Oct 17 1:31 PM

Branch: NCAA 'still powerful like Oz'

Taylor Branch has been a vocal critic of the NCAA, and that continues in "Schooled: The Price of College Sports."
Craig Barritt/Getty Images

Update 06/19/14: In O'Bannon v. the NCAA, the NCAA is in the midst of what's been called the sports trial of the century. Coming off the heels of two lawsuits getting settled, including the $40 million settlement from the case involving Electronic Arts and the Collegiate Licensing Company, the O'Bannon suit is about to intensify when NCAA President Mark Emmert is scheduled to testify today. "The future and fabric of college sports will be impacted by this ruling," Pat Forde of Yahoo! Sports wrote, "and no witness brings as much name recognition (for better or worse) as Emmert to the stand."

This evening, America Tonight previews the new episode from Fault Lines, "State of Play: Football Players and the NCAA." Fault Lines examines the state of play inside college sports, and the string of cases that could bring fundamental change to the NCAA.

For a preview of the report, tune in at 9 ET/6 PT. Watch the new Fault Lines episode in its entirety on Saturday at 7 ET/4 PT. 


Two years ago, The Atlantic published what some have called "the most important article ever written about college sports." "The Shame of College Sports," written by historian Taylor Branch, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his work on the civil rights movement, served as a dissection of the NCAA's organizational evolution into a multibillion-dollar enterprise. The conclusion? The NCAA was a "classic cartel" that never had any real influence in the first place.

A lot has happened in college sports since Branch’s story two years ago. The NCAA is entangled in a number of concussion lawsuits from former student-athletes, claiming that the organization failed to protect the health of its players. So far, there have been 115 reported concussions this college football season. Following conference realignment, the NCAA generated tens of billions of dollars from new TV contracts, including the lucrative 12-year, $7.3 billion deal that gives ESPN exclusive rights to the college football playoff starting next year. And the ongoing federal antitrust lawsuit filed by former UCLA basketball player Ed O’Bannon may still open the floodgates for college athletes to be paid.

Last month, America Tonight profiled Sam Keller, a former Arizona State quarterback who is one of the plaintiffs listed in the O’Bannon lawsuit against the NCAA.

“It’s very much driven on money, and as a college football player you don’t see that,” Keller told America Tonight about the NCAA. “You are what drives the money but your job is to not buy into all that. Your job is your responsibility to your teammates, your coaches and your school.”

Branch's article continues to have an impact two years later, especially now that it has been turned into a documentary, which was released on Wednesday. In the week leading up to the premiere of the EPIX film, “Schooled: The Price of College Sports,” Branch spoke to America Tonight about the state of college athletics and where it’s heading. Questions and answers have been edited for clarity.

Former UCLA basketball player Ed O'Bannon is one of a number of former college athletes suing the NCAA.
AP Photo/Isaac Brekken, File

It has been two years since “The Shame of College Sports.” In it, you go through the concept of amateurism in college sports and whether such a thing should exist in the NCAA. How do you think the conversation regarding amateurism in college sports has advanced since then?

I think the conversation has spread. If you saw TIME magazine recently, they just had a cover saying that college athletes ought to be paid, which is not my message but it’s related to it. My message is they should have the same rights as everyone. It has been two years since I raised that issue. Since then, there have been many columns by Joe Nocera of The New York Times, and others who’ve raised that question. I’ve had talks with a lot of people who are just astonished that the prevailing view is, ‘We love our sports and this is going to mess it up’ and ‘How would any of that change work? We better leave things alone.’

It’s not surprising. It’s like there’s something sweet and sentimental about college sports that don’t involve money for the athletes. That’s the kind of whole frame of reference that most people have and they can’t see anything else. There’s sentimentality about it, even though top schools treat college athletics like professional sports and there’s no sentimentality whatsoever.

There’s a strong sense of fear and intimidation among the athletes because they’re generating all the money, but they’re not getting an education and they don’t have any rights. I think people are slowly coming awake to the fact that they need to think about this. The current system may be blinding us, not just with college sports, but also in higher education as a whole, and I think that’s more important. Until there’s clear thinking about the governing of sports in college, sports and education will be on a shaky foundation.

Following University of Denver v. Nemeth in 1953, the NCAA, led by then-president Walter Byers, coined the term “student-athlete” to protect the NCAA from workers compensation lawsuits from its collegiate athletes. With that standard now going on 60 years, why does the NCAA hold to this term when today’s NCAA, and the revenue generated by it, is radically different than when the phrase “student-athlete” was first adopted?

