Thursday, October 27, 2011

Branch vs. Davis on College Sports

Last month I linked to a lengthy essay in The Atlantic by historian Taylor Branch on the NCAA.Branch was hard hitting and very critical. This week the NYT has profiled Branch in glowing terms and the article has received considerable praise from many quarters.

But not everywhere.  At Sports Illustrated Seth Davis takes on Branch in defense of the NCAA, here is an excerpt:
A lengthy article in an esteemed national publication criticizes the hypocrisies of college athletics. The author details a multitude of scandals involving seedy recruiting, nefarious boosters and academic fraud. The narrative winds to a damning conclusion: "[T]hanks to the influence of the colleges, there is growing up a class of students tainted with commercialism."

You might think I'm referring to the essay by Taylor Branch that was published last week in The Atlantic under the headline "The Shame Of College Sports." But I'm not. I'm actually referring to an article that appeared in the June 1905 edition of McClure's, a prestigious monthly academic journal. The two-part series, authored by a former Harvard football player named Henry Beach Needham, makes a compelling case that the enterprise of amateur athletics is doomed. In The Atlantic, Branch also writes that "scandal after scandal has rocked college sports," but while that phrase implies this is a recent trend, Needham shows us that it actually extends back more than a century.

I mention this as a counterweight to the prevailing conventional wisdom -- namely, that the publication of Branch's article is a landmark event that has skewered the NCAA's bogus amateurism model for good. The piece has certainly spurred much discussion. A post on The New Yorker's website deemed it a "watershed." Jeff MacGregor of suggested "a kind of cultural critical mass has finally been reached." Frank Deford called it "the most important article ever written about college sports." From NPR to MSNBC to Business Insider to every sport outlet in between, the story has been hailed as a slam-dunk, once-and-for-all indictment of the NCAA.

To be sure, Branch's article represents a brilliant piece of reporting, which is not surprising considering he won a Pulitzer Prize for his three-volume series on the American civil rights movement. Branch lays out in fascinating detail the structural and legal history of the NCAA that has led us to this point. However, when it comes to analysis, fairness and context, Branch's work leaves much to be desired. If there is a reasonable counter-argument to be made, Branch ignores it. If there is a fact that contradicts his conclusions, he omits it.
Branch has published a rejoinder, and here is an excerpt:
The nub of our dispute is over the general terms of service for college athletes. Davis says I overlook the fact that athletes are paid already with scholarship packages, while I say these in-kind benefits beg the fundamental question of whether the colleges and the athletes should be free to bargain for more or less.

To insist that athletic scholarships settle the compensation issue is like saying that any worker who gets medical coverage doesn’t need or deserve a salary. Worse, the NCAA demands adherence to this absurd standard by forbidding both sides to negotiate changes. Non-playing adults thus reserve to themselves all the wealth generated by college sports, whereas the NCAA punishes highly-valued athletes (famously the Georgia Bulldogs receiver A. J. Green last year) even for selling an old jersey.

Davis argues that scholarships are more than enough. (“If anything,” he writes, “most of these guys are overpaid.”) This is a convenient perspective for those who enjoy or benefit from the current structure, but that doesn’t make it fair. The NCAA’s unique amateur rules are imposed by private collusion of the colleges without sanction in law. College players, unlike Olympic athletes, are excluded from NCAA membership and from all rights of due process by the consortium that tries to govern them.

To me, the basics of genuine reform are simple. No college should be required to pay or not to pay students who play for them in any sport. Athletes should have the rights other citizens take for granted, and should be represented in every organization that depends upon their skill and devotion. We are the only country in the world that hosts professionalized sports at institutions of higher learning. There are profound questions about whether these two missions can or should coexist, but genuine education will not begin until we stop pretending that compensation itself makes college athletes “dirty.”

I invite Seth Davis to meet me in any verbal forum that can substitute for mid-court or the fifty-yard line. There we can trade questions and answers openly. He can cross-examine me on any argument or fact in my survey of college sports from the Civil War to Cam Newton. We may have fun, because the arena is inherently colorful and wondrous, but I will challenge him to declare his basic premise. Exactly how does he justify fastening amateurism on somebody else, and on college athletes alone? By what presumption must we all be satisfied that they are not earning too much? Here’s hoping that Davis and I can push forward in constructive debate.
I think I know who would win this debate.


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