Interview: Pulitzer Prize Winning Author, Taylor Branch - NCAA, The Cartel

Taylor Branch is a Pulitzer prize winning American author and historian best known for his award-winning trilogy of books chronicling the life of Martin Luther King, Jr. and some of the history of the American civil rights movement. Mr Branch’s latest ebook called ‘The Cartel”( reveals the dark side of College Football and it’s powerful ruling body the NCAA. In his devastating investigation into college sports and the NCAA the author exposes decades of greed and self-interest and makes clear that the organization is poised to collapse under the weight of its hypocrisy. Mr. Branch provides ample evidence that American "student-athletes" are lacking in their rights as American citizens by not being paid- at least officially and at least most of them-for their labor when those at the head of the NCAA are making big cash out of it especially from College Football where coaches at public universities make more than $2 million USD on average and even assistant coaches sometimes make nearly $1 million. Today financial concerns have come to dominate college athletics and everybody makes money except the players. Exclusive interview of a man with strong conviction.

Why do you think it took so long for this problem to be exposed?
Some economists have classified NCAA sports as a classic cartel for years, but few people paid attention. The adults in control of college sports have a huge vested interest in the current system. Most fans just want to enjoy the games without considering their structure. Sportswriters, sadly, are often captive to their subject and satisfied to cover scandals by the NCAA’s definition, by mounting outrage over “dirty” compensation to the very talent that generates the revenue. And college athletes themselves are far too overwhelmed to question their arrangements even if they dared.

By historical standards, the astronomical television revenues that accent the inequities are relatively new. Internal struggles over this money have exposed the NCAA’s fragile control over the football schools that resent sharing money with either the hundreds of smaller NCAA members or the NCAA itself. In this context, my own role was to evaluate the whole system afresh as an outsider.

This problem seems to be mainly financial- not social or racial. As an historian of the American civil rights movements is there an analogy between the exploitation of College athletes and the other well known by the general public civil rights movements?
There is certainly exploitation, and a complacent public often rewards the boldest thief. Consider this. The NCAA and college officials not only keep all the money generated by their rare, high-value talent, but have the gall to claim they are doing so for the players’ own good. They say it would exploit a college player to receive any compensation, rather than not to receive compensation, because tangible reward would deprive that player of amateur purity. This convenient but ludicrous perspective turns reality upside down, like Alice in Wonderland.

Are you suggesting that today’s College athletes are treated as modern slaves?
Not literally, although I did say so on television when the comic Stephen Colbert pressed me to “grow a pair.” There are many parallels. In both systems, overseers reap huge financial reward from the labor of workers who have no voice or stake in their product. (The NCAA excludes college players from membership and all participation in making its rules.) Both systems last longer than they should because people avoid questioning or facing their underlying principles, often testily, perhaps sensing that they are rotten. They focus fearfully instead on the inconveniences of change.

How come there is such a democratic deficit in College football especially if we consider the “paid scholarship” system which is totally unfair; If you are a good athlete we pay for you but if you are average like the vast majority you will need to pay for your studies in order to get a job which will allow you only to survive in order to be able to pay us the loan plus interests for your studies?
The NFL is overtly a business and also a monopoly structure with an antitrust exemption granted in law. Although it must bargain with the professional players, who receive roughly half of all industry revenues, the NFL is free to structure its rules to make the game attractive broadly to fans across the United States. Level competition serves that goal.

NCAA football, by contrast, is structured by private agreement among the colleges with no sanction in law. The member schools struggle with each other, chiefly now through the mushrooming athletic “super-conferences” in the BCS bowl system, and they impose general controls only on their non-members, the players, by fiat and arbitrary rules.

In your book, you say that University has failed to accomplish it’s moral mission since it has become totally submitted to financial priorities; please explain.
A profound debate has been silenced all these years. Why is the United States the only country in the world that hosts big-money sports in its universities? More significantly, are those big-money sports compatible with quality education? We don’t have that debate largely because we follow the NCAA model in pretending that the problem with college sports is the chronic “scandal” of benefits leaking to athletes who actually generate most of the value. 

University officials admit that they cannot resist or sustain the stampede for sports revenue. Moreover, they do not think clearly or honestly about their conflicted mission because the whole system is skewed to exploit the players.

Were there any official reactions from the NCAA to your book?
Mostly silence. There has been mostly silence also from the major sports networks that otherwise chatter incessantly about every taunt and injured toenail. Such silence makes sense given the billions of dollars contracted under the current system. The NCAA declined an invitation to appear jointly with me on the national PBS television program “The News Hour.” Its statement explaining that decision said that NCAA officials regretted that I did not allow them more opportunity to “participate” in my research. This was purely evasive, especially since I did talk with a number of NCAA officials. The statement avoided substance altogether. 

Why do you think that the NCAA will soon fall?
Many forces are converging. The big football schools threaten to tear away from the NCAA for their own national playoff system. To placate them, and critics, the NCAA already has approved a $2,000 extra payment to players at the discretion of the football conferences. 

Meanwhile, lawsuits in the courts threaten the NCAA’s practice of withholding citizenship rights from college athletes, and athletes themselves have joined together within the last month to petition for redress of grievances.

Do you believe that the Internet is the last free territory?
Independent thought is the foundation of all freedom. To me it is a great tragedy that universities, which for centuries have spurred civilization as the chief incubator of free thought, have been corrupted or silenced on sports issues within their own orbit. So far, they have ceded their gadfly role to social media on the internet. I hope professors and students will prod their schools to examine themselves more openly.

“The Cartel” ;
Courtesy of: AmerFoot Magazine