The Luncheon Society/Historian Taylor Branch takes on the NCAA in “The Cartel”/Manhattan—PrimeHouse Restaurant/March 15. 2012

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From Taylor Branch’s vantage point, the shame of the NCAA is that it has grown into a multi-billion-dollar monopoly that benefits everybody except those who play the game. 

The sum total of the tickets, jerseys, corporate sponsors, shoe contracts, boosters, luxury boxes, and other souvenirs has made collegiate sports branding in a multi-billion dollar enterprise. Even with the baby steps of reform, the players will get next to nothing. To Branch, the contrast of poverty from those who pay the game against the backdrop of overflowing riches of the universities and the NCAA who acts as the judge, jury, and executioner is overpowering. This premise underscores his latest book, The Cartel: Inside the Rise and Immenent Fall of the NCAA ,  which was serialized in The Atlantic.


Thirty five years ago, nobody could have foreseen the explosion of cable sports and how it funneled a Comstock Lode of money into the NCAA as well as the university sports programs.  According to Taylor Branch, all of that money creates the opportunity for large-scale fraud and nobody should be surprised that this environment has produced scandal after scandal. Cam Newton fell under a cloud because his father allegedly tried to broker a deal that would have his son return to a top-ranked collegiate program. Reggie Bush returned his Heisman Trophy because of an inappropriate relationship with sports boosters who paid his expenses while at USC. Countless coaches have been fined, fired, or had their programs sanctioned due to various violations. As more dollars enter into the fray, the scale of corruption only increases.

Branch joined The Luncheon Society for his third appearance over the years, this time at Prime House in Manhattan.  We were thankful our friend Steve Schlesinger was able to host the gathering and it was a filmed affair, part of a larger documentary on Taylor’s book.

Taylor Branch is not some disdainful academic who looks down his nose at college athletics. While growing up in the Atlanta area, Taylor Branch was one of the top ranked high school football players in the state and turned down a scholarship to Georgia Tech.  He then ran a post-pattern into academia and has distinguished himself as one of the best historians of his age.

Branch says that “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. Perhaps a more apt metaphor is colonialism: college sports, as overseen by the N.C.A.A., is a system imposed by well-meaning paternalists and rationalized with hoary sentiments about caring for the well-being of the colonized.” 

Branch demolishes the elastic definition surrounding amateurism, which is designed—at every angle—to conform to the NCAA advantage.  “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. The tragedy at the heart of college sports is not that some college athletes are getting paid, but that more of them are not.”

Branch is best known for his three volume history of the Civil Rights movement. Parting the Water: America in the King Years 1954-1963Pillar of Fire: America in the King Years 1963-1965 , and  At Canaan’s Edge:  America in the King Years, 1965-1968 will  be the historical testimony of how we view America’s most important social movement a century from now. His book, The Clinton Tapes: Wrestling History with the President, took us inside the Clinton White House as well as inside the mind of Bill Clinton during his tumultuous 8 year term in office.  Branch and the President had a series of taped conversations that brought the decision-making process of the Clinton White House in sharp focus and the tapes were kept in Clinton’s sock drawer, which somehow evaded the prying eyes of various Special Prosecutors.  

In certain respects, this book is a follow up to James Michener’s non-fiction best-seller, Sports In America, which served as his critique on the failings of college athletics and became required reading for a class when I was UC-Davis in the early 1980’s.  Michener was an ardent Texas Longhorn fan and supported a number of programs including women’s basketball. Back in 1976, when the book was published, his concerns seem pedestrian in the modern light since there was no ESPN, no huge shoe deals for either players or programs, no multi-million dollar coaches, and the only complaints about steroids were focused on East German swimmers.  Michener’s arguments might have fallen on deaf ears but because he was the leading historical novelist of his generation, people listened. With modern eyes, his big worry seems quaint.  “Sports are in trouble,” Michener said, “The stress placed on winning is robbing us of what sports really should be about.”

In 2011, Branch’s arguments have hit a chord and his comments were echoed by the Dean of Sportswriting, Frank Deford, who noted, “We have seen the drum roll of corruption in college sports. Every week, there’s something new, but nothing happens because no one wants it to happen because they like the games. Instead, they’re all congregating over where their college is going to go to what conference.”

It mimics the denial baseball fans like myself had during the late 1980’s and 1990’s when doubles became homeruns and pitchers, who should have hung up their gloves long ago, were still defying Father Time. We simply closed our eyes and said that major league expansion diluted skills just enough to improve offensive output or we pointed to the “rabbit balls” that seemed to explode off the bats into the center field bleachers.  Everybody ignored the true culprit, anabolic steroids, which allowed for faster muscle development and a quicker recovery from injuries.

If awareness is the first step to healing, Taylor Branch allows us to see what goes on behind game day and it’s not a pretty picture.

How to make things better?  The argument is framed around an implicit trade.  The school will give you a scholarship because the athlete will bring value to the program, so long as he or she qualifies academically.  The student athlete in turn would receive the benefit of the education because of his jump shot or her ability to score goals.

Should college players be paid at fair market value? It’s doubtful that most schools could even afford it. Will that solve the problems or make things worse? Should schools have an obligation to pay for continued education until graduation once a student-athlete’s eligibility has run out?  If somebody is terribly injured as a result of a collision on the field, why are they denied a workman’s comp claim? Should a portion of the gate become available to the student upon graduation? Should collegiate athletes should be able to control how their images are used by their school or the NCAA.

Making the grade. In many respects, Bobby Knight dug his own grave at Indiana and was fired in 2000 after he grabbed the arm of a student. He had a long history of outbursts, run-ins with officials, and of course, chair throwing. In many respects, it was only a matter of time before things came to a head but while Knight coached at Indiana, his players had a published graduation rate of 98%, when compared to other programs, which tallied in at 43%.

Regardless of the answer, Taylor Branch has done something important.  He has forced those who love college sports to look at the ingredients on the back of the package by spotlighting the deep flaws. Considering that only 1% of college basketball and 2% of college football players are able to play in the professional ranks, whatever solution has to include the full completion of their undergraduate education.  

The Luncheon Society™ is a series of private luncheons and dinners that take place in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Manhattan, and now Boston. We essentially split the costs of gathering and we meet in groups of 20-25 people. Discussions center on politics, art, science, film, culture, and whatever else is on our mind. Think of us as “Adult Drop in Daycare.” We’ve been around since 1997 and we’re purposely understated. These gatherings takes place around a large table, where you interact with the main guest and conversation becomes end result. There are no rules, very little structure, and the gatherings happen when they happen.

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