College Basketball: Are the Players Student-Athletes or Servant-Athletes?

Ro ShiellAnalyst ISeptember 16, 2011

INDIANAPOLIS - APRIL 05:  A general view of the Butler Bulldogs playing against the Duke Blue Devils during the 2010 NCAA Division I Men's Basketball National Championship game at Lucas Oil Stadium on April 5, 2010 in Indianapolis, Indiana.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

The debate regarding paying college athletes is heating up with Taylor Branch's epic takedown of the NCAA as an organization.

Branch disputes every argument against paying athletes their due. The basic principle of the report suggests that colleges dangle a carrot in the form of "free education" while simultaneously making millions on the backs of these ''poor'' athletes.

You can read the article here. But heed this warning. Reading this article is the same as taking the red pill in the film The Matrix.

If you are a die-hard fan of the ideology that athletes in college get a fair deal in the form of playing for an education then you will come away after reading this article with a different opinion. Or you will have chosen to remain ignorant in the face of overwhelming facts.

That the NCAA is essentially in the business of free labor is the general gist of the article. Some kind of reformation is needed. One that's fair for everyone involved including the majority: The student-athletes. This term was created for a reason, according to Branch.

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.

The term was essentially created to protect the NCAA from injured football players suing the NCAA for workman's compensation. Now it is a popular term in and out of courts.

Branch goes on to quote Sonny Vaccaro, longtime recruiting guru, who claims "he made his money off of the kids and their parents" and he now wants to "give something back."

“90 percent of the NCAA revenue is produced by one percent of the athletes,” Sonny Vaccaro said. “Go to the skill positions”—the stars. “90 percent African Americans.”

The racial issue is unimportant here unless it is a direct referral to slavery days. A system whereby individuals were able to cut costs with free labor. This is an obvious attempt to equate the NCAA policy of making money off athletes by marketing their likeness and selling their jerseys along with revenue generated from the games, in return for a free education.

It is not a free education if they are also sacrificing millions in earning power. Branch tells tells the story of Joseph Agnew as an example of another way the athletes may suffer. 

In October 2010, Agnew filed a class action antitrust suit over the cancellation of his scholarship and to remove the cap on the total number of scholarships that can be awarded by NCAA schools. In his suit, Agnew did not claim the right to free tuition. He merely asked the federal court to strike down an NCAA rule, dating to 1973, that prohibited colleges and universities from offering any athletic scholarship longer than a one-year commitment, to be renewed or not, unilaterally, by the school—which in practice means that coaches get to decide each year whose scholarships to renew or cancel. (After the coach who had recruited Agnew had moved on to Tulsa, the new Rice coach switched Agnew’s scholarship to a recruit of his own.) Agnew argued that without the one-year rule, he would have been free to bargain with all eight colleges that had recruited him, and each college could have decided how long to guarantee his scholarship.

Recently, blue chip recruit Andre Drummond enrolled at UConn, effectively denying another player of a free education for the next season. The said player should be able to at least pick a new team and play immediately if the scholarship is not available through no fault of their own.

Branch's critique of the NCAA as an organization revealed some real facts. I have always thought schools are mad to transfer to a football conference when they are in a great basketball conference.

It turns out is isn't really for sports related reasons they are transferring. Football schools make their own TV-rights deal. They get a bigger cut than basketball teams that have to rely on the NCAA to dish out the benefits of an overall TV deal.

I have to conclude the same as Branch. I am not prepared to see top recruits writing their price to top colleges but clearly we need to rethink the current strategy.