NCAA “Abolitionist” Taylor Branch’s Civil Rights Campaign Keeps Picking Up Allies

In the midst of yet another mostly congenial and prosaic debate about college athletes and the concept of amateurism, Taylor Branch could feel the frustration swell. This had become an increasingly common phenomenon in recent months, as the civil rights historian took his fledgling crusade against the NCAA from low-key panel to skeptical interviewer and back again. The reflexive resistance to giving college athletes workers’ rights, Branch has said often, makes him feel like an abolitionist in the Antebellum Era.

So this is why, when finally offered the opportunity to confront a roomful of skeptical college athletic administrators in a Dallas hotel conference room in June 2012, Branch dispensed with the usual niceties and spoke his truth to power.

“No matter how much you care about the athletes, you are involved in a fraud,” Branch barked at the room. “And it’s going to come crashing down sooner or later.” An already silent room somehow seemed even more quiet.

That jarring moment is captured roughly midway through Schooled: The Price of College Sports, a recently released documentary that makes an 80-minute case for granting rights and compensation to college athletes. This is not a novel suggestion, nor are the counterarguments against doing so. What is novel, however, is the emergence of Branch, who wrote a Pulitzer Prize-winning historical trilogy on Martin Luther King, collectively titled America in the King Years, and collaborated with former President Bill Clinton on the 2009 book The Clinton Tapes: Wrestling History with the President, as the increasingly exasperated voice of a voiceless and generally disenfranchised class. It’s doubtful most of America’s college football and basketball players would recognize him, but this white-haired guy in a sports jacket is the best (or worst, depending on your perspective) friend they have.

It was Branch’s tour de force piece about the history of the NCAA and “amateurism,” “The Shame of College Sports,” a 14,000-word essay published in the October 2011 issue of The Atlantic, that provided the groundwork for Schooled. Branch’s thesis is that the NCAA is a cartel exploiting college athletes in revenue sports like football and men’s basketball. “For all the outrage, the real scandal is not that students are getting illegally paid or recruited, it’s that two of the noble principles on which the NCAA justifies its existence — ‘amateurism’ and the ‘student-athlete’— are cynical hoaxes, legalistic confections propagated by the universities so they can exploit the skills and fame of young athletes,” Branch wrote. The piece shifted the conversation over paying college athletes from issues like money, logistics, and tradition to those of basic civil rights.

Longtime sportswriter Frank Deford called it “the most important article ever written on college sports,” and the essay soon was turned into a 25,000-word e-book titled “The Cartel: Inside the Rise and Imminent Fall of the NCAA.” Not long afterward, filmmaker Andrew Muscato — never a big college sports fan, having gone to NYU — decided the book needed a broader audience.

“When I read Taylor’s article in The Atlantic, the light went off,” Muscato said. “If a documentary was going to be made on the subject, it had to derive from Taylor’s work.”

Branch’s previous work had been mostly limited to civil rights history. His only other notable detour into sports came in 1979 when he co-wrote Second Wind, the autobiography of Pro Basketball Hall of Famer Bill Russell. As a baseball lover but only a casual follower of most other sports, Branch says he hadn’t spent much time thinking about amateur athletics until he was deeply involved in research for The Atlantic piece.

“I had only the fuzziest notions about making amateurism work or what it actually was,” Branch told BuzzFeed. “I didn’t start out as a reformer, let alone as an abolitionist. It took me a while to get to this point, and I worked hard at it.”

Though Branch wasn’t officially involved in the making of Schooled, directors Ross Finkel, Jonathan Paley, and Trevor Martin hewed closely to his vision with a brisk 80-minute documentary. The film will be screened Wednesday at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill — Branch’s alma mater — followed by a public forum. It premiered on the EPIX channel last week but is currently available on-demand and online.

Schooled opens with panoramic shots from last year’s Clemson-Florida State football game, a huge matchup between undefeated teams ranked in the top 10 nationally. What follows is all of the autumnal pageantry that seduces college sports fans: tailgates, face paint, cheerleaders, soaring stadium lights, breathtaking displays of athleticism. “It’s not about money,” one fan says into the camera. “It’s about the game. Which makes it amazing.”

