The Cartel (Excerpt)

In this Byliner Original excerpt, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Taylor Branch discusses the origins of the term “student-athlete,” and its subsequent legal effects on college athletes.

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    Today, much of the NCAA's moral authority—indeed, much of the justification for its existence—is vested in its claim to protect what it calls the student-athlete. The term is meant to conjure the nobility of amateurism and the precedence of scholarship over athletic endeavor. But the origins of "student-athlete" lie not in a disinterested ideal but in a sophistic formulation designed, as the sports economist Andrew Zimbalist has written, to help the NCAA in its "fight against workers' compensation insurance claims for injured football players."

    "We crafted the term student-athlete," Walter Byers himself wrote, "and soon it was embedded in all NCAA rules and interpretations." The term came into play in the 1950s, when the widow of Ray Dennison, who had died from a head injury received while playing football in Colorado for the Fort Lewis A&M Aggies, filed for workers'-compensation death benefits. Did his football scholarship make the fatal collision a "work-related" accident? Was he a school employee, like his peers who worked part-time as teaching assistants and bookstore cashiers? Or was he a fluke victim of extracurricular pursuits? Given the hundreds of incapacitating injuries to college athletes each year, the answers to these questions had enormous consequences. Critically, the NCAA position was determined only by its member institutions—the colleges and universities, plus their athletic conferences—as students themselves have never possessed NCAA representation or a vote. Practical interest turned the NCAA vigorously against Dennison, and the Supreme Court of Colorado ultimately agreed with the school's contention that he was not eligible for benefits, since the college was "not in the football business."

    The term student-athlete was deliberately ambiguous. College players were not students at play (which might understate their athletic obligations), nor were they just athletes in college (which might imply they were professionals). That they were high-performance athletes meant they could be forgiven for not meeting the academic standards of their peers; that they were students meant they did not have to be compensated, ever, for anything more than the cost of their studies. Student-athlete became the NCAA's signature term, repeated constantly in and out of courtrooms.

    Using the "student-athlete" defense, colleges have compiled a string of victories in liability cases. On the afternoon of October 26, 1974, the Texas Christian University Horned Frogs were playing the Alabama Crimson Tide in Birmingham, Alabama. Kent Waldrep, a TCU running back, carried the ball on a "Red Right 28" sweep toward the Crimson Tide’s sideline, where he was met by a swarm of tacklers. When Waldrep regained consciousness, Bear Bryant, the storied Crimson Tide coach, was standing over his hospital bed. "It was like talking to God, if you’re a young football player," Waldrep recalled.

    Bryant, stifling emotion, exhorted him to rehab for the next season, but with his crumpled spine, Waldrep remained stashed away among paraplegics never expected to write their names again or urinate without a catheter. After nine months of paying his medical bills, TCU refused further coverage, and the Waldrep family coped for four years on dwindling charity before they tried torturous therapy outside medical protocol. Waldrep recovered slight feeling in his arms through the 1980s and learned to drive a specially rigged van. Sixteen seasons after his catastrophic injury, the White House honored Waldrep's team of legislative catalysts at the signing ceremony for the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.

    Throughout the 1990s, from his wheelchair, Waldrep pressed a lawsuit for workers' compensation. Alienated from TCU, he felt paradoxically closer to the team that had crippled him. Alabama players bestowed upon Waldrep an honorary varsity letter, and until his death in 1983, Bear Bryant kept up his solicitous calls and words of encouragement. Waldrep sat with the Bryant family at the coach's funeral, and became a typically crazed Crimson Tide fan, immersed in the rhythmic shift of NCAA scandals between Alabama and its in-state rival, Auburn.

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Story Updates

  1. NCAA Reform and the Penn State Scandal

    Several domestic and foreign media outlets have asked whether I see connections between the explosive Penn State sexual abuse scandal and the structural flaws I perceived in a recent survey of NCAA college sports.

    The short answer is yes. (My inquiry first published in The Atlantic's October issue, is currently available in an expanded Byliner.com ebook, The Cartel.)

