Taylor Branch On Paying College Athletes and Athletes’ Rights As Employees

The recent decision by college football’s biggest schools to institute an end-of-season playoff to determine its champion will no doubt generate millions of dollars in additional revenue for the sport and its participating schools, and it has added fuel to a growing debate about whether the people who make it all possible — the thousands of players at colleges and universities across the country — should get a piece of the pie.

For a brief moment, the NCAA thought they should. Last year, the organization that oversees college sports initially gave conferences and schools the right to give a $2,000-a-year stipend but delayed the proposal shortly thereafter due to concerns about its implementation. Recently, college football’s most prominent coaches, including the University of Texas’ Mack Brown and all 14 coaches in the Southeastern Conference, have revived the idea, backing the idea that if a playoff is going to help make bowl executives, coaches, athletics directors, and even the NCAA president rich, the players ought to get a cut too.

To traditionalists who value “amateurism,” the idea of paying college football players is absurd. To author and civil rights historian Taylor Branch, though, it is a matter of human rights.

“My concern is not ensuring that the athletes get paid, but ensuring that they get their rights,” Branch told me in an interview. The fight to reform the NCAA and make it more equitable for athletes, he says, isn’t just about compensation, but about giving the players bargaining rights and making them consenting participants in the system. “If you are a grad student at the University of Texas,” Branch added, “you can bargain for how much you get paid as a teaching assistant.” If you’re a college athlete, no such rights exist.

The stipend, as proposed, is a complicated issue, Branch said, since it doesn’t appear to change that. “They’re still within the framework of the old system,” Branch said. “The coaches and athletics directors decide (how much they get paid). This is like a tip a waiter gets. You can’t get market values, and you can’t object to it without being called unethical.”

Branch first took on the NCAA with “The Shame of College Sports,” an Atlantic cover story that thrust the debate about paying college athletes back into the spotlight. The story coincided with the release of The Cartel, an e-book that has spawned more work on NCAA reform from writers like New York Times columnist Joe Nocera. He has also published a three-point reform agenda for college sports, calling for transparency in the revenue process, balance between athletics and education, and equity under the law.

There are, of course, questions about how such a system would work. Branch’s work focuses primarily on football and men’s basketball, the sports that generate the most revenue and act most like the cartel he details in his book. Would it be possible to pay those athletes without also compensating those in non-revenue sports? And even within sports, would star players — the ones whose jerseys are sold in bookstores and who appear on billboards to promote the program — make more than their less-notable teammates? And then there is Title IX, which requires equality of opportunity for male and female athletes, though, as Branch (a Title IX supporter) noted in our interview, it has traditionally applied to participation and access and not to how individual sports allocate their budgets.

But the old idea that a college scholarship is enough to justify making millions of dollars on the backs of unpaid athletes is enough can’t fall out of favor soon enough. Scholarships are a worthwhile investment, to be sure, but athletes don’t always get the education they are promised and are often pushed into “easier” majors to ensure their eligibility. Academics in big business college sports are secondary to revenues and profits that are made on the backs of the athletes who play the games but don’t get a voice in the system they enrich, even as they are often too poor to buy a decent meal.

The questions that exist about how to pay these athletes shouldn’t deter us from answering the fundamental question about whether they have the right to have a say in the system that depends on their services. And athletes should have a role in answering those questions. “Rights are rights because they should come first,” Branch said. “Whether it’s $3,000 or $30,000 is something schools should work out, but players should have a voice.”