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Taylor Branch: ‘Only Custom and Fiat’ Keep College Athletes From Sharing Profits

September 19, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
Historian Taylor Branch speaks with Hari Sreenivasan about his cover story in The Atlantic, "The Shame of College Sports," which calls for a complete overhaul of the way NCAA athletics works.

GWEN IFILL: Finally tonight: College athletics and the money involved in big-time sports comes under fire.

Hari Sreenivasan has the story, beginning with this background.

HARI SREENIVASAN: College football served up a slew of big games over the weekend. But there was unexpected excitement off the field. Syracuse University and the University of Pittsburgh announced they’re leaving the Big East Conference to join the Atlantic Coast Conference, the ACC. And officials at Texas and Oklahoma held meetings today to discuss leaving their conference, the Big 12.

The moves are driven in part by efforts to cash in on television contracts worth billions of dollars controlled entirely by conferences. With that kind of money at stake, there is new talk about whether the college sports governing body, the NCAA, should allow college players to be paid.

Earlier this year, Mark Emmert, the president of the NCAA, defended the idea of amateur athletes on the PBS documentary series “Frontline.”

MARK EMMERT, President, NCAA: We provide them with remarkable opportunities to get an education at the finest universities on Earth — that’s American universities and colleges — to gain access to the best coaches and the best trainers to develop their skills and abilities, so if they have the potential, that small proportion, to go on and play in professional sports, we’re helping them develop those skills and they can go do it.

If they choose to not go on, or if they don’t have those skills or abilities, then they get to go on in life and be successful as a young man or a young woman.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Now Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Taylor Branch has again raised pay-for-play in an explosive new article in “The Atlantic” magazine called “The Shame of College Sports,” all of this at a time when new scandals have raised questions about the oversight of the big-money sports: football and basketball.

One high-profile case involves allegations that University of Miami football players received gifts, cash, and even prostitutes. And Cam Newton, last year’s Heisman Trophy winner at Auburn, was the subject of an investigation after his father received funds from a booster.

In all, at least 10 major football programs have faced investigations or punishment in recent months.

Taylor Branch is the author of “The Atlantic” story, which is on newsstands now and will be released as an e-book later this week, and he joins me now to talk about all this.

Thanks for being with us.

TAYLOR BRANCH, Author, “The Shame of College Sports”: Thank you, Hari.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So, first, help us understand what you think the essential problem with big-time college sports is today.

TAYLOR BRANCH: The essential problem is that we pretend that these adults are not entitled to a portion of the value that they earn. And we pretend that the problem with all of these scandals is that dirty athletes are getting money under the table.

The problem is that we’re not honest about it. Nowhere else in America do we forbid adults from seeking a portion of the highly valued services that they provide. And nowhere else would we think of saying, don’t pay these people until I’m satisfied that it won’t mess something up.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Now, as the NCAA president said, they’re getting an education, some to schools that they may never have had access to. Isn’t that payment enough?

TAYLOR BRANCH: They’re generating billions of dollars on top of those scholarships. And we are saying that they should be amateurs. We don’t tell anybody else — amateurism isn’t — it’s like religion or idealism. It’s something that one professes. It’s not something you impose on someone else.

HARI SREENIVASAN: You don’t buy the idea of amateurs or this phrase called the student athlete that the NCAA uses. You call them in your article “cynical hoaxes and legalistic confections.”

Explain that.

TAYLOR BRANCH: I discovered that from the founder and architect of the NCAA himself, Walter Byers, who said that they invented the term student athlete to help colleges and the NCAA defend against workers compensation suits from athletes who broke their necks in college.

The colleges say, you were only doing that — you weren’t working for the university. Therefore, you’re not entitled to medical care compensation. You were just like throwing — it was just like you were throwing a Frisbee on the college lawn. And they have beaten down all of these lawsuits this way. So there’s an underside to all of this behind all of the money that started in the 1950s.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Now, you have said in the beginning of the article when you approached this story that you would have also been somebody that said, no, the college athletes shouldn’t be paid. Right now, after having done this research, do you think they should be paid?

