What Is Not Wrong With College Sports?

-- Posted by Neil H. Buchanan

I have long been an avid fan of college sports, especially football. I grew up in Big Ten country, living in contested territory between Ohio State and Michigan. An unusual set of circumstances led me to betray my Buckeye roots to switch sides and become a Wolverine during my adulthood, but my passion for watching football never waned. Over the last few years, however -- and especially over the last ten months or so -- it has reached the point where I feel dirty even watching the games. I have been planning to write a blog post describing some of the issues that seem relevant to my change of heart, and I might still do so.

Today, however, I want to address some arguments from Taylor Branch, who has written a sustained attack on the NCAA, "The Shame of College Sports," in The Atlantic, now followed by a book, The Cartel, on the same subject. (I have read the article, while the book has apparently not yet been offered for sale, at least on Amazon.) Branch also discussed these issues on The Colbert Report on Wednesday night of this week.

I ought to have been a ready audience for Branch's arguments. Indeed, much of what Branch has written is important and eye-opening. He describes various inequities that the NCAA's rules have created, and he strongly criticizes its imperiousness and inconsistency. Branch also believes that college athletes should be paid a cash salary. He might be right about that, although I am deeply skeptical. On the way to his conclusions, however, he makes some arguments that strike me as extraordinarily weak. I will limit my comments today to two of those arguments, because they are emblematic of how his broader analysis ultimately became side-tracked and undermined by his evident (and largely justified) hatred of the NCAA itself, rather than the actual underlying problems in college sports.

The less important of the two arguments is Branch's explanation of why there is no college football championship tournament. I think such a tournament is a bad idea, for reasons not relevant here, but the question is why something for which so many other people have clamored for years has still not come into existence. The standard explanation is that the people who run the bowls, along with the networks and the big-time football schools, are protecting the traditional bowl system and its big-money payouts.

Branch's explanation is, to be honest, bizarre. Both in the article and on Colbert, he argued that the NCAA is terrified of the possibility that there will be a football playoff. He reports that the NCAA's operating budget is funded almost entirely by the TV fees from the March Madness basketball tournament. He then says that, if the big football schools were to run a successful football tournament, they would realize that they could "cut out the middleman" and run March Madness without the NCAA. This possibility "haunts the NCAA," Branch argues.

In the article, Branch links this fear to the NCAA's reluctance to punish member schools. On Colbert, he offered this explanation in response to a question about why there is no football tournament. At most, however, this could explain why the NCAA does not want a football tournament -- and it really does not even explain that -- not why no one else has stepped around the NCAA to start one. If the NCAA is really just a leech, and the schools could run the basketball tournament, too, then why do the big schools continue to give up almost a billion dollars each year on basketball? For that matter, what does that have to do with football at all?

The problem, I think, is that Branch's writing has been infected by his all-consuming disdain for the NCAA. It has become his white whale, and he is obsessed with it. That is not to defend the NCAA (although it can easily be defended against many of Branch's attacks), but only to observe that the NCAA and its funding through basketball somehow became Branch's focus, rather than the question of football. If anything, his explanation makes matters worse, because it is now more difficult to understand what is stopping the non-NCAA people from starting a football tournament, given the incentives that he describes.

The second, much more important, issue is Branch's responses to the argument that college athletes are already being paid, in the form of college scholarships. Full-ride scholarships even to state universities are no small matter, and the economic benefit from a college education is almost always going to be much more significant than the salary that all but the best players -- who will make their millions in the NFL, anyway -- would receive under a pay-for-play system at the college level.

The best response to this argument, I think, is that the system currently amounts to a bait-and-switch, promising to "pay" young men with a college education, but then making it nearly impossible for them actually to obtain that education. Many elite athletes are unprepared for college level work, while others are so busy with their full-time job of practicing and playing sports that they cannot take advantage of the free education that is nominally theirs for the taking. (As a side note, however, it is often said that the members of the marching band put in more hours than the players do on the practice field. If true, this undercuts the idea that the demands are too great, unless bands also have low graduation rates.)

I do think, therefore, that the "we pay them with free tuition" argument is, far too often, a dodge. If I were to try to reform college sports, I would require that athletic scholarships involve commitments to allow the athletes actually to graduate with meaningful degrees, through some combination of reduced practice time and extended financial support to finish degrees after their athletic eligibility is exhausted. Real reform is necessary and, for reasons that Branch ably notes in other contexts, highly unlikely.

That is not, however, what Branch argues in response to the tuition-in-lieu-of-salary argument. On Colbert, he argued that this system is the same as if Stephen Colbert received only health benefits as compensation, without salary. As far as it goes, that is at least responsive. Yet, while it is difficult (but possible) to imagine people in certain situations being very willing to work only for health benefits, it is extremely easy to argue that college tuition for 18-22 year olds is hardly a sideshow. They are not being offered a few minor perks, like parking and a dental plan. They are being given for free the most expensive thing that most families have to pay for, other than a house.

Again, there are some arguments around the edges -- regarding the rules governing whether athletes can be given "spending money," for example. But the idea that we can simply dismiss free tuition as a mere side benefit, nowhere near as valuable as up-front salary, misunderstands the financial realities of tuition and the benefits of a college education.

Interestingly, however, Branch's argument on Colbert was a winner compared to his argument in his article in The Atlantic. There, he closed a very long article by calling tuition-in-lieu-of-salary an "evasion," passionately asserting that the argument "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 the 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." Branch thus argues that "you get a free education that will benefit you for the rest of your life" is the moral equivalent of "you will go to heaven after a lifetime of slavery."

As I noted above, much of what Branch wrote for The Atlantic was valuable reporting. Too often, however, he turned each argument into yet another reason to hate the NCAA. His motives -- to find ways to help college athletes, who are too often abused and tossed aside -- were more than pure. It is a shame that he took his eye off the ball.