In the college sports landscape, the NCAA typically positions itself as a judicious, morally sanctified, student-athlete protection system. But many have questioned this position for the non-profit organization that generates millions of dollars of revenue each year. Taylor Branch is the latest to do so – in an article for the October issue of The Atlantic, and he does it with a critical perspective and honesty that might change a few minds.
It’s important to recognize, first, that Branch ultimately calls for payment of college athletes, a proposal that will certainly ruffle a few feathers, some fur, and even a couple of scales. Branch argues that the popular call for amateurism is based on sentimentality rather than logic or, frankly, reality. To prove the value of eliminating the amateurism mystique, he draws a parallel between the NCAA and the Olympics. The Olympics rescinded its amateurism rules in 1978, a move that eventually improved the Olympics’ reputation, according to Branch.
While Branch’s argument that college athletes should be paid will certainly be met by a lot of deserved skepticism, his underlying stance that the NCAA is unnecessary, manipulative, and exploitative is sure to stimulate the minds of even the most stubborn college-sport-amateurism purists. And this is the main thrust of his argument.
To show the NCAA’s dark side, Branch relies on the organization’s own history of back-room deals, student-athlete-generated litigation, and seeming hypocrisy. To drive this point home, Branch uses a particularly effective source: Walter Byers who, after nearly 40 years as the NCAA’s first president, has become one of its most biting critics.
Byers, Branch, and many others argue that the student-athlete is the ironic victim of the NCAA’s position of power, which Byers created and shored up during his tenure. From there, Branch arrives at his argument that payment is necessary to balance the scales. Again, that might be too far for some readers, but Branch’s article should convince readers that the NCAA and its member universities have not and are not really protecting the student-athletes who ultimately create this multi-billion dollar industry.