Naturally, I was as outraged as anybody else by the long litany of greed and corruption detailed in Taylor Branch’s Atlantic cover story “The Shame of College Sports,” but I was equally irritated by the never-pretty sight of a heavyweight professional historian getting carried away with himself in the bright spotlight of one of the nation’s greatest magazines.

The problem isn’t Branch’s writing, which is top-notch as always, nor his research, which is depressingly thorough and damning. The problem is the central conceit he appears gravitationally drawn to:

Slavery analogies should be used carefully. College athletes are not slaves. Yet to survey the scene – corporations and universities enriching themselves on the backs of uncompensated young men, whose status as “student-athletes” deprives them of the right to due process guaranteed by the Constitution – is to catch an unmistakable whiff of the plantation.

Yes indeed, slavery analogies should be used carefully – and Branch doesn’t do that. The first step to ‘carefully’ would be ‘sparingly,’ but the whole college-athlete-as-slave motif shows up six times in this article. And even the repetition would be excusable if the idea itself were warranted, but it’s not. What it is, of course, is a gross historical insult.

Coaches may be oblivious or worse (and I know from worse; I had an up-close ring-side seat for the height of Hayden Fry’s reign over the University of Iowa); recruiters may be unscrupulous; school administrators may be complicit and greedy … but college athletes are still there voluntarily, and the last time I checked, the most central defining aspect of slavery is that it’s involuntary. And the slaves who are there involuntarily dream of their freedom – not of eventually owning the plantation: Branch’s simplistic moral geometry omits one of the central forces driving the whole shoddy, money-grubbing apparatus that is college sports today – the players themselves.

Those players – the stars among them most of all – aren’t bought in Ghana and shipped to East Lansing. Their parents and coaches and recruiters might dream of endorsements and trophies and money, but the players themselves have dreams too – of endorsements and trophies and just mountains and mountains of money. Branch comes to what he styles as an inevitable moral conclusion – that these college players should be paid something for playing, especially considering how much the colleges are gaining from having them around. But colleges make money from all their students, and the bespectacled kid in the computer science lab who’s going to leave college and make $4 billion doesn’t expect to be paid while he’s on campus. Star college players in football and basketball and baseball can expect to make millions from professional franchises when they graduate – franchises that would never have had a chance to see what they could do post-high school if not for all those expensive new college sports arenas. Calling those athletes slaves when so many of them will go on to lives of ridiculous wealth (or even when so many of them have the chance for such ridiculous wealth) is the kind of grotesque blunder only an impassioned historian could commit.

Fortunately, as always with The Atlantic there are compensations. There’s the mighty Ben Schwarz, for instance, this time writing a perfectly-constructed brief appreciation of the problematically unfriendly American writer Ambrose Bierce, or the always-great B. R. Myers, this time writing about, of all things, Australian crime-fiction and getting in several shots at the often distressingly minimal writing of the modern murder-thriller:

“I’ll bet you don’t skip dialogue,” Elmore Leonard says. I’ll bet you don’t buy books for it, either. If the novel is to survive in this distracted digital age, it must do more, not less, of what only the novel can do.

That (plus his priceless quip that crime fiction is “largely a matter of people answering doorbells”) can restore so much of what the put-upon reader needs – especially after that cover, showing an athletic black arm branded by the NCAAP. I realize cover-designers are trying to get people talking, but still …

  • Sam

    What is the Stevereads judgment on Ambrose Bierce’s literary legacy? Does he belong in the first-rank, with Twain and Howells and Crane? If one was going to get some of his writing, would the collected stories be the thing to have?

  • http://nickrecommends.tumblr.com Nick Moran

    The problem with YOUR argument, however, is this passage:

    “But colleges make money from all their students, and the bespectacled kid in the computer science lab who’s going to leave college and make $4 billion doesn’t expect to be paid while he’s on campus. Star college players in football and basketball and baseball can expect to make millions from professional franchises when they graduate – franchises that would never have had a chance to see what they could do post-high school if not for all those expensive new college sports arenas. Calling those athletes slaves when so many of them will go on to lives of ridiculous wealth (or even when so many of them have the chance for such ridiculous wealth) is the kind of grotesque blunder only an impassioned historian could commit.”

