The NCAA And Its Treatment Of Student Athletes

The NCAA was created in 1906, at the behest of President Theodore Roosevelt, to protect and look out for the best interests of student athletes. In the latest issue of The Atlantic magazine, journalist Taylor Branch tracks how the organization evolved over the years into a body that now, he says, exploits young athletes for the financial gain of its member schools. Melissa Block talks to Branch about his article, which advocates for better treatment — and pay — for student athletes.

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MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

NCAA: athletes who take cash payouts from boosters, who trade memorabilia for tattoos. But the real scandal, according to a provocative new article in The Atlantic, is not that some college athletes are getting paid, it's that more aren't. In his article titled "The Shame of College Sports," Taylor Branch calls the NCAA a classic cartel, making scads of money from the unpaid labor of young athletes. The system, he says, carries an unmistakable whiff of the plantation. And he joins me to talk about that. Taylor Branch, welcome to the program.

TAYLOR BRANCH: Thank you, Melissa. Nice to be here.

BLOCK: The premise that underpins college sports is that the players are student athletes. They're amateurs. They're not professionals. You call that a cynical hoax. Why don't you explain what you mean?

BRANCH: The hoax is that it's the only place in American society where we impose amateur status on someone without their consent. They're not amateurs because they've chosen to be. They're amateurs because we said that's what you have to be. No other profession, including many on campuses, where you have the universities pay the graduate students and they pay bookstore cashiers, nowhere else do we say, you are not entitled to a portion of the money that you earned from the university. And in that sense, it is a plantation, and the structure is fully professionalized by all the adults who make millions, and it's fair for everyone, except the people at the bottom who produce most of the actual value.

BLOCK: And obviously, the dollar figures involving college sports are huge. We're talking about a huge pool of money here.

BRANCH: Yes. The NCAA receives from CBS-Turner $771 million just for running the March Madness basketball tournament. That is the vast bulk of its income. A few years ago, the NCAA was petrified by rumors that the players were going to refuse to play in the championship game in a Wildcat strike because they weren't getting paid. That moment of terror, which passed when the team lost, did point out what's hanging on the structure, which is that you've got hundreds of millions of dollars, the entire NCAA budget and subsidies for nearly 1,000 schools hanging on the voluntary consent of 10 basketball players when they walk out on the court for the championship game. That's the way this structure has worked. And for all the glory of college sports, the underlying economics are not fair.

BLOCK: These college athletes, of course, do sign a deal. They sign a waiver agreeing to these conditions that they will not be making money off of their likeness or their performance in any way.

BRANCH: What the NCAA forbids any college - it's a cartel that says if you don't do that, you can't go to any college that plays sports. Somehow, they were a cartel that said you can't be a radio announcer unless you agree to do it for free because it is a public service, and everybody gets a lot out of it. So you should do it for free. That wouldn't be put up with in any other sector of our society.

BLOCK: This argument has been raised before whether, you know, should we pay college athletes to play their sport? The counterpoint to that is that athletes, especially in Division I schools, are already getting scholarships estimated in the hundreds of thousands of dollars over four years. They're getting a free education and a lot more than that. Why should they get even more? Why isn't that a pretty fair trade?

BRANCH: Why should we presume to be involved in a decision about what a fair rate is for their services? If they're generating hundreds of millions of dollars, then they should be free to bargain for their services. And it distorts the whole question of whether or not professionalized sports are compatible with higher education. That is a real debate that we ought to be having, that universities ought to be having.

BLOCK: Taylor Branch, if you're talking about paying college athletes, are you talking about every sport? Are you going to be paying field hockey players, volleyball players, fencers? Or are you really just talking about the big cash cow sports: football, basketball?

BRANCH: I don't want to make colleges pay anybody. I don't think they should have to pay anybody. In fact, I want them to have a debate, an honest debate about whether they can sponsor all these big-time sports. The point is that you should not forbid colleges from paying athletes, and you should not stigmatize athletes for trying to be paid for something that they work at 60, 80 hours a week and maintain as a second career alongside their academic career. I want colleges, if they're going to be in professionalized sports, they can't exclude the key source of labor from being professionals, too, so that, you know, it wouldn't affect the vast majority of colleges who are not going to - Williams is not going to pay players because it didn't earn any money.

But the big money schools where they generate hundreds of millions of dollars in athletic revenue would have to make a decision of whether they're going to pay players and whether or not they can recruit players if other schools are going to pay them themselves.

BLOCK: The idea of paying college athletes is not new, and it is one that the NCAA has flatly ruled out in the past. The president of the NCAA, Mark Emmert, has said they are not our employees. They don't work for us. They are our students. So we don't pay them. As you talked about this with other people in the industry, university presidents, this idea about paying college athletes, did you find anybody who said this is a good idea? I think we do need to think about this.

BRANCH: Well, all the ex-players said they thought it was a good idea. Well, no, not all the ex-players. I want to be honest about that. There are a lot of ex-players who are quite romantic about it and who say, it would have spoiled the bond I felt with my teammates if we have been paid. So there is a lot of romance about this, but many, many other players don't feel that way. And they say that they don't get an honest education about how - what amateurism is or what the structure of college sports is and how they might evaluate their chances for a sports career against their chances in other professions. They don't get any of that because the NCAA simply says, forget about pro sports, be happy you've got a scholarship. You have minuscule chances of doing that, anyway.

BLOCK: And what about from universities? What do they say?

BRANCH: I've talked a lot with university presidents, lots of athletic directors. The most honest and telling one for me was Dick Baddour, who was, until recently, the athletic director for 44 years at my alma mater, Chapel Hill, who just said I wouldn't want to be a part of any system that paid these players. It's hard enough to run an athletic department as it is, which is basically diverting the profits from the money sports into the non-money sports and trying to keep them afloat.

And, you know, they pay the soccer and volleyball coaches an awful lot of money. And if they had to divert some of that money from the coaches and from the non-revenue programs and other, he said, it would be a nightmare. And he said, I think that this university would want to think long and hard about whether we would pursue big-time sports under that basis if we had to pay the players. And I can understand how that would be a nightmare for him, and he wouldn't want to do it. And he has since retired.

However, I think that would be a very, very honest discussion that many education reformers have long wanted, which is can professionalized sports and quality education coexist on the campus? We ask the athletes to pursue those two careers, but we don't give them the respect for that when they do pull it off because somehow we've convinced ourselves that these student athletes are doing something that's a natural gift and doing something that's easy.

BLOCK: Taylor Branch, thank you very much.

BRANCH: Thank you, Melissa.

BLOCK: Taylor Branch, his article in the latest issue of The Atlantic is titled "The Shame of College Sports."

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