum that slaves possessed no rights a white person was bound to respect. But she was merely being honest, articulating assumptions almost everyone shares without question. Whether motivated by hostility for students (as critics like Johnson allege), or by noble and paternalistic tough love (as the NCAA professes), the denial of fundamental due process for college athletes has stood unchallenged in public discourse. Like other NCAA rules, it emanates naturally from the premise that college athletes own no interest in sports beyond exercise, character-building, and good fun. Who represents these young men and women? No one asks.

8.) We should say to hell with amateurism:

In its predicament, the NCAA has no recourse to any principle or law that can justify amateurism. There is no such thing. Scholars and sportswriters yearn for grand juries to ferret out every forbidden bauble that reaches a college athlete, but the 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.

9.) We should say to hell with the NCAA:

"Scholarship athletes are already paid," declared the Knight commission members, "in the most meaningful way possible: with a free education." This evasion by prominent educators severed my last reluctant, emotional tie with imposed amateurism. I found it worse than self-serving. It echoes masters who once claimed that heavenly salvation would outweigh earthly injustice to slaves. In the era when our college sports first arose, colonial powers were turning the whole world upside down to define their own interests as all-inclusive and benevolent. Just so, the NCAA calls it heinous exploitation to pay college athletes a fair portion of what they earn.

The Shame of College Sports [The Atlantic]

[Photo via the NCAA]