    For one thing, the rate of NCAA athletes turning professional (much less remaining professional long enough to attain “ridiculous wealth”) is abysmally poor. The average professional football career lasts less than five years, and college coaches and administrators are more often than not emphasizing football over post-graduate preparedness (hence the preponderance of such degrees as “Leisure Studies”).

    For another, saying that pro franchises couldn’t rate athletes without college teams is the kind of statement which makes me think you don’t watch any sports. Baseball and (until a few years ago) basketball franchises regularly pluck superstar high school athletes into their farm systems. This past few years, a kid actually dropped out of high school and got his GED early so he could go straight to the pros.

    I think the bristle against a sloppy slavery analogy is totally understandable. I would hesitate to call the NCAA’s system slavery, but that’s only because I feel it deserves its own kind of name entirely. When you truly look at it, nobody’s forcing these kids to play football, but nobody’s letting them do a lot else. Most of them wouldn’t even be in the college in the first place (much less have made it out of high school) were it not for their “athletic potential.”

  • Steve Donoghue

    Your last line makes my argument, Nick – they wouldn’t have a shot at ANY of it, the college environment, the possibility of meeting that one great life-changing teacher, the potential to see other ways of life, and yes, the chance at a pro career, if it weren’t for the very system Branch spends so much ink condemning. You say there’s an abysmal rate of ‘graduation’ to the pros, but it’s wrong to say nobody’s ‘letting’ these kids do anything else. ALL of them dream of beating that abysmal rate, and they freely choose to pursue that dream (with endless hours of practice that could be devoted to study, for instance) at the expense of anything more long-term. The country’s educational systems would happily ‘let’ them do something else (the colleges that recruit them for football field are equally hungry for well-qualified minority scholarship students) – they choose not to. And they start living the dream long before it comes true, believe me – I don’t know if you’ve ever spent any time in the company of a courted ball player at, say, the Big Ten, but my God, you’ve never met such a thoughtlessly entitled ass in your entire life (not even here at Stevereads!) …

  • Steve Donoghue

    And Sam, sadly, no: he’s second-rate. The very best things about him are a) that fat paperback collection of short stories you often see in used bookshops, and b) his tendency to provoke great writers like Schwarz to write pieces about him (he’s brought out the best in quite a few literary journalists)

  • http://nickrecommends.tumblr.com Nick Moran

    Having graduated from the University of Miami, I’ve spent enough time around, tutoring, and befriending big-time college athletes to know that deriding them all as “thoughtlessly entitled” is about as careless as Taylor Branch’s slavery analogy was in the first place.

    I understand the gist of your argument: colleges are allowing these (academically) under-qualified students onto campus and affording them opportunities they wouldn’t ordinarily have. That’s great when you think about it in a vacuum, but it’s not a very accurate depiction of the truth.

    What I’m disputing is the simple truth that opening a door for someone isn’t the same as giving them a tour of the house. If you let a kid into your school to play football — and, let’s be honest, most of these guys are recruited solely for this reason — but then corral them into majors meant to accommodate long road trips, a heavy practice schedule, and endless hours of weight training or other team activity, you’re not really affording them the same opportunity that, say, you or I had when we first stepped on campus. You can provide all the tutors you want, but some of these guys are just not operating with the same level of preparedness or the same accommodating schedule as most of the other students on that campus.

    I would encourage you to read this (http://goo.gl/VaQid) piece by an actual former NCAA athlete before making sweeping generalizations about the entire crop of football-playing students in this country. Put another way, just because they’re on campus doesn’t mean they have the same freedoms as the other students.

  • Pingback: An Additional, Deeper Irony in the Penny Press! | stevereads()

© 2007-2015, Steve Donoghue