TAYLOR BRANCH: Yes, I do. I think that, one day, we will be amazed at our presumption that we have pretended that the problem is dirty money to these people who are working hard at two careers at once.

HARI SREENIVASAN: And you use some very strong language in the piece. You said that you didn’t want to use slavery. You don’t consider them slaves. But you do say that it resembles colonialism and has an unmistakable whiff of the plantation.

How so?

TAYLOR BRANCH: Because we’re pretending it’s for their own good that we’re denying them the right to earn a living from stuff that they have worked — from professions that they worked on and sweat and kill themselves on all the time.

So, it looks pretty bad to me. I’m not saying that any college should pay these players. I’m just saying that it is artificial and wrong to prohibit them from paying them by a cartel. There’s no law that does it. It’s only custom and fiat. And among many other things it does is, it prevents us from having an honest conversation about whether professionalized sports and quality education are compatible.

We’re the only country in the world that houses big-money sports in institutions of higher learning. And we don’t have a debate about whether that injures education or sports, because we’re pretending — the NCAA has the big sports media pretending that the problem is dirty athletes.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So how would a system like that even work? If I’m on a college football team and if I think that this guy or — next to me is making more money or less money, does that destroy some of the camaraderie; does that destroy some of the integrity of the game?

TAYLOR BRANCH: How about, does it destroy the camaraderie here at the NewsHour? It’s the same thing. It’s like the real world. It’s also like the Olympics.

The Olympics were amateur for a century, and people thought even, more than college sports, that it would ruin them if they went professional. They went professional, and no one even noticed. They scarcely noticed. And the same thing could happen in college sports. I’m not saying that it would. I’m just saying that we are postponing all the questions behind a facade that exploits these athletes.

HARI SREENIVASAN: OK. Now, what — we did try to reach out to the NCAA. Mark Emmert, the president of the NCAA, wouldn’t appear with you tonight. But we’re hoping to hear from a representative on this matter.

Now, in a recent op-ed in the USA Today, the NCAA does say — or he says that academic standards, they’re trying to increase those. They’re also trying to increase the opportunity for multiyear scholarships.

Do you think that the NCAA is making a good-faith effort?

TAYLOR BRANCH: I think they’re doing — actually, I’m glad you asked that. I do think that they’re making some effort on academic standards. And the people I talked to about — at the NCAA about the academic side seemed to be doing a pretty good job.

But on the amateurism side, which is where the big money is, I think that it’s all smoke and mirrors and it’s like the Wizard of Oz.

HARI SREENIVASAN: You also mentioned a couple of lawsuits that are coming against the NCAA that could have significant ramifications. If people haven’t been following this or the “Frontline” story, kind of briefly summarize them. Why could they be so game-changing?

TAYLOR BRANCH: Because the NCAA is threatened on many fronts with practical threats beyond the ones I mentioned in principle.

Ex-students are suing the NCAA for making money off their old video games and college sports archives that they’re selling, and they’re not — and they don’t give a portion of it to the athletes long after they have left college. Congress is looking into the NCAA for not — for denying athletes due process and for antitrust. Why don’t they have a national college playoff?

That’s what a lot of this musical chairs in the conferences is about. The NCAA used to control all the TV revenue for football, too. The football schools broke away. And if these giant conferences can put on a national football playoff without the NCAA, which it would be without the NCAA, the NCAA’s terrified that they could put on the basketball tournament, too, and take that from the NCAA, which is 95 percent of its income.

They get $771 million a year straight to the NCAA just for running this March Madness basketball tournament. And if the football schools took that, the NCAA would collapse into an impotent rule-making body.

HARI SREENIVASAN: All right, Taylor Branch, thanks so much for your time today.


GWEN IFILL: And as Hari mentioned, an NCAA representative wasn’t available to speak with Mr. Branch, to appear with Mr. Branch tonight. But we expect to hear the organization’s viewpoint tomorrow when we interview Joseph Crowley, a former university president and NCAA historian.