Paul Morigi / Getty

Of course, it’s not about the money for the fans. There’s little at stake from the bleachers. But minutes later, when we’re introduced to then-UCLA star running back Johnathan Franklin and Houston Texans All-Pro tailback Arian Foster (who played for Tennessee), we see the other side of the NCAA’s hustle.

In his sparsely decorated dorm room, Franklin fires up a game of EA Sports’ NCAA Football and selects UCLA, using a video game avatar that looks an awful lot like the flesh-and-blood Franklin. EA Sports made millions off of this game and many others without paying any of the players whose likenesses appeared in the game — until recently reaching a confidential settlement with a group of athletes who sued in 2009. “They never asked us,” Franklin says in the film. “They just put us in here.”

For Foster, it eventually became too hard to ignore the contrast between the teeming 107,000-seat college football stadium where he spent fall Saturdays and the empty refrigerator in his dorm room. The romanticism of those afternoons slowly gave way to frustration as the then-Volunteers star realized he would share in none of the considerable commerce — ticket and jersey sales, concession-stand profits, TV broadcasting rights fees, etc. — humming through Neyland Stadium.

“Then I walk back, and reality sets in. I go to my dorm room, open my fridge, and there’s nothing in my fridge,” Foster said. “Hold up, man. What just happened? Why don’t I have anything to show for what I just did?”

Those are the questions Branch and Schooled wants college sports fans to ask themselves, a Sisyphean task if ever there was one. “That’s one of the NCAA’s greatest protections: They know people don’t really want to have to think about sports,” Branch said. Games, for many fans, are a relieving diversion from the kinds of difficult real-world conflicts that Branch brings up. (“No politics” is a standard rule on sports discussion message boards.)

There is a vocal majority, including many members of the sports media, who disagree with Branch. Among them is Seth Davis, a writer for Sports Illustrated and in-studio analyst for CBS’ NCAA men’s college basketball coverage. In a rebuttal to Branch’s article, Davis wrote, “when someone like Branch characterizes these issues as part of a larger civil rights struggle, he loses me. And I suspect he loses a lot of other open-minded people who agree with him that the system that needs fixing.” Branch responded to Davis in a post on his website, saying, “athletes should have the rights other citizens take for granted, and should be represented in every organization that depends upon their skill and devotion.” Jonathan Chait — a prominent, and generally liberal, writer on political and economic issues — of New York magazine has also taken issue with Branch for discussing college sports in terms of exploitation.

Schooled has already made national headlines because it includes footage of Foster describing the money and tacos (literally, someone bought him tacos) — that he received under at the table at Tennessee. ESPN college basketball commentator Dick Vitale had to apologize for calling a Foster “a prostitute” on Twitter when the news broke. The stories about Foster’s statements, though, used the very language the filmmakers were trying to avoid, describing a “scandal” over “impermissible benefits” rather than a debate about fair compensation.

“A lot of the chatter seemed to dismiss his pleas of being hungry,” Muscato said. “That the star running back on campus could be hungry never seemed to resonate with anyone.”

Which is unfortunate because Foster’s comments are among the film’s most engrossing moments. It is rare to hear our professional sports stars unapologetically admit to receiving money from boosters and coaches while in college, but Foster dares viewers to find fault with it. “There’s nothing wrong with it,” Foster said, unblinking as he looks into the camera. “And you’re not going to convince me that there is something wrong with it.”

Houston Texans running back Arian Foster has admitted to receiving money and food from boosters during his time at the University of Tennessee. Streeter Lecka / Getty Images

That could be the overarching theme of Schooled, which relies heavily on Branch’s deep historical dive into the 107-year-old NCAA. The film scrutinizes Walter Byers, the man who essentially built the organization and acted as its executive director from 1951 to 1988. Byers coined the phrase “student-athlete” as a way to sidestep workers’ compensation claims from injured players and their families (if they were students, they weren’t workers). Byers actually changed his tune in the 1990s, ultimately denouncing “the neo-plantation mentality that exists on the campuses of our country and in the conference offices and in the NCAA: The rewards belong to the overseers and the supervisors.”