    Any prolonged exploitation demands aquiescence that can be imposed only by gross disparities in power. The governance of college sports is telling in this respect. By fiat, the NCAA has concentrated almost complete control in precisely those college officials already fired or indicted at Penn State: the coaches and chief administrators.

    So far, the NCAA has remained almost silent on the periphery of an unfolding investigation at Penn State. "To be sure," said NCAA President Mark Emmert in a four-sentence statement, "civil and criminal law will always take precdence over [NCAA] Association rules."

    This deference to law is proper. It is also strikingly humble in contrast to the NCAA's customary posture of quasi-legal authority. Sports officials speak formally of NCAA "legislation," and the enforcement process for college scandals mimics the judicial aura of regular courts.

    The gruesome allegations from Penn State stripped pretense quickly aside.  NCAA rules have no standing in law. Their enormous influence on college campuses, allocating billions of sports dollars nationwide, rest wholly on private collusion without sanction from any level of government.

    I think the most positive development since the Penn State revelations has been a rash of spontaneous seminars to examine the insulated world of college sports. How could athletic officials conceal abuses so long at such human cost? What reconciles the diverse roles of student and citizen, player and worker, teacher and fan? Can big-revenue sports be compatible with quality education? Who decides?

    There is a healthy new cry for accountability. Some professors argue that faculties must no longer abdicate their share of responsibility for the university as a whole. Some students realize that NCAA rules exclude them all from membership, denying players the basic rights of representation, due process, opportunity, property, and freedom, among others.   

    Inevitably, reform would grant NCAA players, like Olympians, a stake in sports governance. Newly established checks and balances could curb the corruptions of concentrated power, but change will not come easy. The NCAA system is deeply entrenched at more than a hundred schools where big-money sports are glorified. It promotes greed, punishes the weak, rewards the exploiters, and fleeces the players, all while claiming to police itself. An overhaul, while sadly too late for the Penn State victims, is long overdue. 

  2. Sports Illustrated's "Pay for Play" Model in Response to Criticism of College Sports

    George Dohrmann of Sports Illustrated has launched an ambitious model to investigate the feasibility of paying college athletes. His results so far are posted on the SI site, prefaced admirably as follows: "The mission of our universities is to educate, but college sports is big business, and no one wants young athletes exploited."

    I applaud Dohrmann for this effort. It seems well motivated, and it shows that knowledgable people are thinking seriously at last about the fundamental structure of college sports.  

    Still, readers should pay attention to the basic design of Dohrmann's model. Its starting point is the current athletic budget at leading universities, and its question is how much if anything those athletic departments can afford to pay their players. Not surprisingly, he concludes that "the vast majority of athletic departments do not generate enough profit to pay athletes." Any revenue for such pay has been allocated elsewhere. Dohrmann's model tracks the difficulty of re-allocation on a presumption that money to pay football and basketball players must come from the elimination of other teams. 

    This framework seems skewed to me. It purports to be an open-minded exploration while tacitly accepting too much of the status quo. "SI [Sports Illustrated] is not advocating paying college players," Dohrmann states at the outset. "That's a decision best left to college administrators." Embedded there is a presumption that those administrators unilaterally can and should decide whether or not to pay their key talent. Why should they? What boss would give up discounted labor, especially when the resultant savings have been distributed among the bosses and coaches themselves?

    I suggest a more basic starting point. Who should be involved in decisions about pay for college players? Does exclusion from the process exploit them inherently? If athletes are entitled to bargain for their own livelihood, like other citizens, then colleges must be free to pay them or not. A market would evolve. Salaries for coaches doubtless would decline. The overall college community, including the players, would make decisions about whether and how big-time sports are compatible with education. Players would cope straightforwardly with separate standards in two careers, academics and (often) commercialized sports.

    Currently the system is rigged by a shaky cartel agreement through the NCAA. My survey of NCAA history, which appeared in The Atlantic, is now expanded and current for $3.99 in a Byliner.com ebook, The Cartel. By confronting the hoax of amateurism, Sports Illustrated could re-build George Dohrmann's worthy model on a sounder basis.

Originally published in Byliner, September 2011