To a certain degree, Walter Byers was a visionary and he knew there was a lot of money in sports. He negotiated those first TV contracts in the 1950s and he saw them mushroom quickly. He coined the term student-athlete, and NCAA officials repeated that term infinitely; it’s like a mantra with them. It’s a hybrid concession that conceals the fact that money has grown so astonishingly.

Basically what is involved is that anyone who plays college sports has two totally separate roles. In the athlete role, they’re putting in 40 to 60 hours a week and generating lots of money, but are under the control of the coaches. The student part is more or less the same, but is one that’s in conflict. The NCAA term student-athlete has masked this conflict under the idea that the student-athlete is a special creature that only the NCAA understands. But when, in fact, as long as you think about it that way you can’t even begin to address the potential conflict in the role of student and the role of athlete in the role of campuses.

[Byers’ move] was very shrewd. It not only worked in lawsuits, but also in the realm of public relations to convince millions of viewers that only the NCAA could run these peculiar creatures. I think it was a ruse, but a very clever ruse to pull the wool over our eyes to make us think that student-athletes are special creatures for our benefit.

Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel has been at the heart of the debate about whether college athletes should be paid.
AP Photo/David J. Phillip

Right now, the NCAA is in a curious position. On one hand, the NCAA is at the height of its powers, with football and basketball bringing in record revenues, including significant TV contracts. On the other hand, the O’Bannon lawsuit and the active concussion lawsuits have brought the individual rights and health of student-athletes to the forefront. Are we heading toward a tipping point?

It’s a very, very interesting circumstance because the NCAA is surrounded by controversy over health and putting money over failed education. All of it points to the fact that the athletes have no voice and have no rights at the table. If they had a voice, we wouldn’t be here. But the squabble over money and the inertia involved is very strong, because [the NCAA] has so much money. There are so many people who just want to cheer and boo the athletes, and don’t consider them like fellow citizens, but as circus performers. It’ll be very interesting to see how it will turn out, whether the fights will pull the NCAA apart or whether people will wake up and start addressing the basic issues of principles. But no one thinks it can go on the way it is. I think the NCAA is strained in so many different directions that I don’t think any avenue of reform is likely to succeed.

Your reporting from “The Shame of College Sports” was just turned into a documentary. What was it like seeing it come to life? What did you take away and learn from the film?

It’s based on my work as a starting point, but the filmmakers went all over the country. Some of the major stories – the story of Kent Waldrep getting his back broken, suing for 26 years and getting nothing, as well as the story of the Ed O’Bannon lawsuit – were from my reporting, but a lot of others, such as Arian Foster, are not. I think what the film really emphasizes is how much pressure the high-profile athletes are under. We don’t really realize what they’re lives are like.

I think one of the athletes said something about how you don’t think you’re preparing for a good day of school when you’re waking up at 5:30 in the morning and working out in the weight room until you vomit. They have no choice but to do so. I think the film did a much better job than I did in showing and making real what the life of a big-time college athlete is like and what pressure they’re under. These athletes have two very demanding careers at once. If they succeed in both of them on a university campus, they deserve 10 times the respect we currently give them – and we don’t do that now. We don’t really think of them as kids working on college, but, instead, as adults who generate billions of dollars in revenue.

(Below is a clip of Branch from the new documentary "Schooled.")

Where do you see this all heading in the next year or two? Can the current system of college football keep going in its current form?

There are lots of strains in the NCAA. It’s still powerful like “Oz,” but I think something is going to pull back the curtain and make people realize it’s very simple. The NCAA has no power to enforce amateurism on people against their will when those people are not parties to the agreement. Something will make that collapse and they’ll start all over again, and universities will need to realize whether sports are compatible with education.

The vast majority of schools wouldn’t pay anyone anything because they don’t have any money, so it wouldn’t make any difference if the NCAA were enforcing amateurism. But for the ones who would, for the aspiring powers right up to the great big-time schools who would pay unrestricted amounts to compete for and recruit athletes, what would happen, more than likely, is something that mirrors the structure of minor league baseball. For the heavyweights, it would be like Texas hold’em, where you can bet anything you would want. My guess is that would happen, but the athletes would at least have a voice in how the system would be developed and how it could be used to protect their health. 

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