That sort of language has always unsettled defenders of the status quo, of which, admittedly, there are few in Schooled. Making the case for amateurism — though not nearly as passionately as their critics — are University of Maryland Athletic Director Kevin Anderson, University of Nebraska-Lincoln Chancellor Harvey Perlman, and former NCAA Vice President Wallace Renfro. “How do you put a price on an education?” asks Anderson, repeating the common claim that college athletes are paid in free education.

But as we learn in Schooled, even a free education isn’t truly free: Studies have shown there’s about a $3,000-a-year “cost of attendance” gap that full scholarships fail to cover — $3,000 that eventually comes out of an athlete’s pocket in one way or another. Perhaps more crucially, education is only worth so much when many big-time sports programs place emphasis on simple athletic eligibility, and availability for practice time, over pursuit of good grades and ambitious academic programs. “I knew it was more valuable to my school that I get a C on my exam and an interception on Saturday than I get straight A’s and no interceptions on Saturday,” says former NFL defensive back Domonique Foxworth — a University of Maryland graduate, Harvard Business School student, and president of the NFL Players Association — in the film.

By the end of the documentary, it’s tempting to tally of all these prominent voices marshaling behind Branch — Foxworth, Deford, ESPN college basketball analyst Jay Bilas, New York Times finance reporter Joe Nocera, even Bob Costas — and get the impression that public sentiment belongs with them.

Not really. “It’s still very much a vocal minority in terms of people who believe athletes deserve more,” Muscato admits. (Look in the comment section of any story about paying college players if you need proof of this claim.)

While the court of public opinion is important, it is the actual court system that ultimately matters: The NCAA is currently facing its biggest threat in memory, a class-action antitrust suit filed by past and present college athletes, including ex-UCLA basketball star Ed O’Bannon, looking for compensation from the use of their likenesses in video games and a share of the millions of dollars in television revenues. As mentioned earlier, EA Sports has already reached a settlement with the plaintiffs, but the NCAA has promised to take the case to the Supreme Court, if necessary. Branch calls the case “a sleeping giant.”

Branch’s devotion to the cause has turned what was originally a 6,000-word assignment from The Atlantic into an e-book and now a movie. His devotion drives him to tell rooms full of athletic department bureaucrats that they are the authors of a historic fraud. And it occasionally inspires him to drop an incendiary comparison to slavery. He’s taking his case to the people and to the podium, mixing appearances to denounce amateurism between his speeches about MLK and civil rights history. He proposes what he calls a “simple solution” to address this wrong: “Recognize that amateur rules are bogus, without legitimacy in principle or standing in law. Let college sports reform from that premise, with the fans, faculties, administrators, and players all taking responsibility for unencumbered choices. The change would make zero practical difference for 90-plus percent of NCAA schools.”

He’s participated in about 20 panels so far on the issue, including a debate with the LSU president, John Lombardi, last year at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative Washington think tank. “I’m still battling the NCAA’s entrenched nonsense,” he tweeted to a producer of MSNBC’s Melissa Harris-Perry show in September. “Making headway.”

Branch believes the end is near for the NCAA, predicting it will start to crumble with the launch of the four-team College Football Playoff in 2014. With the influx of more television money, Branch said, the major conferences will be even less inclined to share their riches with smaller schools that make up the majority of the NCAA’s membership. And if the big schools don’t break away first, then Branch predicts the courts will eventually deal the final blow to the cartel.

“This model is not sustainable,” Branch said. “Quite frankly, the NCAA is in for trouble. Not so much because people are waking up to injustice to it, but because it’s structurally unsound in other ways… It takes longer for things like documentaries to shift people.”

But the fact that changing hearts and minds can take longer than getting a court injunction doesn’t keep Branch from saying what he’s got to say. “I say whatever I think is necessary to get them to think about it,” he said. “I’m old enough in my career — I’ve been writing books for 40 years — that if I can’t risk a certain amount of abuse to get people to think about this, then who can?”

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