Frank Deford’s right: Taylor Branch’s “The Shame of College Sports,” in the October issue of The Atlantic, really is “the most important article ever written about college sports.” Branch’s is a meticulous and invaluable history, far and away the best I’ve ever read on the NCAA’s evolving ad hoc defenses of amateurism. He is also pitch-perfect on the organization’s reflexive yet often groundless insistence upon secrecy. Even if you already thought of the NCAA as the masters of maniacally manicured minutiae, Branch presents a more vivid and varied backstory than you possibly could have imagined. “The Shame of College Sports” offers more insight on how we got to where we are today than any piece I’ve ever seen.
But to grasp the magnitude of the missed opportunity presented by this particular important article, consider the piece’s final, and worst, paragraph:
“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 our 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.
Facts are Branch’s friends, and in his piece he unearths many, many friends. Nevertheless my experience has been that, for reasons that have never been explained to my satisfaction, only highly intelligent people can write passages as hauntingly dumb as the one above.
Invoking both slavery and colonialism, Branch is contentedly and assuredly swinging for the fences. It’s exhilarating to see someone do so within the traditionally quotidian confines of college sports commentary. It is also, of course, patently absurd. If Branch were to be taken at his word and actually offered a Rawlsian choice between being a slave in the Mississippi Delta in 1853, being a colonized Herero in Namibia in 1905, or being a strong safety at Vanderbilt in 2011, we know which alternative he would select — instantly, self-evidently, and incontestably. In this instance “echoes” echoes nothing, “just so” is just awful, and a good editor would have saved Branch from himself.
Not that Branch and his editors don’t deserve our thanks. In an exhaustively researched piece that surely took months to cobble together, the pressure to stay ahead of fast unfolding events must have been tremendous. Little could Branch have known when he embarked on this assignment that the terrain would shift so violently under his feet. Nevertheless, in a couple places those cracks do break the surface. Near the top of Branch’s article, in a passage that reads like it was written many months ago, we’re told that the notion of paying college players represents a “taboo” that the powers that be “recoil from.” Really? Imagine our surprise ten thousand words later when Branch quotes SEC head football coaches, surely the most powerful of all powers, as proposing in 2011 that their own players be paid. Some taboo.
Moreover the NCAA’s unmatched genius for adopting and ferociously defending positions that all non-NCAA parties find indefensible is notable, surely, but it is not the whole story. Just because we can all agree that Ed O’Bannon has a case doesn’t mean it’s terribly clear what we should do across the entire landscape of college sports after O’Bannon wins. (Though, to be sure, my proposal is on the table.) College sports will most definitely outlive the NCAA’s long-held and long untenable conception of amateurism; college sports may outlive the NCAA itself. But the knotty question of what to do with our country’s peculiar and (as Branch notes correctly) wholly unique admixture of higher education and high-revenue sports isn’t going anywhere, whatever happens in court and in Indianapolis.
In presenting his bill of indictment against the NCAA, Branch draws upon a rich American vein of reformist outrage. However in the normal course of these injustices our conscience is awakened not only by a pitilessly detailed piece of journalism like Branch’s, but also, and more importantly, by a best-selling novel that comprises the obligatory scathing indictment of the evil in question. Why is it, then, that we know instinctively and without a moment’s hesitation that no such novel will be forthcoming in the case of college sports? How can we be so certain in advance there will be no “Stand up, Miss Jean Louise, Sonny Vaccaro’s passing” moment in American letters in 2014? Perhaps it is because while the NCAA is patently unjust in many of its most characteristic actions, it inflicts little or no actual human suffering.
Imagine that tomorrow the Transportation Security Administration announced that henceforth anyone with an annual household income in excess of $250,000 will be subjected to mandatory pat-down searches and body scans at all airport security checkpoints. Imagine further that the TSA defended their decision by rote invocations of “the welfare of worker-travelers.” Imagine that they lovingly maintained a 500-page binder of bylaws on what $250K-plus travelers can and cannot wear and carry, litigated any challenges to the hilt, and shrouded all their deliberations behind a sanctimonious curtain of secrecy. You would then have a rule that is manifestly arbitrary and unjust, one that indeed could be contested and eventually overturned on the highest and most solemn constitutional grounds. At the same time you’d also be looking at a policy that impacts only a very tiny and, by at least one measure, very privileged population that could elect to evade the rule entirely by simply choosing an alternate mode of travel.
This is roughly the nut that any would-be critic of the NCAA must crack, and if you don’t recognize the particular contours of this preposterously improbable set of circumstances, as Branch so clearly does not, you’re more or less doomed before you’ve set out. A failure to discern how strange and accidental this quixotic spectacle really is — blatant and capricious injustice almost totally divorced for any commensurate level of tangible suffering — has resulted in a raft of NCAA critiques that swing and miss, if only in ratiocinative terms. And now Branch too has swung and missed. Brilliantly, and to our benefit.