Taylor Branch Says NCAA and Colleges Using Athletes to Make Billions; Argues Jocks Should Be Paid


Writing for the Atlantic Monthly, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and author Taylor Branch offers a powerful indictment of the hypocrisy built into college sports, where universities make billions off of athletes who are essentially working full-time jobs for free.

“The Shame of College Sports” is a long piece, so here are some of the highlights:

The truth teller in Branch’s piece is of all people Sonny Vaccaro, who got rich by marketing Adidas, Reebok and Nike shoes and apparel by signing coaches, teams and athletes as endorsers. (Vaccaro has retired, and now advocates for the rights of college athletes.) “We want to put our materials on the bodies of your athletes, and the best way to do that is buy your school. Or buy your coach,” Vaccaro tells a board of NCAA overseers.

When one of the panelists questions Vaccaro, he replies, “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.”

The NCAA, Branch points out, spends a lot of time and effort going after individual athletes for breaking the rules, but ignores the much larger issue. “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.”

Perhaps most disturbing to us is what happens to athletes who get injured or “fail to perform to expectations.” The college cynically yanks their scholarship. Branch tells the story of Joseph Agnew, who lost his full ride after his junior year at Rice University, leaving him the choice of dropping out or paying $35,000 in tuition. Branch writes that 22 percent of Division I basketball players lost their scholarships in 2008-2009. We think if you were good enough to get the scholarship, you should be able to keep it through graduation.

Sure, they get an education, and enjoy pampering that few normal students get, but let’s face it: with all the time the team requires, how many NCAA athletes can really take full academic advantage of that scholarship? And how many athletes actually turn professional? Two percent or fewer.

Branch concludes that there is no reason that the athletes generating the money shouldn’t be entitled to a piece of it. He doesn’t really offer a plan, but describes several possible ideas to solve the problem. Maybe the piece will get the college sports overlords to make a long-needed serious self-examination, and stop paying lip service to the notion of amateurism.